Lentil soup

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Recently I inherited a package of pre-cooked lentils when my sister left for a business trip.  I’m not sure if she thought they’d expire while she was away (they wouldn’t have) or was just taking pity on my family while we conducted a $200/month grocery experiment (read all about it next week!).  Either way, I gratefully accepted them, and then privately scoffed the frivolity of her purchase.  Lentils are so easy and inexpensive to prepare.  Plus, our mom’s lentil salad is one of my sister’s favorites, and I promise you that recipe does not start with pre-cooked lentils.  What could she have been thinking?

I couldn’t imagine buying those little vacuum-sealed packs.  However, they were delicious.  They had been simmered with a variety of herbs that gave them a lovely flavor.  But most importantly they were a wonderful variety (French, I think).  Small, firm, black.  Like vegan caviar.  Okay, maybe that’s a stretch.  But still, they were great.  A little balsamic vinegar and olive oil really made them sing.  The only sour note (aside from my ugly moment of judginess) was that they were a tough act to follow for homely-looking dried brown lentils I had in my pantry.

You see, despite not really loving the brown lentils mom’s recipe calls for, I have continued to buy them.  For years.  It’s not like my mom checks my cupboards, or would be offended if my taste in legumes had evolved over the past several decades.  It’s just one of those things I do because that’s how she does it.  (Mother-daughter relationships sure are complicated, aren’t they?)  But I swore, after eating the little French beauties, that I would never again buy the brown ones.

Sadly, I made this resolution a little too late.  Months earlier I had stocked up on brown lentils (no doubt during a sale – did I think that would make them taste better??).  Last week I had a pound or so left that I didn’t really want to cook or eat.  I had considered using them for some type of percussion instrument for my son.  Pouring them into plastic bottles is a great way to use up dried beans you bought while feeling virtuous at the health food store but later discovered you hate (I’m looking at you, dried soybeans).  But my recent experiments in culinary frugality have me questioning all notions of what I like and do not like to eat.  (Quinoa, anyone?)  So I grabbed my favorite kitchen tool (the iPad), and explored what the internet could offer to redeem these sad specimens.

The answer?  Soup!  It’s perfect for the cooler evenings we’ve been having lately.  I modified the recipe to my taste and was very pleased with the results.  It is quick, flavorful, and cheap.  How cheap, you ask?  It cost me $8.49 to make a huge pot.

You knew there'd be spreadsheets, right?

You knew there’d be spreadsheets, right?

We gorged ourselves, so we got about 8 servings, but it could be stretched to 10 or 12 if you’re more restrained than us.  It’s about a buck a serving (excluding the toppings), using all organic ingredients.  Pretty good.  So good, in fact, that I may even buy some more brown lentils.  I just won’t be making a salad with them.  Sorry, Mom.

Recipe
Time: 20 minutes hands-on, 50 minutes cooking (70 minutes total)
Yield: 14 cups (8-12 servings)

Ingredients
2T olive oil
4 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt & pepper (start with 1/2t of salt and adjust to taste)
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes (or whole peeled)
2 1/4 cups lentils (I used brown), rinsed
2 bay leaves
1t dried thyme
1T bouillon (beef, chicken or vegetable)
7c water (or broth, omitting the bouillon)
½ lb spinach (fresh or frozen)

For serving:
Balsamic vinegar
Grana Padano (or Parmesan) cheese

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Directions
1.  Heat oil in a large soup pot on medium-high.  Once shimmering, add onion, celery and carrot.  Cook until softened (about 10 minutes), stirring occasionally.

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2.  Add garlic, salt and pepper and cook for one more minute.

3.  Add tomatoes (chopped if whole), lentils, bay leaves, thyme, water and bouillon.  Cover and cook about 15 minutes until simmering.  Once simmering, turn heat down to medium-low and cook until lentils are just tender (it will vary a bit with the variety – mine took about 45 minutes).

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4. Add spinach and cook a few more minutes.

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5.  Serve hot, with balsamic vinegar stirred in to taste and Grana Padano (or parmesan) to top.

Freezer tips:  Soups like this freezer really well.  Simply cool it gradually.  Let it come down to room temperature after cooking, then refrigerate.  Once chilled, you can put it in the freezer.  I prefer to freeze in single servings because they thaw faster and are more flexible.  I can send one to work with my husband for lunch or pull out two or three for a family dinner.  Just be sure to clearly label the containers, and eat within a few months.  Don’t wait a year like me.

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