Saturday, April 6, 2013

Ham and Lentil Soup with Olive Oil Bread

Yesterday I woke up to a cold, cloudy, rainy day. After having a few beautiful days, it made me want to grab a good book, and snuggle up and just read while the rain fell outside.  Because my "to do" list was getting longer and longer, I decided I'd better skip the book for now, and instead make a crock-pot dinner to save a little time.  I love my crock-pot!  It is one kitchen appliance I don't think I could ever live without. 

We still had a bit of ham left over from our Easter dinner, so my first thought was split pea soup, I knew my kids wouldn't eat that so I grabbed my bag of lentils instead.  It would be a gamble to whether or not they'd eat it too, but I gave it a try.  My oldest has been such a picky eater lately, but has been willing to try a few bites.  She took one bite, forced a smile, said she loved it, and ate a few more bites.  I give her a lot of credit for pretending to like it, just to be a good example to her younger sister.  After she'd eaten about half of her bowl I told her she didn't have to finish and the relief that came over her face was really quite hilarious.  By now, if you are still reading ;), you're probably wondering why I'm telling you that my kids didn't like it.   Well, they haven't liked much lately, so no matter what I make they'll complain, but once they try it most of the time they change their minds.  I think this soup however is more of an adult flavor. 

A hearty, delicious blend of lentils, smokey ham, and tender veggies really made the perfect combination for a cold spring day.  The best part however is the prep takes under 5 minutes, and you are on your way... going about your day as usual and dinner is ready and waiting when you are.   I paired it with the end of a rustic olive oil bread called Mantovana (Olive oil bread from Mantua).  Very simple to make, with a wonderful olive oil flavor that went perfectly with this simple soup.  I'm especially excited to turn the leftovers into a fantastic grilled cheese for lunch.

Lentil and Ham Soup
Makes about 9 servings

1 pkg (16 ounces) dried lentils
2 cups diced, fully cooked ham
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
5 cups very hot tap water

In a 5 quart crock-pot, layer the ingredients in order listed (do not stir).  Cover and cook on high for 4-5 hours or until vegetables are tender.  Discard bay leaves, and stir.  Enjoy!

Olive Oil Bread from Mantua
 Makes 2 loaves

The double rising produces a bread with a light even texture.  Be careful not to over-rise the dough, it can cause it to to collapse upon being placed in the hot oven.  Do not leave the dough for any longer than 40 minutes for it's second rising. 

2 tsp dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm tap water, divided
1 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour
3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup olive oil

1. measure out 1 3/4 cups of warm water.  Sprinkle the yeast over the water and let stand for 5 minutes; stir to dissolve.  Mix the flours in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour the yeast/water mixture into the well.
2. Use a wooden spoon to draw just enough of the flour into the dissolved yeast to form a soft paste.  Cover with a clean dish towel and let "sponge"* until frothy and risen, about 20 minutes.
3. Add the salt and oil to the sponge.  Mix in the rest of the flour from the sides of the well.  Stir in the remaining water, as needed, to form a very sticky dough.
4.  Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes.  (I cheat and do all of this in my stand mixer, mixing on low for 10 minutes)
5. Put the dough in a clean, oiled bowl; cover with a dish towel and let it raise until doubled in size, about 50 minutes.  Punch down, and cover again, letting it raise until doubled in size about 40 minutes.
6.Punch down again and let chafe for 10 minutes (chafing: form the dough into a ball by cupping your hands gently around it.  Apply a light downward pressure to the sides, while simultaneously rotating the the dough in a steady clockwise motion.  Continue until the dough is formed into an even round shape.)
7.Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Divide the dough into two equal pieces.  Shape each piece into a long loaf, about 10 inches in length.  Place on a floured baking sheet and cover with a dish towel.  Proof (let it rest) for 15 minutes.
8. Cut a lengthwise slash, 1/2 inch deep, down the center of each loaf.  Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped on the underside.  Cool on a wire rack.

* When sponging your dough, you'll follow the directions by creating a deep well in the flour, then adding the dissolved yeast.  Using a wooden spoon draw in just enough flour from the sides of the bowl a little at a time to combine with the dissolved yeast in the well to form a soft paste when mixed thoroughly.  Cover the bowl with a dish towel and leave for 20 minutes or longer if specified in the recipe, until the paste is frothy and has expanded slightly in volume.  Continue on to step 3. 

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