1small fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, the rest finely diced
2medium carrots, diced (1/2 cup)
2celery stalks, diced (1/2 cup)
2tablespoonsfinely chopped celery leaves
10ouncescan chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped, or 1 pound fresh chestnuts (warning! see above post)
3tablespoonsolive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1/2teaspoonfennel seeds, crushed
1teaspoonfresh thyme leaves
1/2cupdry white wine
1 - 2slicesof sourdough or levain bread, cut into small cubes
sunflower or olive oil, for frying the croutons
minced parsley or celery leaves
If possible, place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Let soak 1 - 2 hours. Otherwise, cover the lentils with hot water while you prepare the other ingredients.
In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, celery, celery leaves, garlic, bay, thyme, oregano and fennel seed. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 - 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and add them to the pot along with 1 quart of water (if the lentils were soaked) or 6 cups of water (if they weren't) and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, 20 - 40 minutes (depending on whether the lentils were soaked). Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs, and taste for salt.
While the lentils are cooking, get on with the chestnuts. If fresh (are you crazy? Didn't you read my post?!), score an X in the flat side of the chestnuts. Place the chestnuts in a casserole with 1/4 cup water. Cover and roast in a 400º oven for 30 - 60 minutes, until the shells begin peeling themselves away. Keeping the pan covered, work with chestnuts that are as hot as you can stand, and peel away both the shell and the membrane. If you have a lot of chestnut dust, you can shake the nuts in a colander to remove it. Chop the chestnuts into small chunks.
Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the chopped chestnuts, fennel seed, thyme leaves and a few pinches of salt. Saute over medium-low heat for a few minutes, then add the tomato paste, mashing it smooth, and stir in the wine. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring a few times, until the liquid is thick and reduced.
When the lentils are cooked, add the chestnut mixture to the pot. Simmer a few minutes to meld things together, then taste for seasoning.
In another skillet, warm a tablespoon or two of oil over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and cook, tossing occasionally with a metal spatula, until crisp and browned on all sides. Add a few pinches of salt to taste.
Serve the soup with a handful of croutons, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of parmesan and minced parsley.
The soup keeps well in the fridge for up to a week. Thin with a bit of water if necessary, as the lentils will continue to drink up the broth.
Adapted (barely) from Deborah Madison's Vegetable Soups.For anyone who enjoys making soup, this book is a must-have, not only for its gorgeous photos and brilliant recipes, but also for Ms. Madison's soothing tone and beautifully written prose.As per her suggestion, I like using the pretty, mottled-green 'lentils de puy' for this soup, which hold their shape better than the brown ones. Those work fine, though.If using fresh chestnuts, cook and peel them first, then get on with the lentils. If using jarred or canned ones, cook the lentils first.Nutritional values are based on one of six servings.