Somehow, when I make soup, I feel more free to experiment and less stressed about “making a mistake” than I do when I’m, say for example, baking a cake, or perfecting a new side dish. Maybe it just feels more like an open-ended equation than a concrete formula for success, maybe it’s all in my head. But I guess in the end, all that really matters is that I’m satisfied with the final result (which I always seem to be).
The soup I’m going to be talking about is one that I feel is too often under-appreciated. It’s loaded with nutrition and flavor, high in fiber, low in fat, and undeniably hearty and satisfying. It’s also one that is all too often given a bad rep’ by bland preparations, or just a lack of know-how when it comes to ‘zazzing it up. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about the red-headed step-child of the legume family, the oft misunderstood lentil.
Let me feed your brain with a little knowledge first; Lentils have been commonly consumed as a major part of traditional vegetarian diets, particularly in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where there are large vegetarian populations. With high levels of dietary fiber, protein, iron, folate, and vitamin B1, lentils are a total nutritional powerhouse. In fact, a single cup of cooked lentils can provide 90% of the RDA of Folic Acid. As an expecting momma-to-be, that’s a serious nutritional punch! Lentils also happen to extremely cost effective, too, which is ALWAYS a big plus around our house!
There are many loyal devotees to the lovely lentil; some of the most ardent in our own backyard appear to be the lovely folks in Pullman, Washington, where the National Lentil Festival has been held annually since 1989. You can check out the details of the festival here.
My love affair with the lentil wasn’t always so passionate; as a child, my first experience with lentils was less than delicious. It was in the elementary school cafeteria, and it was the standard-issue condensed & reconstituted Campbell’s Soup. It smelled pretty good, to be honest, but it literally tasted like lentil-water (no offense, Campbell’s). Since my dear old dad really isn’t much a fan of it either (likely from similar experiences in his life), it was never really served in my house growing up. It wasn’t until I attempted to make my first batch of split pea soup (which is yet another soup that I have incidentally had poor experiences with until preparing it for myself) at Adam’s request and he was so thrilled with my discoveries, that he turned to me and begged me to try my hand at lentils. His former roommate had made it on several occasions, and it was one of his favorite kinds of soup. Still riding the high from my split pea success, I agreed to give it a whirl. I spent some intensive research time, reading up on any number of recipes for lentil soup (and there are about a million and one, by the way, if you’re counting). The one that influenced my own recipe the most was one I found by Emeril Lagasse, which is as simple as it is satisfying. I also found inspiration via searching through food.com, where this recipe and this recipe both piqued my interest.
In the end, I came up with my own personal formula, which I’m about to share with you. I hope you enjoy it and find enough inspiration here to overcome your own fear or mistrust of lentils, and maybe even come up with your own version! Be advised that, since everything I do tends to be industrial strength, the recipe is very easily doubled, and once people taste it, it goes quick! Also, as long as the bullion/stocks you choose are wheat/gluten-free (or even better yet, make your own!), this soup is perfect for those of us avoiding wheat.
1 large onion (or 2 small), chopped
2-3 Carrots, sliced
2-3 Celery ribs, sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped
1 package of dried lentils, rinsed and sorted
1 lb. Meat of choice (approximately, adjust to your tastes; I suggest turkey-ham, or turkey-sausage, but if pork is more your thing, feel free to sub in whatever floats your boat)
1 32 oz. carton of vegetable stock (or about 4 cups homemade)
1 32 oz. carton of chicken stock (or about 4 cups homemade)
3-4 bay leaves
2-4 T. olive oil (for cooking down the veggies)
Start by browning the meat in a frying pan over medium heat. I usually use turkey ham, which I cut into cubey-squares and brown with a little bit of oil. This time, the store happened to be out of that, and the turkey sausage was on sale, so I figured it would be an interesting change of pace. While the meat is browning, I usually do all the veggie prepping, starting with the onion, since he starts the party in the pot first with some olive oil, followed by the garlic once the onions start to soften a little, then the carrots and celery. I throw the bay leaves in around now, and continue to cook over medium heat until the onions are about half-cooked (not totally mushy). After picking through the dried lentils and rinsing them thoroughly with cool water, I add them to the pot with the meat and both stocks, cover and bring to a simmering boil.
Continue simmering over medium-low heat for approximately 1.5-2 hours, stirring periodically, until the lentils seems to burst open and the soup suddenly thickens. Some people stop right before this happens, but I like the soup to thicken to a stew-like consistency. If you’re looking for a time saving short cut, you could always remove the soup from the heat after about 45 minutes to an hour, basically once the lentils have softened to a consistency you enjoy, and using either an immersion blender or ladling a few cups of soup into your regular blender, puree up some of the soup and then add it back to the pot. The soup with dramatically thicken overnight as well, but if it gets to that point before removing it from the heat, I personally think it’s better.
Some people add a dash of red wine vinegar when they serve it, it certainly is delicious but I find it almost always ends in heartburn for me, but I’m pretty sensitive these days, so try it if you like! Enjoy!!