Those of us who live in Hawaii and California are fortunate in almost every way, except that we don't have a Carrabba's Italian Grill near us. I would describe it as Italian-American food in the very best way that term can mean. It isn't super authentic Italian food, but it is as good as a chain restaurant gets, which in this case, is very good: http://www.carrabbas.com.
I think they make terrific steaks, good chicken dishes, and the pastas are fine. But what I love and crave is their Spicy Sausage and Lentil Soup they make often. The service is also very good. We went to the location in Mechanicsburg, PA (a lot better than it sounds). I was crushed when they said they didn't have the soup that day. The waiter slipped away for a moment, came back and said, "My manager said, 'Tell us when you can come back, and we'll make it especially for you.'" Now that's great service! We did go back a couple of days later, and it was great.
It doesn't sound like much, but it is a hearty, deeply satisfying soup that goes great with the rustic Italian bread they serve with it.
I won't be making it back to Mechanicsburg anytime soon (although I found a Nashville location, so there's a good chance I'll make it there in the spring), so I've been trying to come up with a reasonable facsimile of my own.
So here's my take...it's adapted from guesswork and different recipes I've seen. I think it's pretty good...maybe not quite as good as Carrabba's, but I can make it anytime. Served with some good, crusty bread, it makes a terrific winter time meal.
For the vegetarians, you can omit the sausage and substitute vegetable stock. My sister, Portia, who has been published writing about the wonders of lentils, likes the vegetarian take. I'm not so sure, but lentils are packed with iron and are high in protein, especially when eaten with rice or other grains. In any version, so good and good for you.
1 pound Italian sausage (spicy or mild, depending on your family's taste)
1 pound lentils
2-3 round onions, depending on size, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
3 celery, chopped
1 can (14-16 oz) stewed tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-6 cups of chicken stock, to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Hot pepper flakes
Bay leaf, basil, oregano
Vinegar (apple cider or balsamic)
In an eight quart Dutch oven, sauté sausage in olive oil, breaking up sausage into small pieces. Drain all but one tablespoon oil if needed.
Add lentils, onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, garlic, chicken stock, black pepper (I waited until near the end to see if it needed salt), and optional hot pepper flakes (if you prefer to use Italian herbs, you can add them now if desired – I usually don't add them; I think it turns out much better without, and so does Becky, but is a personal taste thing).
Bring soup to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and simmer for 1 ½ hours or until lentils are tender. Add water or stock during cooking if the soup becomes too thick. Adjust for seasoning if necessary before removing from heat.
Serve with good crusty bread. If desired, pass around a bottle of vinegar and invite diners to add a small amount to each bowl. Start with a few drops or more to taste. I like a little bit of vinegar, Becky and the girls don't care for it.
Grace and aloha,
P. S. Lentils show up often in the Bible. For example, when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, it is for a bowl of lentil stew. When fleeing from his rebellious son, Absalom, King David and his men were strengthened with a meal that included lentils. It's interesting to know that such a humble legume played an important role in biblical narratives.