Tuesday, January 20, 2009

City Kitchen Chronicles: Lentil Soup and Righting Wrongs

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

About nine-tenths of the way through making this recipe, I was despairing. Rather than the delicious soup that I nearly lived on last winter, I was stirring a pot of tomato paste-flavored lentils. It was pretty gross.

What had gone wrong? This was already a day of things-going-wrong, a general wrong-side-of-the-bedness, but I’d hoped that returning to a favorite, healthy recipe would pull me out of the funk, not sink me deeper. I wondered if the crushed tomatoes the recipe called for were too pasty, if I’d previously made it (incorrectly, but fortuitously) with diced. I’d followed the recipe to the letter, plus the secret ingredient I remembered stumbling upon last year. So what was wrong? What a waste of food! Waaah!

Then it popped into my head, the second secret ingredient I’d used before, and I added it, and holy moly, there we were.

Turns out I was despairing at the nine-tenths mark because I thought I was done, and I was wrong.

I don’t know how this recipe can be thought to work as written. It comes from the usually-genius 101 Cookbooks, but without these two additions, it tastes like tomato paste and lentils. That’s not a good combination. Using fire-roasted tomatoes helps, when you’ve got a few extra cents to spare, but even still. Without the additions I not pledge never to forget, I don’t get it.

I don’t mean to be ramping up some anticipation for my announcement of these amazing secret ingredients or anything, but:

Balsamic vinegar and cumin.

That’s what they are. They turn this soup into a sweet, savory, complex, earth-shakingly delicious bowl. And it’s already super-healthy, full of fiber and vegetables and good lentily protein.

And as long as you don’t get yourself down mid-recipe, this soup will turn your day around.

A couple of notes, other than DON’T FORGET THE CUMIN – I used chard, and rather than discarding the veins and stalks, chopped them up and added them to the soup. Why waste perfectly good veggie parts? Also, the recipe calls for 1 big can of crushed tomatoes, but I think it’d be good, maybe better, with 1 small can crushed and 1 small can diced – I miss tomato chunks. Fire-roasted if you’ve got ‘em. And my chard was hella expensive, so unless you decide to buy greens at Whole Foods, your cost will likely be less.

Make-Your-Day-Better Lentil Soup
Serves 6
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks.

2 cups black beluga lentils (or green French lentils), picked over and rinsed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 cups water
3 cups of a big leafy green (chard, kale, etc), rinsed well, deveined, finely chopped (stalks, too)
3 T Balsamic vinegar (or to taste)
1 t cumin (or to taste)

1) To a medium pot or Dutch oven, add 6 cups water. Boil. Add lentils. Cook until tender, around 20 minutes or so. Drain and walk away.

2) While the lentils are boiling, get out a large pot or Dutch oven. Heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and salt. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, until onions are a little soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. 

3) If you’re using your greens’ stalks (and do, especially with chard!), add them and sauté a couple more minutes.

4) Add tomatoes, lentils, and 2 cups water. Cook until soup is simmering again.

5) Add vinegar and cumin. Stir.

6) Add chopped greens/chard. Stir. Cook 1 minute. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
282.5 calories, 3.6 g fat, $1.18

2 cups lentils: 1200 calories, 8 g fat, $1.50
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil: 139 calories, 13 g fat, $0.12
1 large onion: 45 calories, 0 g fat, $0.25
1 teaspoon salt: 0 calories, 0 g fat, $0.01
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes: 151 calories, 0.8 g fat, $1.59
2 cups water: free!
3 cups chard: 130 calories, 0 g fat $2.99
3 T Balsamic vinegar: 30 calories, 0 g fat, $0.30
1 t cumin: 0 calories, 0 g fat, $0.30
TOTAL: 1695 calories, 21.8 g fat, $7.06
PER SERVING (TOTAL/6): 282.5 calories, 3.6 g fat, $1.18

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Anonymous said...

I had exactly the same relevation re: lentil soup a couple years ago--cumin and balsamic vinegar! I also don't use much or any tomato in mine, just my preference.

Jaime said...

Anon, that's hilarious! I've also found that some balsamic vinegar does great things to chili.

djh said...

this was the first time i've ever cooked with lentils or chard. turned out very well and i have 3 big servings left over. its going to make some great lunches.

Erik said...

You are so right about the cumin! I find that I grab the cumin whenever I cook with beans or lentils (although not split peas). I use it so much that I buy it in bulk. Depending on where you live, if you shop for spices in the "ethnic" aisle you can often find really good spice buys instead of the $4 mini-bottles in the spice aisle.
Here in B.C. we have a large population of people from India, and they cook regularly with a lot of spice. They are a very cost-conscious people, so anyone selling spices has to offer large packages for low price if they want to stay in the game.
Hopefully it is the same where you are. :)
Garlic is another favorite addition of mine, but it is not as important as cumin to be sure.
As for balsamic vinegar, I had heard that the acidity prevents the lentils from becoming soft; I assume you add it at the end?

Chocoholic said...

Mmmm, looks tasty. I love cumin. I've added balsamic vinegar to tomato sauce before when I found it had too much of a canned tomato taste. It's great for helping that.

I just wish I still had chard left and hadn't used it all for another 101 Cookbooks recipe. :)

Jaime said...

Erik, I do add the vinegar at the end - the lentils are actually cooked separately, in plain water, and then mixed in with the soup ingredients, so there isn't much cooking with everything together, just enough to get things hot and wilt the chard.

Burp and Slurp~! said...

can I use soy sauce instead of the balsamic, and garam marsala instead of the cumin?

Jaime said...

Hey Burp and Slurp. Both of those ingredients would turn this into a very different soup. I think the garam masala would be interesting, but switch to soy sauce with caution - balsamic vinegar is sweet and acidic, while soy sauce is salty and umami. I don't think the soup needs any salt, and for me, the magic of the vinegar is the acidity and its particular sweetness. Aside from adding unnecessary saltiness, I don't know if soy sauce would go well with the other flavors in the soup - it might be better, then, to work on an Asian-inspired lentil soup.

Marie said...

Does anyone know where I should look to buy black beluga lentils? I figured if anyone would have them, Whole Foods would, but nope. Did manage to get the green French lentils there instead. I saw the black belugas online, but they're expensive that way.

I'm in NE Ohio, if that matters... not the most healthy eating part of the country...

And in general, where (types of places) are good places to buy dried beans cheap?