When I learned to cook, my first challenge was to make a five-gallon pot of lentil soup. Yes, you heard that right, five gallons!
I still laugh when I remember standing over a giant pot on a giant restaurant stove adding one pinch of salt at a time when a quarter of a cup or so would have been closer to the mark. That lentil soup became a vegetarian staple in our restaurant.
Since then, I’ve tweaked it with changes to make it even more flavorful. Carrots and celery added to the mix, along with caramelized onions and tomato paste, bring forth an even tastier bowl, which vegetarians and carnivores alike can relish with gusto.
To top it off, I stir in some slivered kale at the end to make a healthy, comforting soup that everyone can enjoy.
I don’t make five gallons anymore, but I still like to make a big pot of this soup and then tuck some away in the freezer for a cold or rainy night.
It will keep for up to 6 months. It’s like money in the bank for those dreary fall and winter afternoons when I haven’t shopped and have no intention of doing so.
WHAT ARE LENTILS?
They are small legumes and range in color from brown to green, red to yellow, and sometimes even black. Along with beans, peanuts, and peas, lentils grow in pods. They’re high in protein and delicious in soups, stews and on their own in vegetarian and spicy Indian dishes, most famously, dal.
Which Lentils Are Best for Lentil Soup?
I chose French green lentils, also known as le Puy, grown in a region of central France, for this recipe. They are small and dark—almost purple in appearance—and hold their shape during cooking. They also take longer to cook than other varieties.
If you can’t find French lentils, you can substitute almost any other variety. You will need to adjust the water and cooking time to achieve the consistency you want, but this is an ‘eyeball it’ situation—it’s not hard!
Green lentils are my first substitution choice. They are large and flat, and stay fairly firm when cooked. Just cook the soup long enough to soften the lentils—check it every 10 minutes or so after the 20-minute mark.
Brown, yellow, and red lentils are a good next choice. They tend to cook quickly and don’t hold their shape particularly well. If you substitute Puy lentils with any of these, watch them closely as they can easily turn to mush, and you want some shape and texture for this soup.
HOW TO PREP LENTILS FOR COOKING
If you buy lentils from a store bin, it’s a good idea to spread them out on a tray and pick over them and discard any little stones or bits of dirt that could be present. If they seem dusty, rinse them in a colander. Packaged lentils are less likely to contain impurities, but there’s no downside to checking them before cooking.
You don’t need to soak lentils before cooking, but depending on the variety, they can take anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes to soften when simmered in liquid. They absorb their cooking liquid, and many varieties double in size when cooked.
BEST FLAVOR BOOSTERS FOR VEGETARIAN SOUP
The best way to create depth of flavor for this vegetarian soup is to caramelize the onions, toast the tomato paste and add loads of carrots and celery.
- Caramelizing onions is simply a process of browning them slowly in the pan. They eventually shrink and become a little sticky and the sugar in the onions becomes more pronounced. If the bottom of the pan browns before the onions are soft, add water, a tablespoon at a time to scrape up the brown bits—it soon evaporates and helps color and flavor the onions.
- Toasting tomato paste in the pot is another trick to add intense flavor. It just takes a few minutes of stirring until it turns dark and ruddy.
- The final trick is to add plenty of carrots and celery. They are the supporting actors and essentially provide the same amount of flavor as vegetable stock would.
YOUR FOOD PROCESSOR IS A TIME SAVER
Pulse the onions in a food processor until they are finely diced. Once you start cooking them, place chunks of carrots, celery, and garlic in the food processor and pulse them together into small pieces.
WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVERS
Consider freezing the soup in small one-portion containers so you can pull it out at will, and use for mid-week lunches. It will keep for up to six months in the freezer.