The Chef's Take: Lentil Soup with Tomato and Kale, Marco Canora

"To have health and wellness," says Marco Canora, "the best thing you can do is cook for yourself, because you control the fats and salts and you are cooking with whole foods." These days, health and wellness are of central importance to Canora, the New York City chef who owns Hearth restaurant and five wine bars, all under the Terroir umbrella. But until a few years ago, that wasn't the case.

"I would say that about three years ago, I got fed up with feeling gross and bloated and I went to see a nutritionist," Canora says. At the time, his blood work results scared him. "I had spent 20 years smoking cigs and eating late-night hamburgers and drinking booze. My cholesterol was through the roof. I had gout. And I thought: I will change this because if I don't, I'm going to die," he says.

Canora's awakening didn’t change the way he operated at his restaurants, where sourcing local, top-of-the line ingredients and cooking from scratch had always been the standard. But it did change the way he treated himself, something that wasn't an easy transition at first. Over time, by preparing well-balanced meals and researching nutrition, the chef figured out how to cook and eat healthfully in way that appealed to his Italian palate.

The repertoire Canora developed inspired his second cookbook, A Good Food Day (Clarkson Potter), slated for publication next January, from which this lentil recipe is taken. "There is a huge vegetable focus," he says of the book. "There is a chapter on salads and vegetables and beans."

The warming soup is chock-full of fiber and vegetable goodness. "It's made of lentils and dark-green leafy vegetables, and that's a great thing for your body," Canora says. It also calls for celery, garlic, onions and canned tomatoes. One bite of the cozy vegetarian dish, which includes olive oil and grated Parmesan for flavor and depth, proves that Canora, despite his new lifestyle, continues to stand at the top of the culinary heap. Only now he stands a little lighter and prouder.

Lentil Soup with Tomato and Tuscan Kale

Serves 8 to 10
For the lentils:
1 head garlic
1 pound brown lentils
½ yellow onion
1 carrot, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 celery stalk, cut into large pieces
1 bay leaf
Fine sea salt
For the soffrito and vegetables:
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 small carrots, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 (14.5-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 bunch Tuscan kale, stems and center ribs removed, leaves washed and coarsely chopped

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving

For the lentils: Remove the outer layers from the head of garlic and cut off about ¼ inch of the stem end to expose the cloves. Add the lentils to a large pot and cover them by 2 inches with water. Add the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, the head of garlic and a couple of pinches of salt. Bring the lentils to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the lentils are creamy and tender, about 40 minutes.

Remove and discard the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf and garlic. Using an immersion blender, puree about one-third of the lentils and return them to the pot. (Or scoop one-third of the lentils into a standard blender and puree, then add back to the pot.)

For the soffrito: In a food processor, combine the red onion, carrots, celery, rosemary and thyme and pulse until the vegetables are minced. Add the mixture to a separate large soup pot along with the olive oil. Turn the heat to high and fry the vegetables, stirring occasionally, until they soften and color slightly, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, canned tomatoes with their juice, and a couple pinches of salt to the soffrito and stir. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook for 10 minutes. Add the kale and another pinch of salt, stirring to coat the leaves. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, until the kale is soft.

Pour the lentils into the pot of vegetables and stir. Add about 2 cups water, a little at a time, to thin the soup (it can be more or less water, depending on the level of thickness you prefer). Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Taste and add salt, if needed. Serve with black pepper, Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.

Kitty Greenwald is a Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer. She eats a lot for work and pleasure. Her column Slow Food Fast appears in the Wall Street Journal.

Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell

Portrait by John Kernick
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