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Turkish Dinner Part 1: Summer Lentil Soup with Lemon

I woke up the other morning feeling like soup. A light, summery soup, but not a cold one. Not yet. Temperatures were barely grazing 70  so I decided to wait for a real heat wave before bringing out the gazpachos and cold yogurt soups.

Jonah and I honeymooned in Turkey this time of year about ten years ago, and absolutely fell in love with their classic red lentil soup, known as Mercimek Çorbasi. It is beyond humble in terms of ingredients yet the squeeze of lemon and dash of sumac and cilantro at the finish results in something delicious and satisfying either as a light meal or a first course.

Soup preparation also sparked some last-minute inspiration, which I always appreciate, especially on a Wednesday. I spied a pound of ground lamb hanging around the freezer, and turned the simple soup dinner into “Turkish Night.” The ground meat became lamb burger sliders, which we served in toasted pita, drizzled with yogurt sauce. I’ll share those recipes in a separate post – they were amazing. According to Ava, so amazing that the dinner “could be served in a buffet.” There is no higher form of compliment.

PS I just realized I’ve been on a lentils kick. This will pass soon. I promise.

Preparation

Adapted from the New York Times

Serves 4-6

Prep time: 5-10 minutes; total time: 40 minutes

In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over high heat until hot and shimmering. Add 1 large chopped onion and 3-4 minced garlic cloves, and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes.

Stir in 1 tbsp. tomato paste, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. each kosher salt and black pepper and a pinch of chili powder or cayenne (yes – even for a family meal. It won’t be spicy, I promise!). Sauté for 2 minutes longer.

Add 1 quart of chicken/vegetable broth and 2 cups water (or 6 cups of water) to onion-spice mixture along with 1 cup of red lentils and 2 diced carrots. Bring to a gentle boil, then partially cover pot and turn heat to medium-low. Simmer until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary.

Cool soup a bit, then purée half the soup using an immersion or regular blender or a food processor. Add pureed soup back to pot. The soup should have some texture.

Reheat soup if necessary, then stir in juice from 1/2 to one lemon (to taste). Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro, a sprinkle of sumac if you have it on hand and a drizzle of olive oil.  You can also dust it lightly with chili powder if desired.

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Favorite Lentil Soup

Lentils are an established “superfood” and lucky for us, a general favorite in our household for soups, daal (and salads for the adult crew). I started making this lentil soup, adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, when Ava was a toddler. I remember pureeing batches for Talia when she started eating solid foods, and she couldn’t get enough. It was the perfect way to include her into our family dinners without making separate “baby food.” Yes, that kid has an awesome palette and appetite but she’s turned into quite a carnivore as she’s getting older (loves nothing more than salami and cheese for breakfast, perhaps with a small cracker to appease Mom and Dad who are constantly striving for balance). So its exciting for me that she’ll still eat this simple, vegetarian soup with gusto.

 

Preparation

Serves 4-6 + leftovers

  • Olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup finely diced celery
  • 1/3 cup finely diced carrot
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 cup French, brown, or beluga lentils (I prefer a mix)
  • 2-3 handfuls of chopped greens (spinach, kale, chard, etc.)
  • 1 cup of cooked penne or fusilli (optional) or 2 cups of smaller pasta (shells, orecchiette or other)

 

 

Heat olive oil in a soup pot, add onion and saute until it softens, about 5 minutes. In the meantime, pound garlic in a mortar with 1 tsp of salt until it become a paste. Add tomato paste to the onions and work until they come together.

Add garlic paste, celery, carrots, bay leaves, and parsley, then cook for about 3 minutes.

 

 

Add the lentils, 2 quarts of water, 1 additional teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer partially covered until the lentils are tender. This takes 30-40 minutes. Toward the end of cooking, add the greens and let them wilt in the soup – spinach should take just a minute or two, chard and kale about 10, to soften. Toss in the pasta if using.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese – or mix in a couple teaspoons of soft chevre as Ava loves to do. It melts into the soup and adds a lovely dimension of flavor.Crusty bread and gruyere are also a favorite addition.

SLOW COOKER PREPARATION: Follow instructions above for sauteing the vegetables, etc. Once they are cooked in a regular pan on the stove, transfer to the slow cooker, add lentils and 7 cups of water. Cook on high setting for 3-3.5 hours.

NOTE: This soup freezes nicely and tastes better a few hours after it is cooked.