I’ve been making this soup for more than twenty years and it is still one of my favorites. Few things are more comforting than a steaming bowl of this lentil soup on a blustery cold day–like today, for example.
This is a pretty soup, too. Look at those beautiful chunks of carrot, celery, and tomato! What is even better is that lentils also are good for us. Rich in fiber and protein, lentils have the second highest ratio of protein to calories after soybeans.
There are many types and colors of lentils. This soup recipe introduced me to orange lentils and these delicate, fast-cooking lentils have become an important ingredient in my cooking ever since. Sometimes I just throw a handful of orange lentils into the soup pot with other vegetable soups. It gives the soups an extra boost of protein and flavor and thickens the broth.
Grown mostly in Turkey, India and Canada, lentils are the seed of a small shrub. Orange lentils, my personal favorite, have a mild flavor, don’t need to be soaked, cook up quickly (usually in an hour or less) and are increasingly available in mainstream supermarkets. If you live near an Indian community as I do with Little India in Artesia, you can buy large bags of beautiful orange lentils at a very reasonable price. On the other hand, many health food stores, like Huntington Beach’s Mother’s Market, carry organic orange lentils.
Don’t take my word for the greatness of lentils. People have been eating (and enjoying) lentils for a very long time. Food historian Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, writes that lentils are probably the world’s oldest cultivated legume with archeological digs finding evidence that the first lentils were consumed in Central Asia somewhere between 9,000 to 13,000 years ago. Throughout history, lentils have captured the attention of cooks. Lentils have been discovered in Egyptian tombs. They were glorified by Greek playwright Aristophanes who labeled them “the sweetest of delicacies,” and their unadorned consumption was mandated by the French Revolution’s Robespierre who characterized their consumption as an act of patriotism. (By the way, Robespierre got a whole lot of stuff wrong and lost his head in the process. Don’t let his churlish dictates cause you to pass up the opportunity to prepare lentils with a glorious abundance of spice and an array of complementary ingredients.)
I can’t credit the original source of this recipe. All I have is a hand-written recipe in my cooking notebook with an enthusiastic notation: “This is excellent!” I do remember that the original recipe did not contain tomatoes, but, over the years, I’ve become very fond of this soup with the addition of diced tomatoes.
Recipe: Egyptian Lentil Soup
4 T. butter or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery (with leafy tops), chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 t. whole cumin seeds
1 1/2 C. orange lentils
8 C. water or vegetable broth
1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes (or equivalent of fresh tomatoes in season)
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
Melt butter in a soup pot (or heat olive oil). Saute onion, celery and carrot until the vegetables begin to soften. Add 1 t. whole cumin to the vegetables as they saute. Add lentils, water or stock and diced tomatoes. Simmer covered for one to one and a half hours. Season with lemon, salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy. Garnish with chopped parsley or chopped cilantro.