My mother was always a working woman who never really had too much patience for duties in the home, especially cooking. Having said that, I will say that the few things she did make were absolutely delicious. She had a great teacher in my grandmother who was not only a great cook, but also an extraordinary seamstress who personally made many of the outfits for her three daughters. My grandmother had that uncanny ability to see a dress she liked and then replicate the pattern down to the last detail — a skill I will forever envy.
My grandmother Rosina was one of those talented women who didn’t have much, but learned how to take a few ingredients and create a perfectly delicious meal for her family of six every day. My mother would watch her as she took her time to make certain dishes, diligently adding ingredients to build layers of flavor. One of the dishes my mother learned how to make was this lentil soup.
In those days, if you were using dried beans of any kind you really had to sort through them to make sure they were free of debris that was packaged along with the beans. Packaged beans are a little cleaner these days, but you still really should stay in the habit of looking through the quantity of whatever you have set aside to cook. I still find small stones, dried sheaths and stems of plants and other inedible pieces. I take about 10 minutes each time to run my hand thru the dried lentils and remove what I can see. I then place the lentils in a bowl and give them a good rinse under cold water by agitating the lentils with my hand. In essence, I’m gently scrubbing the lentils to remove any other things that I might have missed. I pour off the water and repeat this process a few times.
Since lentils are so small, most people will add them directly to a pot with some water and cook them slowly without soaking them overnight, but, my mother still insists on soaking hers overnight. In order to stay true to her recipe, I did the same here. After washing them well, fill the bowl with cold water until you have 2″ of water over the lentils, and soak them overnight. You may need to add some more water throughout the day as the lentils begin to absorb the water and swell.
When you start cooking them the next day, it’s all about building flavor as you begin to cook them slowly. My mother begins this process by adding peeled carrot pieces, celery, bay leaves, a whole onion and sliced garlic pieces. All of these ingredients impart such a lovely fragrance and add a lovely flavor to the soup. My mother would make us a huge batch on the weekends and it rarely made it to the next day.
Once the lentils have cooked, she adds a few other ingredients to make a truly irresistible soup. The flavors combine influences of both the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with the added smokiness of the cumin that balances so well with the tanginess of the red wine vinegar.
Once you have tried this, I am sure that you will agree that it is the only lentil soup recipe you will ever need.
Mama Eleni’s Lentil Soup
3 cups dried lentils, cleaned thru & soaked for 4 hours, then cooked with just enough water to cover lentils, about 1-2″
1 medium onion
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled & sliced
2 large peeled carrots, cut coarsely
4 large stalks of celery, cut coarsely
2 bay leaves
1/2 small can of tomato paste (2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon onion powder
1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons dried parsley
2 tablespoons cumin
2 vegetable or chicken bouillon cubes (I used Knorr)
1/2 cup good quality red wine vinegar (NOT balsamic, does not give you the right level of acidity)
S&P to taste
2 thinly sliced garlic cloves sauteed in olive oil**optional
creme fraiche or greek yogurt**optional
chopped crispy bacon**optional
Place the 3 cups of lentils into a large bowl, and use your hands to dig through them by scooping up a palm full of lentils to see if there are any small stones or dried sheaths that need to be removed. I do this for about 10 minutes or so to remove as much as I can.
The water is initially murky as the remaining debris rises to the surface…
Once you have finished looking through the lentils, place the bowl in the sink and fill the bowl half way with some cold water. Agitate the lentils with your hand to clean them, and you might see a few pieces of dried sheaths that you may have missed rise to the surface. Make sure to remove as much as you can.
Fill the bowl with as much cold water as necessary to cover the lentils with about 2″ of water. As the lentils absorb the water, add an additional 2″ of water. Depending on how old the lentil are, you may have to do this a few times. make sure that the lentils are always well covered with water.
See how much they will swell? Just add more water…
The next day, pour the lentils into a fine mesh sieve to pour out the water from overnight, and rinse them again in the sieve (or colander) under some cold water. Put the lentils into a large stock pot and add as much water as necessary to again have 2″ of water over them. Add your peeled and cut the carrots, cut celery, peeled onion, sliced garlic and bay leaves. Let the lentils cool slowly on low heat for about 1 hour until all of the water is absorbed. Try to always keep the whole onion immersed in the liquid until it softens completely.
Once the liquid has been absorbed, remove the large pieces of carrots, celery and onion and discard them. The slices of garlic will have melted into the soup, so don’t worry about them. You can also leave the bay leaves in the large pot of soup, do not serve them up in your bowls because they are inedible. Sometimes, I use a fork to mash up the carrots and then add them back to the soup, but it is completely up to you if you choose to do this.
Now it is time to start adding more flavor to the soup. Add in the tomato paste, broken up pieces of bouillon cubes, onion powder, garlic powder, dried parsley, cumin and red wine vinegar. Stir all of this together and allow the bouillon cubes to dissolve before you adjust for S&P. I usually need to add a good pinch of black pepper and about 1 flat tablespoon of salt, but adjust it as necessary according to your taste.
To serve, top with a dollop of creme fraiche or yogurt, some crumbled crispy bacon or drizzle on some sauteed garlic in olive oil. They are definitely not necessary, but always welcome.
The next day, the lentils will have absorbed whatever remaining liquid remained in the soup. To thin it out, add some extra vegetable or chicken stock (or bouillon cube dissolved in some water), and adjust for flavor again with some additional red wine vinegar, S&P.