February 08, 2012

letting go of first impressions

my introduction to lentils was not a good one. it was in middle school cooking class, mrs. coil was our teacher's name. this was a woman who was rumored to have never had sex with her shop teacher husband, and who also thought it appropriate to tell 12 yr olds "if you get your stomach wet while washing the dishes, it means you're going to marry a drunk". what?! perhaps it should not be surprising then, that this woman also thought a group of pre-teens from indiana would like brown lentils. the lentils in and of themselves were probably a bad enough idea, but a lentil soup, devoid of any flavor or spices, with a plain water broth, and a negligible amount of salt- that was a real mistake. how could something so exotic be soooooo boring? this soup was bland enough to turn off even a seasoned lover of lentils.

unfortunately, sometimes first impressions do last, and i spent at least the next ten years avoiding this fine legume, believing i could get more satisfaction from a bowl of water with a few clumps of dirt stirred up in it. i dont remember when i bravely ventured into the lentil world again, but needless to say, it was a much more positive experience. which is fantastic, because not only are lentils versatile and tasty, they come in all different size and color options, and they are quite healthy - high in fiber, protein, B vitamins and iron.

since being reintroduced to lentils, i have enjoyed them on numerous occasions, prepared myriad ways. i am sad to report however, that as far as the standard brown lentils of my 6th grade cooking class go, i still have had only mild to moderate success in preparing them in a way that i find worthy of doing again. ive enjoyed them in dishes others have made, but when i cook them, i still always find them somewhat bland. on the contrary, i have had excellent results with red lentils (which are really more pink). the recipe i typically make with them is one of my favorites when it comes to soup, and ive been making it for years. i dont even recall exactly where the inspiration came from; it may be a loose, dare i say, better, version of a recipe from one the first vegetarian cookbooks i acquired long ago. Anyway, wherever the idea came from, its here to stay.

red lentil coconut curry soup


oil (olive, sesame or coconut)
carrot, thinly sliced
onion, diced
red bell pepper, diced or thinly sliced
green bell pepper, diced (about half as much as red)
15 oz can diced tomatoes with their juices
red lentils
stock or water
one can coconut milk
red curry paste
splash of soy sauce
lemon juice
garlic and fresh ginger, minced
salt to taste
cilantro (optional)
minced hot pepper or red pepper flakes (optional)

yogurt (for garnish)

in oil briefly saute carrots. add peppers and onion. after another minute or two add garlic, ginger and curry paste (and chilis or pepper flakes if using). add lentils and then tomatoes. add the splash of soy sauce and just enough water or stock to cover lentils. bring to a boil and then simmer until lentils are almost done. add more water/stock if needed to keep them submerged. add coconut milk. add salt, lemon juice and cilantro to taste. simmer on low until lentils are very tender and flavors have melded. Serve topped with a dollop of yogurt.

notes: i never measure my lentils, but i think i usually use about half a cup-ish. please refer to my "ajvar" post in march 2010 for a more thorough explanation of why i dont usually include measurements in my recipes.

if you have leftovers the lentils will continue to soak up the liquids overnight, causing the soup to become quite thick. when you reheat it you can water it back down to soup consistency if you like, or enjoy it as is and scoop it up with some warm pita bread.

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