You know when you go to a sit-down restaurant–usually an Italian place–and the waiter asks if you’d like any fresh-ground pepper or Parmesan cheese on your soup or salad? There must be something inherently funny about this scenario. I mean, isn’t there something vaguely discomfiting about having someone lean over your meal to drop stuff on it? Ever see the Saturday Night Live sketch with Adam Sandler and Dana Carvey as two overly enthusiastic pepper grinder guys? Like many SNL sketches, it goes way too long and gets fairly raunchy, but it does capture the awkwardness of the situation (and it includes Chris Farley with a totally ridiculous beard, so it might be worth a watch):
Also, while we’re pointing out what’s a little unusual about this practice, why is it always an Italian place? Couldn’t the waiter at a Mexican place grind extra cheddar on my enchiladas? And why don’t they “fresh-grind” other things? What if I want some fresh-ground beef to top my salad, hmmm? Or some fresh-ground chocolate shavings on my dessert? (Actually, they could fresh-grind that straight into my mouth…cause that wouldn’t be awkward.) For whatever reason, it has been decreed by the Italian restaurant powers-that-be that only pepper and Parmesan may be fresh-ground tableside. Not that I’m complaining. I’m no fan of extra pepper, but can never turn down a little extra cheese for free. The ideal soup, for me, comes away from its encounter with the cheese-grinder looking a glacier of cheese rolled straight across its top. The soup in the picture below, with its dusting of white, is maybe halfway there. Except perhaps in the case of this aromatic lentil sausage soup, because it really doesn’t need much to enhance its flavor.
As I mentioned in my last post, a copycat recipe for Carrabba’s herbed dipping oil, my husband and I enjoy Carrabba’s as one of our favorite chain Italian places. When we dined there recently, we both ordered the same thing (this never happens–we’re one of those couples that generally refuses, on principle, to order the same thing): their lentil sausage soup. Because it’s just. that. good. Having discovered lentils only in the last year or so, I’ve gone a little lentil crazy to make up for lost time. Around here, there have been spiced red lentils, lentil dahl, and a funky red lentil sweet potato stew with mango chutney-goat cheese toasts that my kids made lots of empty promises to get out of eating. My husband and I lap it all up, though, and this soup is no exception. As we
shamelessly licked our bowls finished our meal at Carrabba’s, Anthony asked me, “Could you make this at home?” A week or so later, I tracked down this recipe and after making it deemed it, if not a perfect match for the restaurant version, delicious enough to forget what might be different. With aromatic vegetables, creamy, wholesome lentils, a pitch-perfect blend of herbs, and piquant sausage for a bit of bite, it’s everything one could hope for in a fall/winter soup. Plus, it goes great with crusty bread and that herbed dipping oil referred to above.
And yes, the waiter at Carrabba’s offered to fresh-grind Parmesan cheese on top. Yes, I accepted. No, I did not jump up and kiss him like Janeane Garofalo in the SNL sketch–licking my bowl in the restaurant was embarrassing enough.
Lentil Sausage Soup
(Adapted from Food.com)
1 lb. mild Italian sausage
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small zucchini, chopped
6 c. chicken broth
3/4 tsp. salt
2 c. dry brown lentils
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (more if you like more heat)
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
- In a large stock pot, cook the sausage over medium heat until browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving as much sausage grease in the pot as possible.
- Add minced garlic, onion, celery, carrots, and zucchini to the pot and sauté for a couple minutes. Return sausage to the pot and add all other ingredients.
- Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour or until lentils are soft.
- Use an immersion blender to puree some of the soup in the pot until desired consistency is reached, or remove about 2 cups of the soup and carefully blend in a countertop blender until pureed; return to the pot and stir. Add more broth or water if soup becomes too thick.
Top with grated Parmesan cheese.