iStock.com/CGissemann
iStock.com/CGissemann

Last December, I read an article in the food section of the New York Times (or just “The Times” if you’re a Jersey girl who also refers to the Big Apple as simply “The City”) that got my hopes up, then neatly crushed them. I recall the tease to the link as purporting to offer Chanukah recipes for foods other than latkes. In reality, the recipe (though unique in it’s own right) was more of an alternative dish to fry in olive oil for non-latkes night. I was hoping for the answer to my (and my mother’s) annual question: What on earth does one serve WITH the latkes?

Do not get me wrong; latkes are amazing. I love latkes. I could eat seven and happily call them dinner. But maybe I’d like to serve something besides skillets of crisped potatoes to my holiday guests…

I believe my mother’s standard answer is something along the lines of, “Roast chicken….I guess?” That won’t do for my vegetarian household, and meat versus no meat aside, nothing seems to really fit with latkes. Pasta and rice dishes would make for a meal that wins the All-Starch Award. Anything covered in melted cheese is just too rich. My mom often serves a frittata or baked egg dish for her meat-abstainers, but even that isn’t always a keen enough contrast for me.

Several years ago, having just moved in to my own apartment and therefore having freezer space like I’d never had before, I froze bag upon bag of my fall CSA’s veggie trimmings. Come Chanukah I used them to brew up a homemade veggie stock and added matzah balls. The steaming bowls got rave reviews.

Two winters ago, having exchanged freezer real estate for the cheaper rent of a three-bedroom, I needed a new option. Preferably something with veggies, protein and color to round out the monochromatic landscape of golden fried pancakes. Remembering last year’s brothy success, I struck upon an old standby: lentil soup. Mellow but flavorful with a hint of garlic (or a ton if that’s your bag) and rosemary, and spinach for bright freshness, my standard recipe was inspired by a childhood favorite; I took my cues from the ingredient list on a can of Progresso lentil soup, added in extra vegetables, and hoped for the best.

Did it work? Let’s just say that the following year’s Chanukah party, held during a Sunday night snowstorm, had record attendance. My guests mingled and noshed with legume-filled mugs in one hand and latkes in the other, fighting off the chill from within.

And what’s NOT to love about lentil soup? It boasts lots of vegetarian protein, tons of carrots for vivid color, no dairy or eggs or wheat to make fans out of your vegan AND gluten-free friends (check labels on your veggie broth to ensure it’s GF/vegan if your guest list demands such claims), and a sense of virtue for those who consider fried potatoes a once-a-year splurge. And for the chef? You can make it ahead of time, enjoy your own party, and bask in the accolades. That’s what I call a happy Chanukah!

And, because there is a fine line between tradtion and repetition, I’m always looking to hear new ideas; what do you like to serve with your latkes?

Vegetarian Lentil Soup Recipe

Consider this recipe your own personal canvas. Up the garlic and/or add cayenne pepper or hot sauce for a kick. Substitute chard or kale (or nothing at all) for the spinach. Eliminate the rosemary or use about a teaspoon of your favorite dried herb. When not serving with latkes (or even with if you’re brave!), top with shredded cheddar or Parmesan, sour cream and/or croutons.

2 tablespoons olive or other veggie oil (feel free to use less, or even just non-stick cooking spray)
1 medium onion or 2 shallots, peeled and diced
3-4 ribs celery, washed well and cut in dime-dized slices
1-10 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled and chopped
4 medium or 3 large carrots, washed, peeled (unless they’re organic or from the farmers market) and cut in small dice (1 bag of baby carrots cut up in thirds or quarters would work too)
1 1/4 cups dried brown lentils (sold in plastic bags under the canned beans in your grocery store or in bulk in health food stores)
11 cups water and/or vegetable broth (if you use water, you’ll want to add more salt at the end of cooking)
1 small can tomato paste
1 branch fresh rosemary, leaves torn off and finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried herb (rosemary, basil, oregano, etc.)
1 10-ounce bag fresh spinach, washed, if needed, and chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste

1) Get out your biggest, heavy-bottomed soup pot. Heat the oil on medium-high heat until shimmering.

2) Saute the onions and celery until transluscent and softer but not browned, about 5 minutes.

3) Add the garlic and carrots and saute 5-10 more minutes until the garlic is soft but not too browned.

4) Add the lentils and toss around for a minute.

5) Add the water or stock and turn the heat to high. (If you’re using water, not stock, add 1 teaspoon of salt now.)

6) Cover and cook until lentils are soft to the bite, 25-45 minutes. If the pot starts to boil over, lower the heat a bit. You do want a nice rolling boil though.

7) Stir every so often, making sure nothing is sticking. Add more water or stock, if needed.

8) When the lentils are tender, add the tomato paste, stirring well. Add the chopped rosemary or dried herb. Add the spinach.

9) As the spinach wilts, start tasting and seasoning. Add more salt as needed, plus pepper, hot sauce, etc., to taste.

10) When the spinach is just wilted (try not to overcook it too much) and the soup tastes good, you’re done!

11) Serve in mugs with latkes or in bowls garnished with cheese, etc. Serve with bread and salad for a lovely dinner, or serve just yourself with a spoon and congratulations on a job well done.