A few weeks ago, I spotted a recipe for red lentil soup in the Recipes for Health section of the NY Times. I've had an unopened bag of red lentils sitting in my pantry for as long as I can remember - I think I heard or read that they cook faster than green lentils, and the word "fast" was all the motivation I needed to pick some up. But when it came time to actually cook with them, I was at a loss, and they kept getting shoved farther and farther back in the cabinet. This soup recipe seemed like a great way to get them out and front and center.
Only problem is, I forgot to bookmark it, so I had to search for it again when I wanted to make it last night. I googled red lentil soup nytimes and the first result was this recipe, published in the regular food section of the Times almost a year ago. At first I thought it was the same recipe - it had the cumin I remembered, and the onions and garlic, and it was finished with some chopped cilantro (which always sticks in my mind because I know that I'll never make a cilantro-ified recipe the way it's meant to be, because I am one of them). But a few things seemed off. I could have sworn the recipe I originally read had curry powder and mentioned swirling in some yogurt.
After sitting there confused a while longer, I did a more thorough search and realized that there were in fact two different red lentil soup recipes in question, written by two different people, appearing in two different sections of the Times almost a year apart. However, there were some striking similarities. I took this as a good sign, because I imagine the chance of two people reaching the same conclusion (and deciding the conclusion was fit to print) when their soups are in fact kind of crappy has got to be slim. So... which recipe did I follow? Well, both, and neither. I mixed and matched from the two to fit my mood and what I had on hand. Instead of chopped cilantro and lemon or lime juice, I made a sort of gremolata/pesto thing from parsley, raw garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and a little olive oil, and I added it at the end with a dollop of Greek yogurt. The soup tasted a little flat before these additions, but the lemony yogurty tartness turned it into one of the best soups I've ever made. (I realize I haven't posted enough for you to know this, but: I have made some pretty awesome soups.) I got a brand-spankin'-new immersion blender over the holidays, so I blended my soup into oblivion, but it's probably good left chunky too. I was way too blender-happy to find out. My mish-mashed recipe is below.
Red Lentil Soup
serves 3; adapted from two NY Times recipes linked above
1 tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp hot curry powder
pinch of cayenne
salt and pepper
1 small (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes with juice
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup red lentils
For the gremolata/pesto topping:
1/4 cup loosely-packed parsley leaves
1 garlic clove
1 tbs olive oil
knife and cutting board
saucepan or soup pot
blender (immersion or otherwise)
Heat the oil in pot over medium heat and add the onion and carrot. Saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute a minute longer, stirring so the garlic doesn't brown. Then add the tomatoes with their juice and all the spices, including a pinch each of salt and pepper. Let the tomatoes simmer until they begin to break down, 5-10 minutes.
Add the broth and lentils and bring to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Let the soup simmer for 30-40 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft and the lentils begin to fall apart. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste.
While the soup simmers, make the gremolata/pesto topping by finely mincing the parsley and garlic. You could also do this in a food processor, but I didn't want to get mine dirty, and I actually liked the "rustic" (read: uneven) texture I got from chopping by hand. Add a pinch of salt to the parsley and garlic. Zest and juice the lemon half and add a bit of zest and juice to the other ingredients, then stir in 1 tbs of olive oil. It should come together in a paste at this point; if not, add a little more oil. Taste the mixture and add more salt, lemon zest, or lemon juice if you want. Keep in mind that this will get stirred into the soup, where the sharpness of the garlic and the tartness of the lemon will be subdued, so your mixture should have a lot of kick to it.
When the soup is finished, blend it with an immersion blender or in a regular blender in batches (CAREFULLY - I speak as someone who has splattered hot soup all over the kitchen before and it is not fun). It should turn a really pretty orange color. Taste one more time for seasoning, then spoon it into bowls and top each with a dollop of yogurt and a few spoonfuls of the gremolata/pesto mixture. Make sure to swirl it all together before eating!