French Lentil Soup (lentilles du Puy) with Bacon and Fennel

>>  Wednesday, January 02, 2013

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I confess.

I haven't really been cooking that much.

Or, at least I haven't been cooking "blog-worthy" stuff for awhile. Perhaps it's the busy-ness of life, or maybe I need motivation, and there hasn't been anything as epic since Project Food Blog to really motivate me to stretch my imagination and creativity.

I've realized I'm a goal-oriented person. If there's a specific person, event, or . . heck, competition for which I'm cooking, I'll easily go all out. My brain's creative juices go crazy, and I dream up wild ideas with food. Left to my own devices, however, I'm actually quite boring.

So it's a new year. And I want to bring some fun cooking back to this blog. Thanks to an awesome birthday gift from Bryan last month, I think I may just be adequately motivated to start cooking really cool stuff again.

For my birthday just a little over a month ago, Bryan got me the coolest combination of "toys": Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine at Home and a Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker.

You may have heard of the original Modernist Cuisine, a six volume, 2400 pages ($600!) set of books that explores modern cooking techniques. The book explores all sorts of different techniques, from water baths and homogenizers to centrifuges and liquid nitrogen.

This past year, they came out with a whittled down home version. Instead of requiring esoteric ingredients and strange lab equipment, you can pretty much execute most things in the Modernist Cuisine at Home if you have two major pieces: a sous vide machine and a pressure cooker. Since I already had the sous vide machine, Bryan got me a really nice pressure cooker with the book.
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I decided to start easy. After all, I've always been scared of pressure cookers. The idea of scalding liquid under extreme pressure exploding in my face has always made me steer clear of pressure cookers.  I've had my share of lab accidents back when I used to be a chemist, and I'd sure as rather not re-visit those days.

One of the first dishes I decided to make was a twist on the traditional lentil soup. Instead of using normal mirepoix (carrots, onion, and celery), I switched out the celery with fennel root, which is a bit sweeter. I also added bacon because . . . well, bacon makes almost everything better.
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Finally, I used French lentils (lentilles du Puy). These lentils are greenish in color and have a much more intense flavor than normal lentils. They also have less starch and cook up more "al dente" and less mushy, which I like.
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I sauteed chopped bacon straight in the pressure cooker, and then added the carrots, fennel, onions, garlic, and the like. After it had all softened, I just dumped everything else in (lentils, herbs, broth), and closed up the pressure cooker. I monitored the pressure, turning down the heat whenever it looked like it was getting a bit high.
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After about 13-14 minutes, I pressed down on the valve on top, which released the steam inside. It took about 1-2 minutes before it completely released. I think I actually ended up using tongs to press down on the button because the steam became very hot very fast! 

Finally, I opened up the pot and seasoned the soup to taste with just salt and pepper.
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It was so easy. I couldn't believe I made such a gorgeous soup in less than 40 minutes.

Let me just say that the Kuhn Rikon works like a dream. I'm still flabbergasted at how much time I can save making soups, braised meats, etc. Bryan did a lot of research before buying this gift for me, and he claims it's the "Mercedes Benz" of pressure cookers.

I've just begun playing with it, but so far, I have to agree. This thing is really easy to use. The pot is really well aligned with two principles that are dear to my heart: saving time and saving energy. This does both.

Stay tuned as I begin a new Modernist/Pressure Cooker series on various dishes I make with these new toys.

Happy New Year!

Bacon & Fennel French Lentil Soup

Ingredients
3 strips of bacon (about 2-3 oz)
1 carrot, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1 cup of green lentils, washed
1 small fennel bulb, finely diced
1-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken broth (or enough to cover lentils by 2 inches of liquid)

Cook bacon over medium heat in the pressure cooker until fat is rendered, about 5-6 minutes. Add carrots, onions, and fennel and cook until soften, about 10-15 minutes. Add broth, lentils, and herbs and cook for about 10-14 minutes at around 0.4 bar (5.8 psi). serve!

Notes: this recipe works fine with celery in place of fennel root. The flavors are a little less complex, but still perfectly enjoyable. Although I've never tried it, I'm guessing you can switch out the chicken broth for vegetable broth if you want to make this dish vegetarian.
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