Lentil Minestrone

Makes 4 to 6 generous servings

Adapted from The Best Vegetarian Recipes by Martha Rose Shulman

"From France to Italy to Lebanon to India to Mexico, lentils are appreciated for their distinctive earthy flavor. Any lentil soup can be a main dish. This one, with pasta or rice added at the end and Parmesan sprinkled over each serving, is another Italian minestrone, or "big soup." The pasta and rice absorb much of the liquid, so the soup is thick (you can add more water if you want a brothier soup). Use just enough cayenne to add a little bite.

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 small carrot, minced (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 cup minced celery

4 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed

One 14-ounce can tomatoes with juice, seeded and chopped

1 1/2 cups lentils, picked over and rinsed

8 cups water (less to start)

1 parmesan rind (optional)

Few sprigs parsley, chopped

Few springs thyme, or 1/2 tsp. dried

1 bay leaf

Few pinches of cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 1/2-2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup small pasta, such as elbow macaroni, small shells, or ditalini, or Arborio rice; OR

1/2 cup brown rice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a heavy soup pot. Add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic. Cook, stirring, just until the garlic smells fragrant and is beginning to color, about 1 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes. Turn the heat to medium and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have cooked down somewhat and smell fragrant. Stir in the lentils, brown rice, if using, and water and bring to a boil.

Add the Parmesan rind, chopped springs of parsley, thyme, and the bay leaf. Add the cayenne, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 30 minutes.

Add salt, and simmer for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender and broth is fragrant.

Add pepper, and stir in the pasta or rice. Continue to simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the pasta or rice is cooked through.

Taste for seasonings, and remove the Parmesan rind bundle. Stir in the chopped parsley. Serve, topping each bowl with a generous sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Advance preparation: The soup is even better if it's made a day ahead of time; but don't add the pasta or white rice or parsley until you reheat. Then proceed with step 4. It will keep for 5 days in the refrigerator and for 3 to 4 months in the freezer.