Unlike politicians, professional athletes and my high school algebra teacher,* I'm a strong believer in the importance of admitting when one is wrong. Fess up, take it like a grown-up, and move on.
So here it is: I was wrong about lentils. I maligned them unfairly. I criticized them and may have even called them "weak" and "frankly pedestrian." Well… I was wrong, and I'm sorry. I hope these versatile little legumes will forgive me. Except that I now plan on eating them in ever-greater quantities, and that may be even less forgivable than mocking them in the first place.
But it's their own fault for being so darn tasty. OK. Not precisely tasty–but a perfect canvas for the deployment of all sorts of flavors and textures and infusions. Especially, as seen in this soup (which I sorta came up with on my own), the delicious flavors of our friend the pig. There's less than half a pound of meat in this soup, once the weight of the bone is factored out, but it's not meager-tasting in the least. And if you have a slow cooker with a "Keep Warm" setting (to my mind, perhaps the best reason to own a slow cooker), you can keep this soup sitting around all evening, letting your guests fill and refill their bowls as they see fit.
Serves eight to ten–tastes even better after cooling and reheating, perfect for freezing
2 or 3 thick slices good bacon, diced
2 small to medium onions, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 medium to large carrots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
Large pinch each of salt and red chile flakes
7 cups chicken broth, divided
1 pound brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 smoked ham hock, about 3/4 pound
A bouquet garni consisting of about 6 flat-leaf parsley stems and two bay leaves, tied with string or cheesecloth
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup sour cream for garnish, optional but tasty
Place the bacon in a cold large saucepan or soup pot. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring regularly, until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain on paper towels.
Pour off all but 2 Tbsp bacon fat. Set over medium-low heat. Add onions, celery and carrots; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender and translucent, about 7 minutes. Add garlic, salt and chile flakes and cook, stirring, 1 minute more.
While vegetables are cooking, place lentils in a medium to large slow cooker.**
Add 2 cups broth to pot and bring quickly to a boil, stirring very often, to loosen browned bits on bottom of pot. Pour broth and vegetable mixture into slow cooker. Add ham hock, bouquet garni, half of cooked bacon and remaining broth. Cover and cook on Low until meat is cooked through and lentils are tender, about 6 to 8 hours. (You can also cook on High for two hours and then on Low for a couple more hours, which is what I did.)
Switch to "Keep Warm" setting (or turn slow cooker off and cover after taking out the ham hock). Remove ham hock from soup; let cool completely. Shred meat and set aside.
Fish out bouquet garni. Taste and season with salt and pepper; stir in balsamic vinegar.
Top each serving with reserved bacon, ham and a dollop of sour cream. As the kids say, om nom nom nom.
* I'm still pissed about getting in trouble when it was Krista who drew that unflattering caricature on the board, dammit.
** If you don't have or prefer not to use a slow cooker, you can make this soup on the stovetop doing the following: instead of deglazing pot with 2 cups broth, add all the broth, the lentils, the bouquet garni and the ham hock to the pot all at once. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat and simmer until ham and lentils are done, about 1 hour. Then just jump right back in there at the "Remove ham hock" part and carry on.