Did I ever mention that I take requests? Because when the whim suits me, I definitely do. When I posted the Chickpea stew with Ethiopian flavors a couple weeks ago, more than one person asked me whether I have any recipes for lentils. And while I cook with lentils all the time, it turns out that I haven’t posted any lentil recipes since the very first recipe on this blog. So, that’s weird.
I think part of the reason there’s been little lentil activity around these parts is the role they serve in my culinary life: they’re my saving grace, the little helpers that sit patiently in the pantry until I’m almost entirely out of both ideas and energy. And then they save dinner, every time. Usually it’s one of two recipes. There’s a red lentil dhal that shows up a lot; it’s a favorite, but it has a fair number of spices involved, as well as cans of tomato and fresh cilantro. And while I keep an extensive spice cabinet and (you may have noticed) I have a bit of a cilantro obsession, sometimes all that is just too much. Enter the even easier, sublimely satisfying, basic lentil soup.
This is where I’d love to include a heartwarming anecdote about how, on cold days during my childhood, I’d look forward to coming home from school to a warm, comforting bowl of lentil soup, hearty and delicious. But lentils weren’t really in my culinary repertoire growing up. Nor, really, was soup; it’s hot down in Texas. If I remember right, my lentil revelation had to wait until grad school, when on a whim and a low wallet I had a simple, stripped down version from Aladdin’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant near my apartment. And you know what? It’s a damned shame it took me that long to have lentil soup, because its comforting savor blew my mind!
Now, you’d never expect that, because lentil soup uses the humble brown lentil, which never gets to be the star. That honor goes to all sorts of other members of the pulse family: beans of all shapes and colors, colorful split lentils from the Indian subcontinent, fancy green lentilles de Puy. And while I love all those other legumes, let me just sing a paean to the brown lentil. It’s a joy to eat: rich and minerally, tasting of dark soil and sunbaked fields. It’s very forgiving: if you ‘overcook’ it, it simply falls apart into a porridge. It’s a chameleon, happy to play with any flavors you throw at it. And it’s easy on the wallet: often as low as a dollar a pound in bulk.
There are all sort of possibilities with lentil soup, but here I’m giving my standard, go-to, dinner-saver version. It only uses very common vegetables that you might well have in your crisper right now, so there’s no need to go grocery shopping. The spicing is similarly basic: just salt and pepper, as well as a bit of cumin, cayenne, and bay leaf so the spice rack doesn’t feel neglected. (And in a pinch, you can get away with the salt alone.) If you have some bread around, or even some crackers, then dinner’s ready to go with just odds and ends from the kitchen, and in less than an hour — and most of that is a slow simmer on the stove.
Now if you’ll excuse me: another bowl is calling my name.
Basic lentil soup
This is one of those recipes that every home cook should keep in their back pocket. With cheap, common ingredients and a cook time of barely more than a half-hour, lentil soup has saved dinner in my house more times than I count. I’ve included an extensive list of variations in the Options section, but rest assured: this will take you to a very happy place just as written.
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium white onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (opt.)
1 bay leaf
1 c brown lentils
4 c water
In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the vegetables in the olive oil until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes.
Increase heat to high, and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender and broth has thickened very slightly, about 30 minutes.
If you like a thinner soup, feel free to add a bit of water. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Serve warm; I always like a thickly buttered slice of bread with my lentil soup.
Take things out: halve the amounts of vegetables and dice them smaller for a soup that’s all lentils, all the time.
Put things in: you can add anything under the sun, really. Ideas below, along with the time you would add them.
with the vegetables:
– ginger, peeled and minced
– almost any other seasoning vegetable (peppers, summer squash, mushrooms)
– a bit of diced ham or smoked sausage
with the spices and lentils:
– fresh or dried herbs; a bouquet garni or herbes de Provence would be lovely, for example, or some simple thyme or tarragon
– diced potato or winter squash (you might want to wait 10 minutes so they don’t fall apart entirely)
– diced or shredded cabbage
in the last few minutes of cooking:
– tomatoes or tomato paste
– greens, both tender and hearty (spinach, lettuce, kale, chard, etc.)
– a splash of citrus juice and/or zest
at the table:
– yogurt, creme fraiche, or sour cream
– shredded or crumbled cheese
– a drizzle of flavorful oil and/or vinegar
– finely chopped nuts
– a poached egg, if you’re very fancy