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How to Make Lentil Soup Without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Lentil soup will hold your hand as you transition from holiday season to resolution season, and you don't even need a recipe to make it. Alicia Sokol of Weekly Greens will show you how.

Was that a third holiday cookie I just sampled? Yes, it surely was. Or perhaps it was the sixth. I've lost count. While I dab at my eggnog mustache having thoroughly relished every last drop, my head drifts to another place. It's a cold and dark place you may know -- we call it January. And if you are like me and countless others who have spent the last several weeks stuffed with stuffing and tipsy with holiday cheer, January brings with it a welcome opportunity for balance, repentance, and a lot of vegetables -- the real kind that aren't all starch.

The body must be eased back into normalcy. To go right from cookies to carrots seems rude, so I like to work my way back to baseline gently, with a hearty soup packed with protein and vegetables. Satisfying on the tongue, yet nourishing to the partied-out body. Healthy fats are critical here -- they add needed flavor and staying power. Olive oil is a stalwart go-to, but you may also consider coconut oil (particularly nice coupled with the coconut milk option at the bottom!). 

Here is how to make a basic lentil soup that can be readily adapted to your preferences and pantry inventory: 

1. Start with a bag of lentils. You can use any kind you like. I've had luck with red, green, brown and black beluga, but whatever is in the pantry will do. Check the cooking time on the package, which can vary from one type to the next. It may be as little as 15 minutes or as long as 45, so make a note before you begin cooking and plan accordingly. Luckily, you do not have to soak lentils before cooking as you do with other bean varieties, but you'll still want to sort and rinse them before adding them to the pot.


2. Get some vegetables sautéing. Set a heavy-bottomed soup pot on the stove and add a couple of glugs of olive oil. Begin warming the oil over low heat as you chop vegetables. Chop a yellow onion, a couple carrots, and a few stalks of celery, making relatively uniform pieces. Smash a couple cloves of garlic, then roughly chop those as well. Turn the stove up to medium heat, then add the chopped vegetables, garlic, and a generous pinch of kosher salt to the pot. Stir frequently as the vegetables soften and become fragrant. 


3. If you're going for a vegetable-heavy soup (and shouldn't you be?), now is the time to add a few more chopped veggies. Consider a bell pepper (any color), cubes of winter squash (acorn squash is pictured below), or finely sliced fennel. Toss additional vegetables in with the onion mixture and stir to combine.

This is also the right time to add spices. I'll walk you through my favorite soup -- a lemony, curried variety -- but I've got ideas for other flavor profiles below. Add dried curry, turmeric, and cumin to taste (for me, that's about 1/2 teaspoon of each to start), as well as a couple strips of lemon zest. Stir for another minute or two, just until the spices are toasted and aromatic. 



4. Now you'll add the lentils and cooking liquid. I use about 1 to 1 1/2 cups lentils for a moderate yield (4 to 6 hearty portions) and 4 to 6 cups of liquid. If you like a very thick soup, use closer to 4 cups of liquid. Make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock or water, or use chicken stock for deeper flavor. Turn the burner up to high heat and allow the soup to come to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until lentils are just tender but not mushy (you should have an idea of how long this is thanks to step 1). You will also want to make sure any hard vegetables, like winter squash, are soft. 



5. When the lentils are almost tender, add a couple generous handfuls of chopped greens. Spinach, kale, or Swiss chard work well here, but you may also try collards, beet greens, or anything else you like. They'll only take a minute or two to wilt -- remove the pot from the burner as soon as the greens are wilted and bright green. Finish with a lot of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. Sometimes I like to add a dollop of cold plain Greek yogurt to add a cool, creamy contrast. 


Want to change it up? Check out these variations:

  • Tomato-y: Add a can of diced tomatoes and their juice along with the cooking liquid and skip the lemon zest, curry, turmeric, and cumin. Instead, add dried oregano and thyme (or a few sprigs of fresh herbs) and a bay leaf. Other additions that complement this variety include oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, and/or chopped fresh basil. 
  • Spicy: Follow the tomato-based prep but add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne to the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic in step 2.
  • Smoky: Follow the tomato-based prep but add a bit of pimentón de la vera (Spanish smoked paprika, hot or sweet -- your choice!). If you like the smokiness of bacon, cook a couple strips of bacon in the pot before sautéing the vegetables in step 2. Remove the bacon, add the olive oil to the remaining bacon fat, and proceed with step two from there. Either reserve the bacon for another use, or just chop it up and add to the soup later. 
  • Creamy: Coconut milk adds complexity and richness to this soup. I've used it with both a tomato-based broth and a lemony curried base. Freshly grated ginger goes nicely with a lemon/curry/coconut base, as well. When I feel a cold coming on, I love the antioxidant punch of turmeric, curry, garlic, and ginger with the soothing creaminess of coconut milk. Add the ginger with the additional vegetables in step 3, then add the coconut milk at the very end with the greens. Heat through and serve. 

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Tags: Lentil, Weeknight Cooking, Vegetarian, Vegan, (Not) Recipes, Everyday Cooking