Slow cooker ham and chile lentil soup

This is a warning. I’m not in a good mood. And no, it has nothing to do with politics, the upcoming ‘big football game’ or even January which I’m sure has lingered longer than it’s allowed by law. Nope, I’m ticked off at people who talk about cooking ‘cheats’ – short cuts to make cooking 1) faster, 2) easier, or just 3) better.

Folks, this isn’t cheating. Cheating was when you copied answers from another kid’s history test in 5th grade. (Cheated was how you felt when you still got a C.) It’s not cooking. Because bottom line, if it tastes good when you tuck in, then it’s good cooking.

Cascabel chiles get their name from the rattling sound they make.

We’ve got enough guilt floating around in the world as it is. If I needed more, I’d call my Mother. So this recipe isn’t a cheat, it’s just tasty. Normally, at Chile HQ, we’d sweat the onions, then add in the celery and carrots – taking our time to extract every morsel of sweet loveliness.

But here, we’re letting the slow cooker do the work for us. A lot of time makes this a super rich dish but all you have to do is a bit of chopping, and you can do that, can’t you? This is a January soup and if you’re clever you’ll freeze the leftovers and have it in February. Because let’s be honest, February may be short but it sure feels long.

Serves 4

1 cup brown lentils, rinsed

2 stalks celery, diced

2 carrots, diced

1 red onion, diced

1 cascabel chile, stem removed

1 tsp chipotle powder (or more to taste)

1 cup cooked ham, chopped into chunks

1-14.5 oz can diced tomatoes

32oz vegetable or chicken stock

Place the lentils, celery, carrots and onion in the slow cooker. Pour in the stock, add the cascabel chile and chipotle chile powder. Cover and cook on low for 5-6 hours, until the lentils are almost cooked. Add the ham and the canned tomatoes, taste and add more chipotle chile powder and salt, if needed. Cook for another hour and serve warm. Note: Don’t worry about removing the casabel from the finished dish– it will have lovingly melted into the soup.

Halloween Heat Wave

Halloween feels a bit unfair. Think about it. Kids get to dress up, go out and bag boat loads of candy. And adults? Gosh, we get to dole the candy out and hope some wise acre doesn’t decide to toilet paper our trees or plaster our windows with shaving cream. And have you noticed that kids don’t just grab the candy, say thanks and take off? Now they give your candy the once over like they’d been expecting a Godiva gift box.

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Sour grapes? Okay, maybe. Let’s face it – I’d like a pillow case full of sugar packed chocs too. And why can’t I dress up like a vampire/ghost anymore?

The answer is simple: you can. Take back Halloween. Own it. Make it yours. Put on that DVD of Psycho. Crack open an extra bag (or three) of candy and eat yourself silly. Go ahead. It’s only once a year.

And while you’re at it, invite a like-minded friend or two over for some Halloween-inspired Butternut Squash Soup. You can sip it in between chowing down on mini Mars bars.

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Chile Spiked Butternut Squash Soup

Makes about 5 cups of soup which is enough for me or 3-4 normal people

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 butternut squash, around 2-2 ½ lbs.
3-4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
whipping cream (optional)
1 dried whole Negro chile
¼ tsp Chipotle chile powderSea salt flakes

Sauté the onion in a pot in 1½ tablespoon of the olive oil over low heat. While the onions are cooking, peel the butternut squash and chop it into cubes. Remove the squash seeds and reserve. When the onions are soft but not brown, add the crushed garlic and cook for another minute or so.

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Add the cubed butternut squash and the Negro chile. Stir and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add 3 cups of the stock, cover and cook until you can insert a knife easily into the squash.

While the soup is cooking, rinse the squash seeds to remove the fibers around them. Place the seeds in a frying pan and toast for a minute or two. When the seeds have dried out, add the remaining ½ tablespoon of oil and the chipotle chile powder and a sprinkle of sea salt. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes until the seeds are lightly toasted but not burned.

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When the squash is cooked through, remove the Negro chile, remove the stem and seeds and chop it up. Return the chopped chile to the soup. Puree in a food processor or with a stick blender. Check for seasoning and add more chile powder if you’d like an extra bite. Add more stock and/or cream so the soup has a pourable consistency.

Serve in bowls with a drizzle of cream and topped with the chipotle squash seeds.

Soup’s Up! Spicy Lentil and Frizzled Onions

I have a friend who tells a story. It was in the mid-70’s and she was living in Suburbia, USA. Her family was invited over to friends for dinner. When they asked the hostess what they could bring (“Flowers?” “A bottle of Blue Nun?”), they were told simply to bring a can of soup. So Campbell’s Black Bean soup in tow, they went over for dinner.

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The kids were dispatched to the Rec Room to throw darts at the board and each other, while the adults got comfortable in the living room suite as the host uncorked a couple of bottles of Mateus. A few bites of celery piped with Cheez Whiz and dinner was served.

The hostess – in a particularly Stepford Wife-ish moment –proudly lifted the lid on a soup tureen and announced dinner was served – Friendship soup! Every can of soup that had been brought that night – chicken and stars, beef noodle and yes, black bean – had been dumped in a pot, heated up and served with pride.

My friend still wakes sometimes in the middle of the night screaming.

And this is how food nightmares start. I mean, poor soup. It’s not just 70’s travesties like Friendship Soup that give soup a bad name. Soup just sometimes sounds kind of boring, kind of last minute, kind of can’t-be-bothered.

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But it shouldn’t be that way. Soup is warm (unless it’s cold) and comforting and kind of like a great dog – it loves you no matter what.

Now this soup is simple. It’s easy and you’ve probably got most/all of the ingredients in your cupboard right now and that’s a good thing. It serves 2-3 but double the recipe and pop the leftovers it in the freezer. But please, whatever you do, don’t mix it with it with chicken and stars.

Spicy Lentil Soup with Smoky Frizzled Onions

Serves 2-3

The secret to this soup is the smoky frizzled onions. You cook them super slowly until they’re nice and soft, then add some chipotle, crank up the heat to caramelize them and give them some color. Plop some on each serving along with a drizzle of sour cream and you’re in heaven.

Soup:
½ red onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ancho chile powder
¼ tsp cayenne powder
¼ tsp chipotle chile powder
1 ½ tsp cumin seeds, roughly ground
8 oz. red lentils, washed and any stones or dirt removed
3-4 cups water or stock
4 Tbsp tomato puree
1 15 oz. can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
Salt to season

Smoky frizzled onions:
1 ½ red onions
2 Tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp chipotle chile powder
Pinch salt

To serve:
Sour Cream
Chopped parsley or cilantro

To make the soup, sauté the onions in the olive oil in a covered saucepan over low heat until they’re soft. Add the spices and cook for a minute or two more until the mixture is aromatic. Add the red lentils and water. Once the lentils are tender, add the tomato puree and black eyed peas and check for seasoning. You can puree the soup or serve as is.

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While the soup is cooking, make the frizzled onions. Slice the onions in half and then thinly into half moons. Sauté the onions in the olive oil in a covered saucepan over low heat until they’re soft. Remove the lid, stir in the chipotle chile and salt and increase the heat, stirring often to keep the onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. Continue to cook until they’re nicely caramelized and jammy.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with sour cream or Greek yoghurt and a dollop of the frizzled onions and parsley or cilantro.