Ah September! In case I've not said it enough, September is my favorite month. With October and November following closely on its heels. Soon it will be time to bring in the deck chairs, tarp the firewood, put the grill under cover, think about the Thanksgiving dinner menu. For now, the days are still warm enough and long enough but there's the smell of wood smoke in the air and a crisp coolness to the nights that portend extra layers of clothing and candles casting a warm glow on the dining room table.
One can hear the sea lions out on the ocean rocks this time of year, a sure sign that autumn is coming. V-patterns of geese can be seen on their southward flight; the sound of their honking always makes me look up to watch them gracefully move across the sky until they're out of sight. These days an extra quilt is needed for sleeping warmly and the hydronic heater has been set to take the chill off the house for a few hours each morning and evening.
This is the time of year when I begin to crave the longer, slower process of preparing warming soups; filling the house with the smells of end-of-summer produce and beginning-of-autumn root vegetables. It's also when I begin to think of braised meats, red wines, kale, chard, polenta, just to name a few. Those will all come later.
Now is the time, as the days begin to shorten and the sunlight turns golden, when I feel compelled to make a big pot of soup to share with friends and family; one that I've made every September for years using produce that announces the changing of the season. The ingredients may change a bit each year, according to my whimsy, but family and friends only grow more dear.
2 large leeks, white and pale green parts only, cleaned, sliced in half lengthwise and finely sliced crosswise
1 large sweet onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 heads garlic, oven roasted
1 large jalapeno pepper, charred, peeled, seeded and minced
2 red bell peppers, charred, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
2/3 cup French green lentils, washed thoroughly and picked through for rocks and things
2 large portobello mushrooms, gills removed, rubbed with olive oil and roasted in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes then cut into chunks
2 garnet yams, peeled and cut into large chunks just before adding to the soup
1 lb. bag organic baby carrots
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
7 of Kalyn's slow-roasted tomatoes (you've really got to make these before the tomato season's over!) or 2 tablespoons good tomato paste (optional)
6-12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 cup dry red wine (use one that's good enough to accompany the soup in a glass!)
4 ears fresh corn, shucked, kernels cut from cobs, cobs "milked" by running the back edge of a knife up the cob
12 cups chicken or vegetable stock, preferrably home made. Use low sodium,low fat if purchased.
Olive oil and unsalted butter for cooking
Have all of the ingredients prepped, as stated, before beginning to prepare the soup.
Place a small amount of olive oil and an equal amount of butter in a cast iron skillet and heat to medium.
Add the leeks and the onions and saute slowly until they're softly caramelized, about 20 minutes. Adjust the heat so they don't burn.
Peel the roasted garlic cloves from their skins and add to the onion mixture. Stir a bit to break up the garlic then dump the whole thing in a large soup pot.
Place the soup pot over medium high heat and add the chicken or vegetable stock.
Add the peppers, portobellos, carrots, yams, lentils, slow-roasted tomatoes or tomato paste, thyme sprigs and bay leaves (you will fish these out later) and give a stir. The thyme leaves will fall off their stems as the soup cooks. Adjust heat to bring the pot to a simmer.
In the skillet used for the onions, add more olive oil and butter and adjust the heat to med-high.
Add the chicken thighs, not crowding the pan, and sear until golden brown on both sides, sprinkling each side generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. You may have to do this in batches. Removed well-seared chicken to a plate.
When all the chicken is done, deglaze the pan with the cup of red wine, loosening all the browned bits. Pour all of it into the soup pot.
When the lentils, carrots and yams are just tender, cut the chicken into chunks and add to the pot with the juices that have collected on the plate.
Add the corn kernels and corn milk. Stir. Taste. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Simmer until the chicken meat is cooked through. Before serving, remove the thyme stems and the bay leaves.
Serve in large, shallow bowls with plenty of your favorite artisan bread.
And, of course, the rest of the wine.