Tag Archives: lentils

Small comforts


I KNOW IT’S A CLICHÉ to write about “comfort food,” but the anxiety I’ve experienced  since the election has made comfort seem more necessary than ever. There is something calming about the normality of cooking, especially if you’re making something both comforting and nourishing.

Last week I made a mushroom-chicken pot pie topped with biscuits that fit the bill. Aviva showed me how to do this basically in one pot: saute onions and garlic with your choice of vegetables –some options: mushrooms, chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, cauliflower greens– in butter and/or oil in a cast iron skillet. Add a few tablespoons of flour and seasonings (salt, pepper, rosemary or thyme) and then add enough broth (chicken or vegetarian) to make a nice “gravy” for your pie. Add cooked chicken or leave it out for a vegetarian version. The sauce should be a little thinner than you want it as it’ll thicken in the oven. You can top with a biscuit dough, as I did here (Mark Bittman’s biscuit topping works well) or with a typical pie crust.


Or, for the easiest method, do as I did recently and use puff pastry (buy it frozen and thaw it). Lay a circle of puff pastry over your filling, and cut a few slits for the steam to escape.

For any of these toppings, bake at 400 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the biscuits or other crust is golden.

The pot pie is a little more ambitious than my usual comfort nourishment though. I gravitate toward the simplest form of cooking. Faithful readers of this blog (thank you!) know that I love SOUP, especially in fall and winter, when my go-to supper is soup and bread (or toast, popovers, cornbread, etc.).

Indeed I have a long family history with soup, one part of which I wrote about in my latest sketchbook:


In just the last few weeks, I’ve run through a lot of my soup favorites: lentil with spinach and lemon, parsley-potato; chicken soup with matzo balls, red lentil soup; and of course, minestrone.

My latest soup creation is another lentil soup, this time with lots of carrots to brighten its color, and some seasoning to perk up the flavors. I adapted it from a recipe by British food writer Diane Henry for “Turkish carrots and lentils with herbs” in the book Plenty (no, not the Ottolenghi Plenty).

Henry’s recipe is more a side dish with fewer lentils and no real broth; I doubled the lentils and added more water for a soup-ier version. She suggests fresh mint, parsley or dill for the herbs — I chose to use cilantro (but I do want to try the mint version sometime.) Henry also adds 2 teaspoons of sugar, but I left it out; it didn’t seem to need it. The coriander seeds and red pepper, along with the lemon and herbs give it a bright and lively flavor.


This first serving was more stew-like; when I heated it up the next day, I added more water to make it more of a soup. Really good either way.

Carrot-lentil soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1/4 – 1/2 dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup lentils
  • 6 large carrots, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste (or you can use tomato puree)
  • 4 or 5 cups vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped cilantro
  • lemon juice
  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan and saute’ the onion until soft. Add garlic and spices and cook for two minutes. Then add everything else except the cilantro and lemon juice.
  2.  Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Add more water or broth as you like — it can be more of a lentil stew or a soup.
  3. Adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. If desired, add a glug of olive oil to the soup (I don’t but you might want to).
  4. Ladle into bowls, adding a generous squeeze of lemon juice and a good sprinkle of cilantro into each bowl.

I love Diane Henry’s concise description: “This shows just how delicious frugality can be.” And comforting too.



Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, supper time, vegetables, winter

Fresh from the pantry (almost)


Red lentils are also called Egyptian or Mansoor lentils

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.


When cooking any kind of lentils, don’t forget the lemon

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.

RedLentil soup




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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, spring, vegetables, winter

Soup season

Red pepper and onion soup, Luna Cafe, Summerland, Calif.

We’re in the thick of what I like to think of as soup season.

Of course, you can eat soup any time of the year–perhaps eating cold soups in the summer, or, as my father liked to do, eating hot soup as a first course for lunch or supper no matter what the weather. In my mother’s senior residence, they serve soup at every meal except breakfast — there are a lot of German-born folks who want soup all year round.

But I think the real heart of soup season, the time when soup stars as main and most appreciated course, is that extended wintry period between November and March, when the weather is cold, gloomy, stormy, snowy, rainy, foggy, cloudy, chilly. Then a hearty soup warms and soothes you like nothing else.

In late December, just before the record rainstorm hit Southern California, Steve and I had the pleasure of visiting Anna Thomas (of Vegetarian Epicure fame) in her home in Ojai. Anna’s most recent cookbook, Love Soup, won the prestigious James Beard award for “healthy focus.”

We ate some persimmons for dessert

Anna had a welcoming pot of green soup for us on the stove (which was decorated with a row of ripe persimmons).  We ate bowls of the lovely green soup (it had kale and white yams, onions and I’m not sure what else), topped with a drizzle of olive oil, some toasted pumpkin seeds and crumbles of feta cheese. Along with some multigrain bread, it was just the kind of meal we love. And we had slices of those persimmons for dessert.

In Love Soup, Anna writes about how she first devised green soup–a puree of kale, cilantro, potato and sauteed onions and garlic–in order to lose some holiday pounds one January. She soon was experimenting with all kinds of varieties–adding sauteed mushrooms, substituting yams for potatoes, using spinach or watercress or beet greens for the greens–and inviting friends over to share her discovery.

“I lost my holiday pounds, but the green soup became my steady,” she writes. “I’ve probably made forty or fifty different green soups over the past ten years. It’s a way of life now.”

I think of Anna Thomas as The Queen of Green.

For me, soup season includes my favorite version of green soup (parsley and potato, a recipe that my friend Peggy gave me years ago), as well as an earthy mushroom-barley soup, a velvety butternut squash soup, a sweet-and-sour cabbage-beet borscht, and many, many pots of that infinitely adaptable standby, minestrone….otherwise known as vegetable soup.

Sometimes I even open a cookbook and try something new. When I was testing out lemon recipes, I looked in Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and tried the recipe for a Lebanese soup called Shorbet Adds bil Hamud, or “Lemony Spinach and Brown Lentil Soup.”  It was so good that it’s become a regular part of my repertoire. The greens brighten up the brown lentils and plenty of lemon juice gives a fresh lively flavor–a great combination.

Plus it’s simple to make. And fast — the lentils and diced potatoes cook in under half an hour, and you toss in the greens and have a nice nutritious and tasty bowl of soup ready before you know it.

Quick, uncomplicated, healthy, good-tasting. What else could you ask for in a soup? Oh, yes, it’s vegan as well.

Lebanese lentil soup with spinach and lemon

Lemony Lentil Soup

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup large brown or green lentils, washed
  • 2 medium potatoes, diced
  • 2 quarts water or stock
  • 1 pound fresh spinach or frozen leaf spinach, defrosted
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • Salt and pepper
  • Juice of 1 ½ medium lemons, or more, to taste

In a large pan, sauté the onions until soft and golden. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to color. Add the lentils and potatoes, and the water or stock and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.

If using fresh spinach, wash the leaves and put them in a pan with the lid on—and only the water that clings to them—over low heat until the leaves collapse into a soft mass. Cut the cooked fresh or defrosted frozen spinach into thin ribbons. (Toby’s note: I just cut fresh spinach into shreds and toss it into the hot soup. Don’t cook too long or you’ll lose the bright green color.)

Add the spinach and cilantro to the soup and season with salt and pepper (another note: I sometimes also stir in some cumin). Stir well and add water, if necessary, if you wish a lighter consistency.

Cook a few minutes more and add lemons to taste (it should be nice and tangy) before serving.

Variation: For an alternative flavoring, fry 4 or 5 crushed garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with 2 teaspoons ground coriander until the aroma rises. Stir this sauce, called takelya, into the soup just before serving.

Don't forget the lemon--it's essential!


Filed under fall, soup, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter