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Eric Akis: Easy lentil soup has hit of spice and lemon

This Middle-Eastern style dish uses simple ingredients — some of which you might already have on hand.
Middle Eastern-style lentil soup enhanced with onion, carrots, garlic, spice and lemon. ERIC AKIS

If you keep dried red split lentils in your pantry, by adding a few other ingredients, some of which you might already have on hand, you can simmer up a nutritious soup with minimal preparation.

That’s exactly what I found when making today’s recipe for Middle Eastern-style lentil soup with spice and lemon. The preparation part of the recipe, beyond measuring some of the ingredients, is chopping the onions, garlic, herbs and walnuts, grating the carrot and lemon zest, and squeezing the lemon juice you’ll need for the soup.

Once that’s done, to make the soup you sauté the onions and carrots in olive oil until softened. You then mix the garlic and lemon zest, some tomato paste, and a mix of spices, including ground cumin, coriander and cayenne pepper, and then cook them a short while.

The next step is to add the lemon juice, along with some broth and dried red split lentils.

The soup is then simmered until the lentils are tender, and then half of the soup is puréed until smooth. The puréed soup is then mixed back into the soup that was not puréed, resulting in a soup that has a smooth, yet rustic texture because there are still bits of cooked lentils in it.

After you season the soup with salt and pepper, it’s ladled into serving bowls and dressed with some cilantro (or mint or parsley), a drizzle of olive oil and, if desired, some chopped, toasted walnuts. The result is a flavourful soup with a nice hit of spice and lemon.

You could serve the soup with wedges of pita bread or babari. The latter is a Persian-style flatbread made in B.C. by companies such as Saman Bakery that is sold at some local delis and food stores. And, if desired, to make a two-course dinner, you could serve a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean-style salad before the soup. Perhaps salad greens topped with orange segments, olives, red onion and crumbled feta cheese, seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, all drizzled with a simple dressing made with orange juice, wine vinegar and olive oil, to taste.

About lentils

Lentils are a type of pulse, the dried edible seed of a legume. Before cooking them, you do not need to pre-soak them as you might a dried bean. Simply rinse in cold water and drain well, pick out any debris or damaged lentils, and they are ready to use.

When the word “split” is used to describe a lentil, such as the dried red split lentil used in today’s soup recipe, it means that the seed coat around the lentil has been removed and the inner part of the lentil has been split in half. Because of this treatment, split lentils cook faster than whole lentils.

Dried lentils should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. You can store them a year or even longer. However, the longer they are stored, the drier they become, which in turn increases cooking time. If they take forever to cook and become tender, you know they have been stored too long or were stored improperly, either at your home, or at the store.

While eating lentils, take heart in the fact that they are low in calories, fat and cholesterol and, among many other good things, are a good source of protein, folic acid, fibre, potassium and iron.

Middle Eastern-style Lentil Soup with Spice and Lemon

Nutritious lentil soup with Middle Eastern-style flavours, including a mix of spices, lemon and garlic.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes

Makes: four servings

2 Tbsp olive oil, plus some for drizzling

1 cup finely diced onion (about one small to medium onion)

1/2 cup grated carrot

1 to 2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 Tbsp tomato paste

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper (see Note 1)

1 tsp finely grated fresh lemon zest

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, plus more if needed

1/2 cup water

1 1/4 cups dried red spilt lentils (I used Dan-D-Pak brand)

2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• chopped fresh cilantro, mint or parsley, to taste

3 Tbsp toasted walnut pieces, coarsely chopped (optional: see Note 2)

Place oil in a pot and set over medium, medium-high heat (my pot was eight inches wide and four inches tall). Add the onion and carrot and cook until softened, about four minutes. Mix in garlic, tomato paste, cumin, coriander, cayenne and lemon zest and cook one minute more.

Add the broth, water, lentils and lemon juice to the pot and bring to a gentle simmer. Reduce heat, as needed, to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer soup 20 to 25 minutes, or until lentils are tender.

Remove soup from the heat. Scoop two cups of the soup out of the pot and into a bowl. Blend the soup left in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender until it’s smooth. Now mix the 2 cups of soup you scooped out of the pot into the blended soup in the pot.

Or, if you don’t have an immersion blender, scoop two cups of the soup out of the pot and into a blender or food processor. Blend that soup until it’s smooth. Now mix the blended soup into the pot with the unblended soup.

Set the soup back over the heat and return to a simmer. Thin it with a bit more stock, if you find it too thick. Season the soup with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into serving bowls, sprinkle with chopped cilantro (or mint or parsley) and chopped walnuts, if using. Now drizzle each serving of soup with a little olive oil, and then serve.

Note 1: 1/4 tsp of ground cayenne pepper will give the soup a medium level of spiciness. If you desire less than that, add only 1/8 tsp.

Note 2: To toast the walnuts, place them in a skillet and set over medium heat. Heat and stir walnuts a few minutes, until lightly toasted.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.