THE ENTRY FOR LENTILS in the Oxford Companion to Food follows closely behind the one for lemons — and that seems right, as lemons add brightness to this easy-to-cook-but-sometimes-a-little-dull legume. A recipe on my lemon blog for Lemony Lentil Soup with Spinach (scroll to second recipe) is testimony to this great marriage.
Lentils have been cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, and evidence of lentils has been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe. In India, the largest producer of lentils today, they are an everyday food called dal, often cooked with onion and spices and served with rice. Next to soy beans, lentils have the highest protein content of all vegetables.
There are dozens of different colors and sizes of lentils, each with their own character. Brown or green lentils are fine, but red lentils are very nice for soups as they cook quickly and break down into a puree. And, of course, there’s the color. Some of that lovely salmon color fades with cooking, though, so I was happy to find New York Times’ food writer Melissa Clark’s recipe for Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, which adds carrots and tomato paste to the pot to bring some of the color back. And this time of year, when it’s often grey and dismal outside, I really appreciate a burst of color in the soup bowl.
Another thing to love about this soup is that (as long as I’ve got the red lentils in the pantry), I usually have all the ingredients on hand. Lemon, onion, garlic — check. Cumin, chile powder or cayenne, tomato paste — check. I don’t always have fresh cilantro, but parsley or even chives will do in a pinch.
Truth be told, I very rarely follow a recipe precisely (often not even more-or-less) but this one was so simple and easy — and didn’t call for any unusual ingredients — that I didn’t have my usual tendency to depart from it. (That is, aside from adding an extra carrot for more orange flecks, and a good squeeze of lemon juice in the serving bowls for brighter flavor.)
I made some popovers and a green salad to go with it, and called it supper.