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Eric Akis: Getting to the pulse of lentil soup

I was driving in rural Saskatchewan in the summer a few years ago and pulled into a rest stop to stretch my legs.
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The hearty Country-style Lentil and Vegetable Soup is flavoured with Italian seasoning. Eric Akis

I was driving in rural Saskatchewan in the summer a few years ago and pulled into a rest stop to stretch my legs. It was beside a farmer’s field filled with row upon row of not overly tall green leafy plants that went on for as far as the eye could see.

At first I wasn’t sure what they were, obviously not wheat or barley. But when I looked closer and saw small pods on the plants, I knew they were lentils.

Seeds form inside those pods, where they ripen and are allowed to dry naturally in the field before being harvested. At that point they are type of pulse — the dried edible seed of a legume.

Lentils only started to be grown in Canada in the 1970s, and it turned out to be a very good idea. Fast-forward to 2021, thanks to ever-growing domestic and international demand for them, Canada is now the world’s leading producer and exporter of lentils, with ­Saskatchewan providing the vast majority of them.

That demand is not really a surprise because, simply put, the world loves lentils. They’ve been eaten in places such as India or other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe for eons.

They’ve also become very popular in Canada and cost, culinary flexibility and nutrition are reasons why.

Lentils are low in calories, fat and cholesterol, rich in protein and fibre, and are a good source of folate, potassium, iron and other good things. Lentils are also budget-friendly and can be used in myriad dishes, such as salads, stews, casseroles, curries and baked goods.

Another advantage of using dried lentils is that they do not need to be pre-soaked before using them as you might a dried bean. Before cooking, simply rinse in cold water, drain well and pick out and discard any debris or damaged lentils.

In my recipe, I simmered dried green lentils in a hearty country-style soup rich with a generous mix of vegetables. It will make a nice dinner or lunch when served with slices of good whole grain bread.

If you’ve bought more lentils than you needed for a recipe, store them in a tight-sealing jar or other airtight container in a cool, dry place. You can keep them a year or even longer, but take note that the longer they are stored, the drier they become, which in turn increases cooking time. If they take ­forever to cook, you know they’ve been around too long.

Note: For in-depth nutrition information about lentils and many other recipes using them, visit the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers funded website, lentils.org.

Country-style Lentil and Vegetable Soup

Hearty soup rich with nutritious lentils, several types of vegetables and an Italian-style herb blend. Any leftover soup will freeze well, to later thaw and enjoy at another time.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cook time: about 40 minutes

Makes: six servings

3/4 cup dried green lentils

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 cup diced onion (see Note 1)

1/2 cup diced carrot

1/2 cup diced celery

1/2 cup diced parsnip

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 Tbsp tomato paste

1 or 2 tsp Italian seasoning (see Note 2)

• pinch red pepper flakes

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 ripe beefsteak tomato, diced

1 cup diced green cabbage

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 bay leaf

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Wash lentils in cold water, and then drain well. Examine lentils and discard any discoloured or damaged ones.

Place oil in a medium to large pot set over medium, medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery and parsnip and cook until softened, about five minutes. Mix in garlic, tomato paste, Italian seasoning and pepper flakes and cook and stir one ­minute more.

Add lentils, stock, diced tomato, cabbage, vinegar and bay leaf to the pot and bring soup to a gentle simmer. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer the soup 25 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Skim off any foam rising up from the soup as it cooks.

When ready, taste the soup and season with salt and pepper, swirl in the parsley, and serve.

Note 1: Diced in this recipe means to cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes.

Note 2: Italian seasoning is an Italian-style herb blend sold at most large supermarkets in the bottled herb and spice aisle. If you want to make your own, in a bowl, combine 1 Tbsp dried oregano, 2 tsp each dried basil and thyme, 1 tsp dried sage and 1/2 tsp dried rosemary. Use what you need for the recipe; save the rest of another time.

eakis@timescolonist.com

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