They are healthy, they are delicious, they are full of fiber and minerals, they are really, really cheap (you should buy them dried by the bag), and yet many people here in the West have no idea how to prepare them, nor how to eat them on a regular basis. Granted, that may be due to the fact that if you want your beans and chickpeas to taste really good, you don’t want them to come out of a can – you need to pre-soak and you need to boil them yourself. So, while it is not difficult, that method does require thinking ahead.
But, not all legumes are created equal. Lentils, especially the red ones, cook in minutes without any pre-soaking, and green peas these days are sold frozen in large inexpensive bags which are very easy to just store in your freezer for when you need them. And thankfully, the Middle Eastern kitchens – Persian, Lebanese and many others – have long ago come up with a fantastic way to feed people based on those, cheaply and in a hurry. Frugality and convenience attended to, the easiest way to incorporate legumes into your diet in a gloriously delicious way, is a lentil soup. And you can then impress your friends with your creation, presenting it as a Mid-East inspired dish rather than “I have some leftovers in the fridge that we can probably do something with.”
Because red lentils cook so fast, and because legumes go with a huge range of savory seasonings, this soup pulls together in about half an hour, and it is a wonderful way to use up various leftovers looking sad and forlorn in the corners of your fridge. Or freezer. And the result is a warming, hearty soup that is thick and satisfying enough to serve as a large lunch, or even a dinner if served with some bread on the side. And you can feel good for having done something great for your health in the process, to boot!
It can even be made vegetarian, or indeed, vegan, if you omit the bacon, and if needed, the dairy I like to garnish it with – and for all I am a definite carnivore, this soup will really be not much worse for the omissions. Or if you have aging smoked lamb or pastrami, or ham, it can be sliced and tossed right in alongside with everything else to make the soup richer. Though if you are skipping bacon, I would suggest a teaspoon of smoked paprika to add the smoky scent without the smoked-pig component.
And if you are cooking for yourself only, and are daunted by the prospect of having a large pot of soup, this both, keeps fine in the fridge for a few days, and freezes fantastically well if you have some of those plastic tubs handy.
There is no set-in-stone recipe for lentil soup, as it literally uses up whatever you have around your fridge, but there are a few simple guidelines. It needs onions, it needs a good amount of greenery, and it needs enough fat to cook those onions. The rest is honestly mutable.
You will need (this will make about 3L of soup):
- 1-1.25 cup (3 dl) red lentils
- 2-4 tablespoons cooking oil or bacon fat
- 2-3 onions, chopped
- 3-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
- 1-2 dl green peas (frozen – if you have fresh, I’d just eat those fresh!)
- A couple of handfuls of frozen chopped spinach pellets
- Half or whole pack of bacon (75-150g), cut into small bits (can be omitted, or substituted with shredded cooked beef, chicken, smoked or roast lamb, pastrami, or whatever you have handy)
- Salt and black pepper and chili flakes to taste
- 1 very heaping tablespoon of curry powder, or Middle Eastern 7-spice (Baharat), or a thyme-based mix like Zaatar, or really whatever you have on hand and feel like – toss in that Italian pasta or salad seasoning, it will work just fine too.
- 1 teaspoon hot paprika or hot smoked paprika
- Leftovers: in my case – a couple of aged salad onions, trimmed, but you can use up a slightly-mushy tomato, some root celery (peeled and chopped into small bits), green celery (sliced crosswise), a potato or two, and you get the idea.
- Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on top – or you can be like me and use up herb-infused olive oil that some sun-dried tomatoes were sold in.
- Greek or Turkish yogurt or creme fraiche or sour cream to serve – optional, but really nice.
How to achieve soup in record time:
- Put a large pot (enough to fit 3+ Litres) on the stove and add 2 tablespoons of oil or bacon fat. Start heating it on medium-low heat. Put a non-stick frying pan on the stove, add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil or bacon fat and heat that to medium heat as well.
- Toss your chopped bacon into the frying pan, stir and allow to cook on medium heat while you add your “leftover” vegetables to the pot, and saute them gently in it. Add your seasoning (curry, 7-spice, seasoning mix – but not the paprika), whatever the choice is.
- Once bacon is cooked, lift it from the pan and add to the pot with leftover vegetables. Add your chopped onions to the pan, and fry them in bacon fat on medium heat until they turn golden and a little crispy on edges.
- While your onions are frying, rinse your lentils and add them to the pot. Add approximately 2 L of water (the process is made faster if you boil it in your water boiler while at it), and bring soup to a slow simmer.
- When the onions are nearly done, move them a bit to the side, add a tablespoon of oil if needed, and toss the garlic into the pan. Cook just until it goes bright white and fragrant, a few seconds – now this is ready to add to the pot, whatever stage that is at – soup is forgiving like that!
- Bring your soup to a bit higher boil (higher simmer? We don’t want this at rolling boil, not really!), and cook for approximately 15 minutes until lentils are nearly cooked through (they will fluff out at edges and will be nearly soft to the bite).
- Add the frozen peas and spinach, and enough boiling water to make 3L of soup in total. Add the teaspoon of paprika.
- Cook, stirring, until spinach pellets are completely dispersed and the soup is back at a low simmer. If the lentils are not cooked through at this stage, give the soup another 3-5 minutes until they are.
- Season with salt and pepper and chili flakes to taste, and serve with yogurt or creme fraiche and a drizzle of olive oil.
The bread in the photo that we ate it with, is a rye-blend folded cheese sourdough (I promise a recipe with stage-by-stage folding photos another day!), but this soup would go just as well with any – or none at all.