No Soup for You!
The words I most often find myself wanting to say during the course of a busy dinner service at the restaurant I now call home are quite simply: NO SOUP FOR YOU. This clever catchphrase made popular by the sitcom “Seinfeld” in the 90s wants to be my answer for everything, from the comical problems – a line cook doing the potty dance and attempting to leave the line while the ticket machine is spewing out tickets faster than I can call them out – to the high maintenance: “My table wants lettuce cups instead of corn tortillas for their tacos. They said we did it yesterday and it just made their day,” once again while the ticket is blasting like a machine gun. I have no time to speak beyond yelling out “Fire asada for three burros! Fire five shrimp! How long on table 42? It’s on 10 minutes!”
And suddenly I have to stop everything I’m doing for this. No. NO SOUP FOR YOU, my friend.
But of course, there is always soup. Saying “no” in the service industry is just not done. After all, what are you to do, have the line cook relieve himself in a garbage can? If only. Instead you let that cook run out in a flury of loose apron strings and a whispered ‘fiiiinnnaaaallllyyyyyy…’ The average commercial kitchen temperature is a balmy and constant 100 degrees, minimum. Water is consummed by the gallon, bathroom breaks are few and far in between, and always deeply appreciated. A quick and seamless shuffle occurs when someone steps off line between the remaining line cooks, each moving to cover just a bit more ground than they normally cover, dropping fish and shrimp onto the hot grill for the missing grill cook, picking up the cucumber salads, the tacos … contracting once again to their original positions once that line cook returns.
And am I really supposed to tell the customer “no?” Never. There is instead a mad dash to the walk in, the longest 15 feet ever traveled, a collision course with servers and prep cooks, a deep dive into the stacks of crates and boxes, a reminder to better train the staff on how to properly put away the massive produce orders that come through that kitchen every day, all in the hope to find that one head of lettuce you just know is still in there! Of course lettuce cups are not kept on the line. Why would I do such a thing when I can serve lovingly hand-pressed corn tortillas, flipped quickly and delicately by fingertips callused by the constant heat of the cast iron plancha?
That mad rush to the walk in is not about living with the philosophy that the customer is always right (I turn down plenty of make-your-own-menu item requests from customers), it’s about taking the small challenge to do what I can to make that dinner service appear effortless, it’s about getting past my own “don’t change the menu” ego, working without someone in the dish pit, without someone on the salad station, and without an empty seat in the house. All for the sake of serving soup.
Smoked Ham Hock Lentil Soup
While red lentils were used in this recipe, any type of lentil is suitable, but take note that cooking time varies considerably between red, brown and black lentils.
For the stock:
Approximately 4 pounds smoked ham hock
1 gallon cold water
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, quartered
1 medium carrot, peeled, quartered
2 celery ribs, quartered
4 clovea garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon black peppercorn
1/4 teaspoon coriander seed
1 bay leaf
For the soup
Smoked ham hock stock
1 cup red lentils
1 cup yellow onion, 1/4″ dice
3/4 cup carrot, 1/4″ dice
3/4 cup celery, 1/4″ dice
2 cups loosely packed picked cilantro
4 tablespoons minced ginger
Juice of 2 limes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Chiltlepin, chile de árbol or red chile flake, to garnish
Place the ham hock, onion, carrot, celery and aromatics in a stock pot with one gallon cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Skim any impurities that rise to the top. Simmer until the ham hocks are tender and the broth is fragrant, approximately 4 hours.
Remove the ham hocks and allow to cool until cold enough to be handled. Remove any fat from the surface of the stock, and strain the remaining liquid. This should measure approximately 12 cups. Remove the skin from the hocks, and pick out any meat from the bones, breaking it up into bite size pieces. The skin may be cut into bite size pieces as well, but this is entirely up to personal taste.
Pour a thin layer of canola oil into a clean stock pot, placing over medium-high heat. Add the diced onions, carrots and celery, cooking until just lightly browned. Add the picked pork meat, cooking a few minutes longer. Add the strained stock and bring to a simmer. Rinse the lentils, removing any debris. Add lentils and ginger to the simmering stock, stirring to prevent sticking. Simmer gently until the lentils are becomung tender. Add the juice of two freshly squeezed limes, along with the salt and pepper. Continue to simmer until the lentils are tender. Remove from heat and add picked cilantro. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Serve with warm flour tortillas, garnished with fresh cilantro, a lime wedge, and crushed chiltlepin or chile de árbol, or if unavailable, red chile flake.