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Published January 13, 2010, 12:00 AM

Doeden: Lentil soup a flavorful, nutrient-rich treat in winter

You may think you have distaste for lentils.

You may think you have distaste for lentils.

That can happen.

But maybe you haven’t had lentils when they are cooked to perfect tenderness and mixed with other flavorful ingredients. And maybe you haven’t had an opportunity to try a few varieties of lentils, brown, green and red, all of a different size.

I was introduced to common brown lentils at an early age. My Hungarian mother made sure we had lentils the first day of every year. In Hungary, coin-shaped lentils are consumed on New Year’s Day to ensure wealth and prosperity throughout the year. Lentils tended to make an appearance more than once on our dinner table during the month of January. I think my mom just wanted to seal the deal.

Although I remember the lentils of my early years tasting a bit like dirt, I’ve developed a fondness for this cousin to beans. Now I describe its flavor as slightly sweet and nutty, and yes, maybe a little earthy, too. When you begin to experiment with a few of the varieties, you will discover some are sweeter than others, some more creamy when cooked, but all quite delicious.

Unlike other members of the legume family, lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking, making their addition to meals a relatively easy way to add rich nutrients and fiber to your diet. Some lentils cook in as little as 10 to 20 minutes.

Lentils came to my mind when I received a copy of “Enlightened Soups” by Camilla V. Saulsbury in my mailbox at about the same time as frigid temperatures and the start of the New Year. Perfect soup weather and the need for a lentil recipe drew me right to the book’s Red Lentil Mulligatawny.

Author Saulsbury explains that the name of this highly seasoned Indian soup means “pepper water.” Although most often made with chicken, this version gets its body from red lentils. Red lentils are small round disks, their color more orange than red.

Red Lentil Mulligatawny is full of healthful ingredients with a minimum of fat and calories. But still delicious. As I prepared the soup, I realized the meaning of the cookbook’s name. Red Lentil Mulligatawny is lightened with reduced fat. Often when preparing soup, I sauté the vegetables in fat before adding the broth. Saulsbury simply simmers the vegetables to tenderness in broth. No fat needed. The author also lightens Red Lentil Mulligatawny by topping each serving with a crunchy mix of apples, red bell pepper and cilantro.

When lentils are eaten with a food high in vitamin C, like red bell peppers, their iron content is absorbed more efficiently by the body. No salt is added to the soup. Instead, a combination of curry, ginger, cumin and cayenne give the soup a whopping kick of flavor. Lentils tend to get tough when they are cooked with salt.

One hot bowl of Red Lentil Mulligatawny warmed me up and filled me up. I was satisfied and content. I ate it for three days. I’m pretty sure that should be enough to guarantee a year filled with wealth and prosperity. And it’s still January. Go for it!


Red Lentil Mulligatawny

1 medium tart-sweet apple, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped, divided use

5 teaspoons fresh lime juice, divided use

3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup dried small red lentils

1 cup chopped onion

1 (14-ounce) can light coconut milk

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 teaspoon mild curry powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine the apple, cilantro, half of the red bell pepper and 3 teaspoons of the lime juice in a small bowl. Cover and chill.

Place the broth, lentils, onion and the remaining bell pepper in a large saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer 20 minutes, until the lentils are very tender.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender until smooth. Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in the coconut milk, tomato paste, curry, ginger, cumin and cayenne. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, to blend flavors. Stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons lime juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve topped with the apple mixture. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition per serving: Calories 280: fat 5.9 g (sat 4.4 g, mono 0.1 g, poly 0.1 g); protein 10.6 g; cholesterol 0 mg; carbohydrate 42.4 g.

Recipe used with permission from “Enlightened Soups,” by Camilla V. Saulsbury, Cumberland House, 2008.

Tips from the cook

  • Store small amounts of lentils or other dried legumes in sealed plastic bags, and place the bags in an airtight container. They'll last for up to a year.
  • When pureeing soup in my blender, I always hold a kitchen towel over the top, just in case some of the hot mixture tries to spray out while the blender is running.


Sue Doeden is a food writer and photographer from Bemidji, Minn., and a former Fargo resident. Her columns are published in 10 Forum Communications newspapers. Readers can reach Doeden at food@forumcomm.com

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