Lentil soup has a lot going for it. You can make a big pot of it in about thirty minutes, which will then last all week. One bowl is hearty and filling enough to last you to the next meal, but it's also one of the healthiest dishes you can put on the table. And if you think of lentil soup as bland and boring, it's time to get cozy with the spice cupboard.
The truth is that I, myself, was among those who always thought of lentil soup as bland and boring. And mushy. I remember trying it in restaurants and not understanding the appeal of this brown-colored and brown-tasting soup.
But lentil soup made at home is a different dish entirely. For one thing, you can control the cooking. Lentils cook in about 20 to 30 minutes, at which point they are completely tender but hold their shape. Mushy lentils come from overcooking or sitting on a warming plate for too long.
Cooking lentil soup at home, you also have the advantage of your spice cupboard. Cumin is always a winner, and I like to add a good scoop of smoked paprika to give the earthy flavor of the lentils a little depth. Cinnamon has also found its way into my lentil soup recipe. I love the warm spiciness it gives the soup. I also like adding a squeeze of lemon at the very end to brighten the flavors.
There's not much you can do about the brown color, however. That's just lentil soup for you. A swirl of creamy yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley can perk up the bowls as you carry them to the table and sit down to eat.
Lentil Soup with Lemon Yogurt Cream
Makes about 8 cups of soup
4 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped, or 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced small
1 large or 2 small carrots, diced small
3 celery stalks, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cup green or brown lentils
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup yogurt
zest and juice from 1 lemon
Minced parsley to serve
Set a 6-quart or larger pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook slowly until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. If using olive oil, simply heat the oil and continue to the next step.
Turn the heat to medium-high and cook the onion until it softens and starts becoming translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery, and cook for another minute or two. Stir in the garlic, tomato paste, paprika, cumin, salt, and cinnamon. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the lentils, broth, and bay leaf to the pan and stir. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes until the lentils are soft (exact cooking time will depend on your lentils). Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Stir the reserved bacon into the soup, or sprinkle it right on top of each bowl.
Whisk together the yogurt, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Add a dollop of this yogurt sauce to each bowl as you serve and sprinkle the tops with parsley.
Lentil soup will keep refrigerated for up to a week or freeze in individual portions for up to three months.
Wine Recommendation from Mary Gorman McAdams This lentil soup is both spicy and warming so we need a nice wine that can either complement or contrast these bold flavors. Fruity white wines are always a great contrast for spicy foods. With this dish I would suggest an Albariño from Rías Baixas, Spain or an off-dry Washington State Riesling. If you particularly like heat and spice, you may prefer a red wine, whereby the tannins will accentuate the spice and heat. With this dish I would reach for either a Valpolicella from the Veneto in Italy or a California Pinot Noir, both sufficiently fruity to balance the spicy flavors, yet neither too full-bodied to overpower it.
• 2010 Burgáns Albariño, Rías Baixas, $14 - Mouthwateringly juicy and jam-packed with flavors of peach, apricot, orange citrus, pink lady apple with a subtle spicy finish.
• 2010 Viviani Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy, $17 - Unoaked, fresh, juicy, ample bright cherry-berry flavors. Supple tannins give the wine a nice framing grip. .
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
(Image: Emma Christensen)