Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hot Lentil Soup with Greens: great for cold weather

Despite a delightful January thaw with Atlanta temperatures in the low 70s, it will soon be cold and raw again. That's when soups at our deli, "Donderos' Kitchen", sell well. The reason I'm starting this post tonight is because despite the warm weather the friend I was supposed to have a beer with awoke this morning with fever and a flu-like illness. So much for the warm weather! Soup seems made for cold weather and for when feeling under the weather. But no excuse is needed for good, easily made soup.

This particular one is from the eastern Mediterranean. It's Lebanese, but similar concoctions are made throughout the region. It's amazingly tasty despite containing neither meat nor dairy, and it's even low in fat and calories, economical, and very nourishing. Delicious, nutritious, cheap, healthy, virtuous, and easy -- too good to be true? In this case it is true.

This fine Arab soup fits with the Advent and Lenten traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. (Advent is just past, since the Orthodox Christmas was two days ago.) During those periods meat and dairy products are not permitted. But plenty of Muslims, Jews, and less strict Christians eat this soup too, and at all times of the year. And I might add that in the university city of Athens, Georgia, many or our customers at Donderos' Kitchen happily eat this and other "vegan" soups, sometimes without realizing that there is no meat in them. Part of why this one tastes "meaty" is the cinnamon.

There is an easy "trick" to making this. The American tan-green lentils have a slight "muddy" flavor. I blanch them first -- see the recipe -- to eliminate this muddiness and brighten the flavor, while losing none of the valuable protein or fiber. The recipe serves six with leftovers. In fact it is better made ahead and rewarmed for serving. A little swirl of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of minced parsley on top of the soup when served gives a nice highlight.

Not that soup needs a wine, but if you are having this with a crusty warm bread with olive oil for supper, a medium-bodied dry red would go well, such as a Spanish Rioja, other Spanish Tempranillo or Garnacha wine, an Italian red, or a California Merlot or Syrah.

Lentil Soup with Greens Tim

1 pound dry tan or green lentils
1 large bay leaf
1 large onion
2 large carrots
1 medium stick celery
2 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1-1/2 teaspoons salt plus to taste
3/4 pound fresh or chopped frozen greens (kale, spinach or Swiss chard)
3 tablespoons minced parsley
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Extra olive oil and minced parsley for garnish

Pick over and rinse the lentils. In an uncovered pot bring them to a boil in water several inches above the level of the lentils. Immediately drain (this eliminates the “muddy” flavor of American lentils and does not appreciably reduce the protein value of the soup). Add water to cover the lentils by about 3 inches, and bring them back to a boil. Skim off any foam. Add the bay leaf and simmer until lentils are tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, dice the onion, carrots, and celery, and mince the garlic. Fry these gently in the olive oil until the onion becomes limp and translucent. Add the fried vegetables to the simmering lentils, along with the oregano, cinnamon, pepper, and cayenne. Stir from time to time until the lentils are tender and start to break up (10-20 minutes), skimming off any foam that collects. Add a little water if necessary to keep the mixture from becoming thick. Add 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt, then more as necessary.

Clean the greens, if fresh, and chop coarsely. Add the fresh or frozen (unthawed) greens to the soup once the lentils are tender. Simmer until the greens are tender and lose their bright green color. Taste the soup and add salt as needed. Toward the end of cooking add the minced parsley. The soup is best if made ahead and stored before serving. Reheat, taste and adjust salt. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice. When serving, drizzle the soup with some olive oil and sprinkle on a little minced parsley.

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