Friday, December 28, 2007

A Lentil Soup You Won't Soon Forget

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Recipe for homemade bread to serve it this lentil soup with

In Tempe Arizona, off University Drive, sharing a plaza with a dry-cleaners, an ethiopian diner and an abandoned bank dusty, sits a yellow stuccoed cafe whose inner ceiling is strung with ivy that flourishes all year round. I visited there at least several times a month when I lived nearby, and I was almost always served by the same waiter - a curiously blue-eyed, sandy-haired 20-something man who tended to follow my friendly inquiries with some religious musing or a cryptic smile. One could never be certain if he was chemically high or spiritually high. Either way, the effect never failed to make me smile back. The restaurant was a family owned and operated Israeli Cafe called Sabuddy's, and they served The Best Lentil Soup I've ever had.

Why was it so good? At the time, I wouldn't have been able to tell you, exactly. It was thick, hearty, nourishing, and possibly umami-laden. The only identifiable components were lentils, white pepper and some potato, though its exact composition depended on the day. Its consistency varied from watery to stand-a-fork-upright, but it was always amazingly creamy and filling with a bright, yellowish color and flecks of pale white lentil skin. My friends and I never managed to get an exact recipe out of our spiritually enlightened waiter, except to confirm on more than one occasion that the soup was vegan.

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Since moving away from Sabuddy's lentil soup, I have tried on many, many occasions to duplicate it. A friend and I wondered - what was the secret ingredient? Was there some vegetable or seasoning we knew nothing about? MSG? Did they sneak bacon, or maybe chicken stock in it? Some illegal drug that kept us coming back? We tried everything we could think of, except the problem was there that there wasn't much to try save carrots, celery, potato, and spices. Homemade lentil soup was never the same as what was served at Sabuddy's.

That is, homemade lentil soup was never the same until I discovered these:

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It was the type of lentils that made the difference, and my eyes were suddenly open to a world of flavor.

What do you think of when someone says "lentil" to you? The typical brown and green varieties are a bit bland - filling, yes, but lacking in any culinary oomph or interest on their own. When I started learning more about this often overlooked legume, I was surprised to find a diversity of form and flavor that is not properly appreciated in American cuisine. Lentils have been around for more than 9,000 years. Although often considered peasant food, lentils have endured in a variety of cuisines in the Near East, India and the Mediterranean - probably because of their remarkable flavor, excellent nutritional value and ease of preparation. Pair lentils with a grain and you will be providing your body with a complete set of essential amino acids - good for vegetarians. This dream dictionary claims that if a young girl dreams of lentils, she is dissatisfied with her lover, though I might take a less Freudian approach to the matter. I was also amused to find out that in the Old Testament, Esau gave up his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup - perhaps my biblically inclined waiter was hinting at more than my agnostic (and recipe-inquiring) mind could appreciate.

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Today, I decided to try experiment with the several kinds of lentils sitting in my pantry. The cooking technique for lentils is quite straightforward: rinse lentils in four changes of water prior to cooking, do not soak, and do not salt or add acidic ingredients until you are ready to serve the dish (both of which would toughen the lentils). Cooking times will vary, and you can choose to halt the cooking process earlier to drain water and retain the lentil shape, or you can boil them down into a creamy stew. As with any legume, skimming foam off the top of the boiling water and cooking them thoroughly will help make them easier to digest. Here are four different types of lentils all prepared the same way:

Type

Color

Flavor/
Texture

Lentil :
water ratio

For intact lentils

For
softer lentils

Brown / Common Think army fatigues Mild, watery

Firm, holds shape
1:3 30 min* >60 min
Harvest Gold

Yellow Hearty, nutty

Very soft
1:2.5 15 min >30 min*
Petite Crimson / Egyptian

Red, hulled and split Hearty, meaty

Mush
1:2.5 10 min >30 min*
Beluga / Black /
Urad
Black Fruity and fragrant, sweet

Very firm, holds shape well, glossy
1:3 30 min* >60 min*

*Lentil is best suited for this texture

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Note: Older lentils require more water and longer cooking times. These are my very-approximate estimates based on the particular packages of lentils I had. Stir and taste often, adding more cooking liquid as necessary. Thoroughly cooked lentils will be creamy through the entire bite.

And here is, as best as I can duplicate it, Sabuddy's lentil soup. I suspect their version could be even easier to prepare than mine.

Sabuddy-Style, The Best Lentil Soup

Serves: well, that depends on how hungry you are. About two.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp coriander, 1 tsp white pepper

2-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup petite crimson "red" lentils, rinsed thoroughly and picked over*

2-3 cups water or stock (I'd actually avoid vegetable stock here - use free-range, organic chicken stock if you have it, or else just water)

1 small Russet potato, cubed to 1/2"

Salt and black pepper to taste

A lemon wedge, if you so desire

*If you can't find red or yellow lentils (check the bulk food section of natural groceries) you might be stuck. Green / brown / black / French lentils will simply not work in this recipe.

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot until it shimmers. Turn heat to medium and add onion, coriander and white pepper to the pot. Cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent. Turn heat to medium-low and add garlic, lentils, water or stock and potatoes. Cover and simmer for 45-60 minutes, stirring often as the soup thickens.

The lentils will soften and completely break down to the point where it looks like you pureed the whole thing in a blender; then, the soup is done. Add extra water or stock if necessary and don't be afraid to cook the soup for longer than stated here: the final soup will have the consistency of a smooth, thin porridge and it will be very creamy. It will thicken as it cools.

Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with good bread and a squeeze of lemon juice.

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Notice the powdery stuff on the yellow lentils? That's talc - part of the reason why you need to wash lentils very thoroughly

5 comments:

Dori said...

Great lentil information, I didn't realize there were so many kinds. Lentil stew is one of my favorite foods.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

All you had to do was just post the pic of the soup in the bread bowl, and I would have been happy. Lentils are my favorite soup, and bread bowls? Oh, my, who doesn't love them?

Anonymous said...

A Syrian / Lebanese woman taught me how to make lentil with the orange lentils - olive oil, onions & salt until the onions are sweet. then add lentils & water, boil until thoroughly cooked. add lemon juice & salt to taste. i like this recipe a lot.

Karen said...

Thank you! I made this soup, it's FABULOUS! I added it to my recipe cards, and will be making it often. It cooks in NO time...less than the time you suggested. Mine did anyway. I love the chunkiness of the potatoes in there.

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