Lately I’m obsessed with lentils. Our pantry shelves are lined with them—bags and boxes filled with miniature rounds of black, green and brown. To those who rifle around looking for more readily edible snacks, my compulsion is slightly puzzling. A collection of shoes in the closet or books on the shelf is easier to understand. But mothers have other odd obsessions as well, best ignored, as teens well know; simply shove the legumes aside and move on to the chips.
Loving lentils makes sense to me, if to no one else. I cook dinner every day for a vegetarian family, and legumes and beans offer us a rich source of vegetable protein that’s essential to our diet. And beyond the nutrition, they’re a treasure trove of inspiration as well. I’ve no doubt I could add lentils to the pot day after day, week after week, and never repeat the same concoction twice (unless I wanted to). One day it’s soup, another a main-dish salad. Then on to a stew or dal.
Cuisines around the world turn to lentils because they’re cheap as well as nutritious and versatile. I can buy a bag for a couple of bucks, add a few veggies and be on my way to a belly-filling meal for less out of pocket than a trip through the drive thru (not to mention the nutritional advantages). What turns a wise choice into an obsession though, is the way lentils make me feel. Stir them up with a bit of spice, an onion or a few roots, and those rustic bits come together in a bafflingly tasty way. Comfortable, cozy, line-your-insides delicious. A bright spot on a blah day. To put it in terms understood by a younger generation, lentils are my mac and cheese.
At our house we enjoy lentils in everything from ginger-spiked yellow dal to a loose salad that’s different every time we open the fridge. Same with soup: there’s version after version. Lentils are about improvising. Last week we roasted cauliflower with smoked paprika then tossed it with cooked french green lentils, chopped arugula, red onion, cherry tomatoes and a walnut oil vinaigrette. Next time we might substitute cooked beets, shaved fennel and sweet oranges. If you’re expecting a Freshness Farms delivery tomorrow, use that as your starting point.
Recently I’m fixated on those wispy-thin split orange rounds (often labeled red or pink lentils, and in Indian stores as masoor dal) that cook up in less than half an hour, creating a deeply flavorful and hearty soup from next to nothing. I simmer a potful when the cupboard is nearly bare. And prepare to fall in love once more.
Red Lentil Soup
Variations of this soup are popular across Egypt. It is simple to prepare, yet deeply satisfying. Blend to a smooth consistency if you like, or leave the soup a bit chunky.
- 2 – 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 1/2 cups chopped onion
- 4 plump garlic cloves, minced
- 2 medium carrots, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, one 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes OR 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- cayenne pepper
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 1/2 cup red lentils (sometimes called pink lentils or, at Indian stores, masoor dal), picked over and rinsed well
- fresh lemon juice to taste
- one large handful cilantro, chopped
- Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until it is soft and begins to turn golden, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic, carrots and celery and cook for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes or tomato paste, cumin and coriander. If using canned tomatoes, drain the liquid off (and set aside) and add tomatoes to the pot. Stir and cook until the spices are fragrant. Add one teaspoon salt, a large pinch of cayenne (or more if you enjoy the heat), broth, 4 cups of water, and the lentils to the pot. If using canned tomatoes, instead of 4 cups of water, use 3 1/2 cups of water plus the tomato juice drained from the can. Bring the mixture to a boil, stir, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until lentils are tender (about 20 to 30 minutes).
- Taste for salt and add more as necessary (lentils like salt so you may need more, depending on the saltiness of the broth). Add lemon juice to taste, one tablespoon at a time. You will need at least one half lemon, possibly a whole one—several tablespoons in total.
- Turn off the heat, and using an immersion blender, puree the soup, in the pot, to the desired consistency. Stir in cilantro just before serving.