Lentil soup: Check your pulse!

In Recipies on December 13, 2011 at 10:22 am

Lentils are a true food from antiquity and have been part of the human diet of the Near East and Mediterranean regions from 13,000 to 9,500 years ago. The Bible tells how Esau delighted in “the red stuff” and that a bowl of it was the price of his birthright.

They are pulses, a crop harvested exclusively for its dry seed, and are part of the legume family. Known as adz in Egypt and as ad’s in Arabic, these lens-shaped seeds are often part of the daily diet in those cultures. Lentil dishes are also favored by Jews of the region and are a symbolic food in Jewish mourning (they are round and symbolize the “life cycle”).

Nutritionally speaking, lentils are among the “super foods”. They are almost 33% nutritional protein and are a fiber-rich food (red lentils are a bit lower in fiber).  Because lentils are low in methionine and cysteine, they lack many of the disulfide bridges which the body breaks down during digestion. Consequently, lentils are “less gassy” than bean dishes!

Lentil dishes lend themselves to cumin and turmeric, same as other legume-based meals of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. As a result, lentil soups and stews often seem to have a uniform flavor, no matter where the dish originates.

Today’s lentil soup breaks from the cumin and turmeric herd because it gets most of its flavor from onion, garlic, and oregano. This soup also starts with a hefty amount of olive oil (3/4 cup!) and this gives the soup a hearty substance, despite the fact there is no meat or broth used to make it.

A quick word of caution is in order. Like all legumes, salt added early to a lentil dish will keep the lentils from softening. Hard beans and lentils are a huge turn-off factor for a lot of people and you will do much in the way of promoting lentils by keeping salt out until the end of cooking.

There are also a couple of great variations possible with this soup. Regular tomatoes are the standard, but an interesting variation can be had using Ro-Tel brand or by adding your own chopped chilies, or a well-drained small can of them with the tomatoes.

The soup can also be made with a bit of rice or orzo. If you choose to use rice, add an extra ½ cup of liquid for each ¼ cup of rice. When using orzo, no adjustment to the liquid is needed.

One final caution: Be sure to carefully sort and rinse lentils before cooking them. It is amazing how many stones look just like lentils and are just waiting to smash expensive dental work.

Let’s make lentil soup!

¾ C olive oil

1 large onion, sliced (about 2 C)

1 ½ TBS minced garlic

2 carrots, peeled and “pyramid cut” (see notes)

1 handful fresh oregano leaves (or 2 tsp dried)

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped (or 1 14oz can diced)

2 TBS tomato paste (or 4oz tomato sauce)

½ C orzo or ¼ C long grain rice

1 ½ C red (or green) lentils

4 C warm water

2 TBS dried parsley (divided)

1 TBS cider vinegar, plus 1 TBS balsamic vinegar

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Greek yogurt (or sour cream) for serving

Carefully sort and rinse the lentils and place them in a large pot with enough water to cover them completely. Bring the lentils to a rolling boil and gently boil them for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the lentils to cool a bit before draining all of the cooking liquid. Add a cup or two of cold water and swish the lentils gently to remove any clinging “scum”. Drain and reserve the lentils on the side.

Carefully dry the pot to avoid spattering oil! Heat the oil over medium heat until it begins to shimmer. Add the onions to the pot and “sweat” them until they are translucent. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional minute, being careful not to allow the garlic to burn. Return the lentils to the pot and stir them well to coat them with oil.

[NOTE: “Pyramid cut” the peeled carrots by making a diagonal cut and then rolling the carrot 180 degrees and making the same diagonal cut. Or, simply slice the carrot into disks.]

Add the carrots and tomatoes. Stir in the water and add the tomato paste, half of the parsley, all of the oregano, and a few twists of black pepper. Bring to a rapid boil. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are soft. If you are using rice, add the rice at 30 minutes of cooking and be sure to adjust the water upward by twice the volume of the rice. If you are using orzo, allow 9-10 minutes for it to cook. Stir in the remaining parsley. Mix the vinegars and add to the soup, or just use lemon juice instead. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Serve in large bowls, garnished with parsley and put a dollop of Greek yogurt (or sour cream) in the center. Serve with toasted, or grilled, pita.


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