My friend recently asked me if I was a soup person or a sandwich person. I answered without hesitation: sandwich. Of course sandwich! The ripe tomatoes, the soft avocado, the sharp cheddar. Or Swiss cheese, blue cheese, brie. Spinach, ice-burg lettuce, shredded carrot, lemony hummus. Roast chicken breast, pickled green beans, tapanade, cold ham, creole mustard, green apple, pepperoncini, slivered almonds. And sweet sour sourdough.
Everything is good in some combination on a sandwich.
“Really?!” he said, aghast. “I am definitely a soup person.”
Huh, I thought. Soup.
And then, I was talking to another (vegan) friend about this here blog, and he mentioned that he does a soup night with his friends every Sunday. He makes two kinds of soup and the friends bring their own kinds of soup, and everyone digs in. Dives in. Something clever.
Soup again? Really?
I guess it always seemed to me like soup was soup was soup. Liquid food. Kind of weird. I mean, chicken soup is one thing – it has a greater purpose, a reason for being that transcends the everyday of taste, texture and nutrition. It's comfort food, healing in a bowl. But aside from that, the only soup I'd ever been that crazy about was gazpacho, and that's probably because it's cold. This excites me first because it's different, and I'm always sort of blindly attracted to “different,” and then secondly because it's a summer meal, and summer is my favorite eating season. All of those fresh tomatoes! Basil! Peaches! Etc! To be honest, it could just be that summer is my favorite season period – why else move to Louisiana? - as I don't at all mind sweating in the shade for hours on end with a glass of ice tea and a good novel. And gazpacho fits right into that. It's difficult to eat anything hot in the summer down here, for one because I'm hot, and for another because my kitchen is insanely hot (my one AC unit doesn't quite touch it). Chewing is a lot of work when it's that hot. And gazpacho is tomatoes without the chewing.
But anyway, the point is I've never been that into soup. It's never been something I've cooked much. I don't go out of my way to find interesting soup recipes. So when I accidentally bought five pounds of red lentils to make a particular Indian dal dish – damn those top-loading bulk bins at Whole Foods - I had to figure out what else to do with them, and I turned to my cookbooks.
This is where the plug comes in.
The first and last book I opened was Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. Let me take a minute here to say: this is the best vegetarian cookbook I have ever come across, hands down. Particularly if you like Asian food, because while she goes everywhere from Greece to Morocco to Mexico to Japan, I find her Indian and Southeast Asian dishes fucking phenomenal. Excuse my French. Perhaps I'll write a more thorough review of this book later, but I just wanted to be sure you know where I stand on the matter.
The recipe I decided to try is below with verrrry little variation. There are only a couple of small changes I make to this soup. And the most brilliant thing about it is: it's incredibly easy and takes basically no time at all. That is, it has to cook for about an hour altogether, but you can be off in the other room blogging or whathaveyou, no prob.
Red Lentil Soup with Mustard Seeds and Curry Leaves
3 tbsp peanut or canola oil
1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger; grated to a pulp
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a pulp
1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained
4 cups vegetable stock or water
10-15 fresh curry leaves (use 5* basil leaves as a different substitute)
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 ¼ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp whole brown mustard seeds
*since curry leaves are absolutely not to be found in Baton Rouge, LA, I have always made this soup with basil. I, however, still use 10-15 leaves.
Put 2 tbsp of the oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the ginger and garlic and stir for a minute. Put in the lentils, stock or water and curry leaves and bring to a boil.
Cover partially, turn the heat down to low and cook gently for about 40 min or until the lentils are soft.
Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper to taste and cayenne. Stir and bring to a simmer again.
Cover partially and simmer gently for another 10 min or until the tomatoes have softened.
Note: this is the step I always ignore. I like my soup kind of toothsome, but if you'd rather the uniformity: Press the soup through a sieve; do not forget to collect all of the puree at the bottom of the sieve. Return soup to saucepan.
Put the remaining tbsp of oil in a small frying pan and set over med-high heat. When very hot, put in the mustard seed. As soon as they begin to pop, a matter of seconds, pour the oil and the seeds into the soup. Mix well and reheat if necessary. Serve hot.
A couple small comments: I don't have a good way of mashing my garlic to a pulp so I just smoosh it a little with the side of my knife in the process of peeling it and then chop it into smaller bits. I also tend to use more than the equivalent of 4 cloves and a little more ginger. I also like to make my own broth – usually involving an onion, some garlic, celery, parsley, one hot green chili and a stalk of lemon grass, plus maybe anything else that seems to be on the verge of going bad – and freeze it. I always freeze a 4 cup portion so I'm all set for this soup. That said, I have made it with water, and while I think the depth of flavor is a little lacking, it's totally passable.
This soup is really just incredibly good. The right amount of spicy, and the mustard seeds add a savoriness that isn't present in a lot of vegan dishes. I like to eat it with one of my other favorite food items: homemade sourdough. Which we will discuss shortly.