I did not grow up liking lentils or any bean for that matter. I literally forced down green beans and aside from peanuts, never ingested any legumes as far as I know. I have vague memories of pushing away the garbanzo bean salad that the Greek owned diner used to set out as a complimentary appetizer. I turned my nose up at any other bean offering whether at a restaurant or in people’s homes. I know, I can’t believe that I did that either. I clearly did not know what I was missing. Fast forward about 10 years to the late 80′s when I took my first trip abroad to Spain where I remember eating large white beans simply dressed with olive oil and salt and pepper served along side of the Catalonian favorite of garlic and tomato rubbed crusty bread. They were delicious, but apparently not amazing enough for me to try any others once I returned to the USA. I kept up my refusal and ignorance of legumes until the late 90′s when I returned to Spain to visit my former exchange student’s family after a tragic suicide. While attending FIT in NYC, I began exploring food markets and an endless variety of cheap affordable lunch spots varying from Indian to Italian and everywhere inbetween. It was at these places that I discovered that I actually really liked beans and any legume in general. I liked them simply salted as in Japanese edamame, spicy in an Indian dal, richly seasoned as in a hearty portion of lentils under the protein of choice at a Mediterranean restaurant. Then I started becoming very interested in nutrition and started learning about the nutritional profiles of legumes and how they are a great source of protein and vitamins. They also transport well and are cheap; thousands of poor peasents across Europe surviving on rooty veggies and beans fortified with hearty bread were way ahead of their time nutritionally but set the standard to how Americans are learning to feed themselves once again.
So in honor of my European roots and travels, I give you a really simple recipe for a lentil soup that can be thrown together in under an hour. I call it a stew because I make it quite thick. It is also one of the few soups that I do not puree. It is another pantry staple recipe since it consists of items lots of people have on hand such as: bagged lentils, onions, tomato paste or a few chopped up tomatoes, s & p, carrots, and a pepper. You can change up the veggies as much as you like. Additionally, it is a perfect recipe to make since NY doesn’t want to let winter go.
1 tblsp x virg. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 red pepper, diced
2-3 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
1 heaping tblp. tomato paste
1 c. green or brown lentils, rinsed and picked over
approx. 5 c. H2O (with one high quality veggie broth bouillon) or 5 c. high quality low sodium veggie stock (or any other low sodium stock)
1 bunch swiss chard, washed well and chopped into ribbons
salt and pepper to taste
In a large heavy stockpot , (I used the Le Creuset knockoff from the Food Network brand my mom gave me for Christmas this past year) heat oil over medium/high heat (so it shimmers but not smoking). Add the onions and sauté until translucent and starting to color. Add the garlic, carrots, red pepper, 1/2 tsp salt, a few grindings of pepper, and sauté till veggies starting to soften (about 8 minutes). Add tomato paste and stir around. Add rinsed lentils and stock. Bring mixture up to a boil, lower heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 35-40 minutes (until lentils are soft). Check for seasoning and add salt and/or pepper if needed. Turn off heat and add the sliced swiss chard. Stir it around and let it cook into stew.
Serve with rustic crusty whole grain bread. It would also be nice with a dollop of pesto or olive or sundried tomato tapenade. It gets better with age and it would also be nice under or over slow roasted salmon and/or roasted chicken. Enjoy and pray for spring weather!