Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spicy Red Lentil

Lentils scented with aromatic cumin and flavored with tangy lemon and garlic, garnished with golden crisp sautéed onions and a little cilantro: a mid-eastern style lentil soup that is both delicious and attractive, and best of all, quite quick and easy and to prepare. Since the soup is water based, no special broths are needed. And the ingredients, except the cilantro, are all pretty much kitchen staples.

I’ve adapted this recipe fusing approaches from several Middle Eastern style lentil soups. The spiciness is most common with the soup flavorings of the Gulf states or North Africa, while the red lentils are more Egyptian. Another recipe on this site, Lebanese Style Lentil Soup, has a much milder flavoring. I’ve come to love these middle eastern lentil soups, and for this I owe thanks to David Scott, author of Recipes for and Arabian Night (Pantheon 1983). His was the first cookbook of Arab recipes I acquired, and I’ve made many of his recipes my own through years of repeating and experimenting.

The Ingredients
1 cup red lentils
5 cups water
1 onion, sliced thin
4 Tbsp Olive Oil, or other good quality oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach or 8 oz. pkge frozen leaf spinach
juice of 1 large lemon, and quarters to server
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt and pepper
¼ cup loosely chopped cilantro leaves (also called coriander)

Notes on the ingredients
Frozen spinach works as well as fresh, but completely thaw the spinach and squeeze out as much of water as possible. Otherwise the spinach will turn to mush when you sauté it with the garlic!

Slicing the onion: Not easy without a high end slicer, or professional experience. But, you will find the onion is much easier to handle if you cut in half from the root to the stem end (vertically). With the cut side down, you can slice thin with greater control.

Getting Started
The lentils cook quite quickly, so it is important to have all other ingredients fully prepped or started. The onions take a good 15 or 20 minutes to simmer and caramelize, so they should go first. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, then add the sliced onions and allow to simmer over medium low heat, stirring as needed to prevent uneven cooking.

The spinach leaves, if fresh, should be thoroughly washed, stems removed, and if large, sliced horizontally in two inch ribbons. Baby spinach doesn’t seem to work as well, but sometimes its the only fresh available. If frozen, thaw in the microwave and remove as much water as you can, as in the above note.

Bring the lentils to boil in the five cups of water, cover and reduce heat. Allow the lentils to simmer for no more than 20 minutes.

Heat the remaining oil in a skillet type pan to medium, add the garlic and gently sauté until it begins to soften (not color). Add the spinach, stirring to coat evenly until all wilted. Set aside until lentils are ready. Next, check the onions – they are done once they have reached a golden crispness. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Assembling the Soup

When lentils are cooked, add the cumin, salt and either cayenne or freshly ground pepper. Swirl in the spinach and let the soup simmer for a good five minutes to blend the flavors. Just before serving and off the heat, swirl in the lemon juice. Serve, garnishing each plate coriander leaves, caramelized onions and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Lots of pita, lightly sprinkled with water and warmed to a gently crisp in the oven is great with the soup. Homemade hummus makes the meal divine.

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