Friday, February 24, 2012

The Haunted House Soup

There are some meals you just never forget. Your first taste of fresh-from-the-ocean lobster, steamed in a dockside fish shack; your mom's tried and true spaghetti and meatballs; your first taste of sushi and even the dorm-room desperation creations you made with your roommates in college (I admit to having sandwich maker-ized, chili powdered tuna and ketchup sandwiches for lunch regularly in my first and second years). All of these things lodge permanently into your memory, for better or worse, and even though you might later have lobster thermidor at a fancy-pants Michelin star establishment, or artisan spaghetti con polpette in Italy, it is never quite the same as that ingrained taste sensation.

While there are many, many baked goods of my mom's that I can distinctly remember the flavour of and yet can never seem to recreate, the the first meal that pops into my mind as being special is my 18th birthday dinner that my mom, then-boyfriend and I shared on a weekend trip to Montreal. I had asked to go into Quebec for the occasion for a very "student-ine" reason: the drinking age was only eighteen there, unlike Ontario where it was a year older. My mom agreed readily, which may surprise you - but consider that my parents had introduced me to coffee and alcohol at a young age (thus taking the urge to binge on them as "forbidden" later like a few of my schoolmates) and neither of us had been to Montreal in several years. When it came time to pick my "birthday restaurant", it only took a few minutes of browsing RestoMontreal before I knew exactly where I was headed: a funky, out-of-the-way "dinner theatre" like place called La Maison Hantée.

The premise there was simple - each table weaves their way into the dining room led by their waiter, who then becomes part of the "story" in between serving courses and clearing plates. Meanwhile, the diners are entertained by a cast of characters wrapped up in a shortened play, occasionally being brought into the plot themselves. The twist at Maison was (and if you know French you already know) that the whole restaurant is in fact one giant haunted house. An artfully done haunted house, mind you, without chainsaw wielding maniacs and giant tarantulas, but still, a haunted house. The waiters? A cast of reanimated corpses and ghostly figures, all killed off in one shockingly horrific way or another. The way into the dining room? A pitch-black, twisted, uneven-floored maze, wide enough for only a single person and navigable only by clinging to the diner in front of you. And the story? Reminiscent of Thir13en Ghosts, including vengeful spirits, suicidal brides and a wrongful death. The whole thing was gory and frightening without being extraneous in any way, with bits of humour, romance and heartbreak thrown in in a very elegant and - well, French - way.
 
The menu? On the surface, unremarkable - Lebanese bruschetta-like flatbreads, soup, chicken breast with ham and Swiss, baked baby potatoes and vegetables and chocolate cake for dessert. But the food! Delicious to a fault, in particular the soup. And that soup became something I tried for years to recreate, especially after the Maison suffered major flood damage that made the building unstable and forced it to be demolished. The lot became a condo building (evoking a sort of Joni Mitchell vibe) and the restaurant faded into oblivion. But not that soup. Described as a "lentil and vegetable potage", it sounded simple enough, right? In reality, it really was. Lentils and vegetables, a few herbs, some broth... but the ratios and specifics of it all, and the texture of it - thick, almost baby-food thick, and stick-to-your-ribs for hours without weighing you down - made it unique. The secret, I discovered, was the slow cooking of lots of onion, adding a wealth of carrots, a few cauliflower stems (for the "creaminess") and pureeing everything twice. It's not 100% identical to the Haunted House, but it's close enough that I can close my eyes and flash back to those good ol' days.

Potage De La Maison Hantée
Makes 6 generous servings
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
3 large yellow onions, diced
1 lb 12 oz carrots, diced
1/2 tbsp cumin
4 garlic cloves, sliced
6 cups vegetable broth
3 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 oz mung beans
3 oz cauliflower (ideally just the stems)
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried parsley
5 oz red lentils
1 cup water
1 tsp dried thyme (a second hit)
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil to medium and add the onions.
  2. Cook, stirring often, until they have begun to carmelize (just past the "golden" stage).
  3. Add the carrots, cumin and garlic, raise the heat to medium-high and cook just until the cumin and garlic is fragrant.
  4. Pour in the broth and water, add the bay leaf, rosemary, mung beans, cauliflower, and dried herbs.
  5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and cook uncovered 40 minutes.
  6. Cover pot and cook another 40 minutes.
  7. Remove the bay leaf and rosemary stem, and using a blender (or immersion blender), puree the soup into a smooth mixture.
  8. Add the lentils and water, cover and cook 30 minutes longer, stirring often.
  9. Add thyme, salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Amount Per Serving
Calories: 248.9
Total Fat: 3.9 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 1,052.9 mg
Total Carbs: 42.7 g
Dietary Fiber: 10.8 g
Protein: 12.3 g