Squash Soup with Lentils and Herbs
my cat's name was originally Lentil, a story for another time
Welcome to A Newsletter! Thank you for being here. If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:
Happy 2024, the year it will all be different. Today I’ve already woken up early, worked out (and stretched after), transitioned fully from coffee to herbal tea, ate several bunches of dark leafy greens and many grams of protein, went to bed at 9:45pm, drank “the right amount” of water, had therapy, got my inbox to “0”, moisturized (twice), made peace with all my enemies and written one newsletter for every week of the year, just to get ahead. Feels good to turn a new leaf!
Anyway, not that you asked, but I’ve been in an intense anxiety spiral the last few weeks/months about my work and how it shows up in the world. Contemplating the value of a recipe without a video, spending my time writing books that take a year and a half to make, continuing to be endlessly interested in writing and creating still images. Ask most people in any industry over a certain age and I’ll bet they have (or will) experienced the same sort of “what am I doing, is it still good, do I have to do or be or make something else?” meltdown at least once in the last little while.
Like a lot of strife across media, I can also blame (part of) my spiral on network politics. I spent all of 2022 making a TV show for CNN+ that then became a show for CNN (gone but not forgotten, the CNN+ promotional poster pose– does it haunt you? It haunts me). For that whole year, I was quite satisfied laying low “on social media” knowing that I would soon have something very large and meaningful to share with the world– a culmination of all the work and efforts I had put into my career over the last 15 years learning, cooking, eating. A real, 2-season television show, with a real budget and real everything. Until it was not real– Two months before the scheduled premiere, the powers that be at CNN decided to shut down their original programming department, and alongside W. Kamau Bell and Stanley Tucci, went the never-before-seen More Than A Cooking Show with Alison Roman.
This wasn’t the first time the work I made was in the hands of someone else that could ultimately decide its fate– but it didn’t make it any less painful. Painful might seem dramatic, and embarrassing might be a better word– though, I gotta say, it was embarrassing (and, frankly, painful)! And we (humans) really, really hate to be embarrassed, especially publicly (as an expert on the subject, I can tell you it feels bad).
Anyway, I never really talked about it because A. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to B. I had other things to focus on in 2023 and C. it was embarrassing! Even if the decision had nothing to do with me, the show, or the dozens of really talented, hard working, creative people who helped make it, I was still embarrassed. Embarrassed that something I was so publicly excited about simply didn’t pan out, embarrassed I had once again put my creative, hard working eggs in the basket of “the man”. Embarrassed something I cared about so deeply, something I thought was so good, something that took so much effort and care to make was deemed utterly unimportant by the people who decide what’s important.
If you’re reading this and thinking “I’m just here for the squash soup”: Thank you for subscribing, the soup recipe is at the bottom and I’ll get to it in a second.
Why am I talking about this now and what does it have to do with squash soup? I don’t know. After feeling stuck on this for a while, I felt like I started the year with a burn it all down (in a good way) energy. Burn it down to build it back, burn it down to unstick the things that feel stuck, and since I was old enough to write, I knew that writing always helped unstick the stuck things.
The other day a friend of mine told me a story that a friend of hers told her, and I’m paraphrasing here, but the moral of the story was something to the effect of “do you want to be the last person in a horse and buggy when everyone else is driving a car?” And obviously I don’t, because I hate to be left out of things, but also cars make so much pollution and cause lots of accidents, so maybe? Yes, of course, everyone has been saying this for years, that making books and TV shows are the horse and buggy and making Reels and TikToks are the car, but horses are beautiful and still very much worth riding and I refuse to stop riding the beautiful horse!!! Don’t make me get off the horse!
Anyway, soup. Instead of letting myself become paralyzed with anxiety about the future, if there will or won’t be a TV show, if I should or should not just quit everything else and become a front-facing-camera creator of content, I decided today I will just do the thing that I know I can do, and that’s cook. Make some soup. I don’t have to figure it all out before I cook some onions (chopped) in olive oil until they’re starting to brown. I don’t have to reinvent myself before I add one whole squash (peeled, cut into small-ish pieces) and some spices (cumin seed, crushed red pepper flakes). I shouldn’t pressure my career to entirely evolve before I cook the squash until it’s a coarse little mash (it happens faster than you think) and adding red or yellow lentils and some water or broth. I will not have all the answers before the soup comes to a simmer and both the squash and lentils melt into each other, creating a luxuriously creamy, nearly smooth soup without having so much as to look at a blender.
Last year, I told myself I would have all the answers figured out by the start of 2024, but that’s now, and I’m already two days late– but for today, there’s soup, and that’s fine with me.
SQUASH SOUP WITH LENTILS AND HERBS
This soup started as split pea and eventually became this (if you look at the ingredient list, it’s not hard to see how I got here). More squash than lentil (vs. split pea, which is decidedly more split pea than anything else), this soup has a similar texture, smooth with visible bits of vegetables and legumes here and there, and while absolutely savory, it does have a lovely little sweetness and just enough cumin to remind me of eating soup from a co-op– a very specific, niche yet evocative reference.
Like most of my soups, this one is also very flexible, but I do think acorn squash is the right squash for the job here. Last fall I realized how much I had under-appreciated it amidst all the other more “interesting” seeming squash, dismissing it for being too commonplace and mild in flavor. Once I started cooking more of it– roasting on it’s own with browned butter and sage, or used to bulk up lentils, like in this soup– I noticed I really loved the mild flavor and lack of intense sweetness (a virtue to me, a person who tends to shy away from sweet, starchy vegetables). The way it likes to fall apart into the soup, eliminating the need for a blender or machine of any sort is also key, making this creamy soup possible, electricity-free.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (or olive oil)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large yellow, white or red onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced or chopped
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seed or ½ teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more (optional)
1 small acorn, kabocha or butternut squash (1 ¾-2 lbs.), peeled, seeds removed, cut into ½”–1” pieces
1 ½ cups yellow or red lentils
8 cups water or broth (or water mixed with Better Than Boullion of your choosing)
2-3 teaspoons sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 cups coarsely chopped mixed herbs, such cilantro, dill, chives and/or scallion
1. Heat butter and olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and starting to get a little color, 8–10 minutes.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add cumin and crushed red pepper flakes (if using). Stir to bloom the spices a bit in the fat, 90 seconds or so. Add the squash and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring every now and then, until the squash starts to fall apart (it should look like a very coarse mash), 15–20 minutes.
3. Add lentils, water, broth (or water mixed with Better Than Bouillon) and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a gentle simmer, letting the squash melt into the broth as the lentils become tender and follow suit (by also melting into the broth), 30–35 minutes. The soup should be split-pea soup in texture, not entirely smooth (this isn’t a puree), but creamy with bits of squash here and there. If it feels watery or too thin for your soup preference, continue simmering until you’ve reached the texture that’s pleasing to you.
4. To serve, add the vinegar, ladle into each bowl and divide herbs among, stirring to let them wilt into the soup a little (which will really perk up the aroma, especially if using a mix of dill and cilantro like I would). Drizzle with a bit of olive oil, maybe a grind or two of pepper or chili flake. While it is creamy enough for me, if you want to spoon yogurt, sour cream, labne or creme fraiche over top, you can—I know some of you will anyway!
DO AHEAD: this soup keeps remarkably well (without herbs)– in the fridge for up to 5 days, in the freezer for up to two months (possibly longer).