Tomato Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard

I'm back in Rome, and just in time! A mere day after my return to the Eternal City, my home state of Rhode Island, plus the surrounding East Coast was hit by a bomb cyclone -- really, can you think of a more intimidating name?! -- or a major snowstorm, described as (shudder) a "winter hurricane." Temperatures were below freezing, snowfall was as much as 18 inches in some states, flights all over the country were cancelled, workplaces and schools were closed, pipes froze and burst, power lines fell. Here's my backyard in Rhode Island, just an hour or two in the storm, picture sent to me by my father: 
And over here in Rome? How is January treating us, you might ask? Well, let's just say the temperatures here are Springlike -- we're talking light jacket weather, with lots of sunshine -- and as I write this the temperature is 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius for the rest of you). Pictured below: a recent Saturday afternoon spent on the rooftop terrace at the newly opened Rinascente; noticeably absent, any winter gear, noticeably present, lots of blue sky.  



But wait! *ducks* I don't mean to be insensitive! *ducks again* Or smug! While its true we've been experiencing some pretty dreamy winter weather here in the Eternal City, I did spend the first 22 years of my life on the East Coast. Not so much time has passed that I've forgotten the face-numbing cold of winters in Rhode Island, nor the ritual of pulling on puffy snow pants and clunky snow boots just to be able to, Michelin-Man style, leave the house. I've not forgotten the icy sidewalks nor the freezing wind as I made my way through my Massachusetts college-campus-turned-winter-wonderland to get to class, especially painful if the class in question was the dreaded Computer Science 101 (just when I thought that course couldn't get any worse)! The point is, I get it guys!

I'm still thinking of my fellow East Coasters back home, which brings me to this recipe -- if there's anything that can quickly offset the effects of a raging, icy snowstorm it's a bowl of comforting, cozy, soup. This Tomato Lentil Soup with Swiss Chard is filling and flavorful and downright nurturing, a wholesome, virtuous mix of lentils and greens balanced by a bit of pancetta to keeps things (mildly) indulgent, ideal with a flurry (get it?!) of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. It comes together fairly quickly, allowing you more time for snow day activities like playing board games, eating hot chocolate, and watching movies, and that's not all! It fits conveniently in to any potential "eat better" resolutions you may have made for the year, while still managing to be incredibly delicious, a win-win. Watch out bomb cyclone and outrageously cold East Coast weather -- you've met your match.
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A couple of notes: This soup is fairly flexible. If you're making this for vegetarians, you can leave out the pancetta. Feel free to substitute another kind of green for the swiss chard (spinach or kale would work well too). You could also substitute chickpeas or white beans or another kind of legume for the lentils; keep in mind that dried beans or legumes usually require soaking overnight or for a couple of hours before using, though (lentils are the exception to the rule, I learned). You could use canned lentils to cut down on the cooking time, but dried ones have a nice starchiness that they release when cooking and have a nicer, cleaner taste overall. I'm not a fan of garlic, so I always sauté the cloves for flavor and then remove them at the end -- if you like garlic, feel free to add more or to finely chop the cloves to release more flavor. Finally, for the tomato in this soup, you can use either: 1 (28) ounce can crushed tomatoes, or a smaller can (400 grams) of crushed tomatoes (passata, for those of you in Italy) and a smaller can of whole plum tomatoes (400 grams) with the tomatoes broken up with a wooden spoon as they cook. Both work equally well, with the latter option giving you some pieces of tomato in the soup. 

Looking for other soup recipes? I've got this Chickpea, Kale, and Sausage Soup, this Pasta e Ceci, this Turkey, White Bean, and Spinach Soup, and this quicker Pasta e Fagioli.

TOMATO LENTIL SOUP WITH SWISS CHARD

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons olive oil 
4 ounces (112 grams) pancetta
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large stick celery, chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic
1 cup (200 grams) dried brown lentils
1 (28 ounce, 780 grams) can crushed tomatoes) - or - 1 (400 gram) can whole peeled tomatoes and 1 (400 gram) can crushed tomatoes (see note above)
6 cups (1500ml)  water 
2 bay leaves
1 Parmesan cheese rind (optional, but recommended)
4 cups Swiss chard

Extra freshly grated Parmesan, for serving

Directions:
In a large pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the pancetta. Cook until the pancetta renders some of its fat and starts to sizzle and brown, then add the garlic, carrot, onion, celery, and a little bit of red pepper flakes if you wish. Season with a little salt and let cook until the vegetables are softened, about 5-7 minutes.
Next, add the lentils, bay leaves, and stir around in the pancetta and vegetables for a minute or two, and then add the Parmesan cheese rind, the crushed tomatoes and the water, plus a bit more salt and pepper to taste. Raise the heat on the stove and bring the soup to a nice lively bubble, then lower the heat and let the soup simmer for about 40 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked.
Being very careful (as one should always be when handling hot liquids) take about 3-4 ladle-fuls of the soup and puree it in a blender (or with an immersion blender) and then add it back into the soup. Taste everything and season with salt and pepper if needed. Add the chopped chard to the soup and let cook for a few minutes longer, or until the greens are wilted and cooked. Serve with extra Parmesan on top. Serves 4-6.
 

 










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