Sunday, January 31, 2016

A little lentil love

Lentils truly don’t get enough love.

These humble little legumes are fat-free and packed—and I mean PACKED—with protein, iron, and fiber. They’re ridiculously cheap, but very filling, and unlike other dried legumes, don’t need to be soaked overnight before you cook them. They can go from bag to pot to bowl in less than an hour.

Not all food has to be pretty. Although red lentils certainly are! 

And lest you think that lentils are the totally boring, C-SPANs of the food world, consider that a bag of lentils comes with an exciting element of danger: Occasionally, rogue pebbles or dirt balls can sneak in as stowaways and hide in the lentil bag.

A pebble and two dirtballs recently retrieved from a bag of lentils.
Incidentally, "dirtball" is one of my favorite insults. 

Which means you always have to comb through lentils carefully before you cook them. I leave this job to my child, who needs to earn her keep somehow.

Search those lentils! Pebbles break teeth! 

This child recently had surgery, which made grocery store runs and complex meals tough for a while. Since dried lentils are one of those cheap staples that I always have on hand—they keep in the cupboard forever and cost less than $2 per bag—lentil soup became an easy, go-to, weeknight meal during her recovery. I nearly always had its other ingredients on hand, too, so I could throw it together fast. The result is a quick, healthy, cheap, and hearty meal that my daughter always gobbles up.

I keep my lentils in a big mason jar, as this crappy picture illustrates.
I like to think of my blog pictures as charmingly bad, like primitive folk art. 

There are so many recipes for lentil soup, and I’m sure there are much better ones than mine, but this one is committed to memory and I only have so much space in my brain. Besides, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That said, though, there are lots of possible variations to the basic soup: 

  • Add cubed ham, or put a leftover hambone into the soup as it simmers.
  • Use dried, snipped mushrooms to give the soup a meatier flavor but still keep it vegetarian/vegan.
  • Make it with water OR any kind of broth that you like or have on hand. I often use the leftover, frozen chicken broth from making chicken soup or chicken pot pie. Consider using no-salt added broth, so you can salt it to your own taste later.
  • Sauté the veggies before adding the water or broth to deepen the flavor; or let the raw veggies cook in the broth if you just want to leave the pot on the stove and escape into latest issue of Us Weekly.
  • If you sauté the veggies first, you can use olive oil or some bacon fat! (I sometimes enjoy knocking lentil soup off of its healthy high horse)
  • Use any spices you like. Some ideas are a bay leaf, oregano, parsley, and thyme. I also use a smoky and salty charcoal seasoning that I picked up on a recent trip to Santa Fe.
  • Although some people like their lentil soup soupy (if you can think of a better way to phrase this, let me know) I prefer it more like a thick stew. To achieve that texture, I use an immersion blender: Just stick it right in the pot and blend until it’s as thick as you want it to be.
Today the kitchen, tomorrow the world!
A decent immersion blender will only set you back $20 or $30,
and is infinitely easier to blend soup with than a food processor.

Use kitchen scissors to snip tough dried mushrooms into small pieces.

Basic lentil soup

  • 1 ½ cups of dried lentils (searched for debris and rinsed)
  • 5 cups of water or broth
  • ¾ cup of diced carrots
  • ¾ cup of diced onion
  • Two cloves of minced garlic
  • Desired spices (about ½ teaspoon of each)

Gently sauté the carrots, onion, and garlic over medium-high heat in two tablespoons of olive oil, bacon fat, or a mixture of the two until the veggies are soft.

Add the lentils and stir for about one minute. Add optional dried mushrooms; ¼ cup of porcini mushrooms are a good choice.

Add the water or broth. Reduce heat to medium. Add optional ham bone and/or bay leaf.

Simmer, cover, and cook until the lentils are soft, about 45 minutes.

Add salt, pepper, and desired spices. Take out and toss that bay leaf, if you’ve added one.

Use an immersion blender to blend it into a thick stew, if you want to.

Add optional cubed ham.

Serve with crusty bread or yeast rolls. A little dollop of sour cream is a nice addition, too. My husband, Brian, also likes to eat his with mini dill pickles! 

No photo of the finished meal, sorry. It looks a little like kitty puke. Bon appetit!