On the spur of the moment the other day, I invited a friend and her two young kids for a weeknight supper. I’d planned lentil soup, one of my weeknight standbys, with baby kale from the farmer’s market stirred in. But then my friend told me her daughter “didn’t like much of anything.”
I hesitated. Maybe kale would be a turnoff. And really, lentil soup (which could be described as a lumpy brown slurry), isn’t much to look at. However, I didn’t have time to rethink dinner. So finally, I figured if she wasn’t going to eat my soup anyway, it wouldn’t matter.
I needn’t have worried. Encouraged by our family’s try-two-bites policy, the girl slipped a taste into her mouth. Success! The soup convinced all the kids at the table. In fact, the kale, a nutritional powerhouse, helped build a meaty-tasting, though meatless, broth. I wilted it in a sizzle of garlic, cumin, and olive oil with carrots and celery, which added more flavor and body.
Though I didn’t grow up with lentils, kids all over the world do. Lentils star in one version of the Cinderella story, in which she’s forced to separate the tiny legumes from ashes in the fireplace. In Ethiopia, babies’ first solid food is often a mild purée of yellow lentils, and the brown ones turn up in a mustardy salad spiked with jalapeños. My kids like their earthy flavor in European-style soups like this one, and also in spicier Indian preparations. And lentils are BFFs with lamb, making a perfect side dish for spring roasts.
It’s easy to understand their popularity. In the legume family, lentils are unique. Their protein content is topped only by soybeans (and I challenge you to make good soup with them). Lentils’ nutrients — they’re loaded with fiber and iron — are absorbed more readily when they’ve been soaked overnight. But unlike pintos, kidneys, or chickpeas, even unsoaked they cook up in anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, making them the ideal last-minute meal fix.
This is because of their small size and flattened shape. While you prep this supper, let your kids look at a few of the dried beans, through a magnifying glass, if possible. Give them a quick lesson in etymology: the lens they’re looking through is named after the lentil that its shape suggests.
I’ve been making versions of this soup since long before I had kids. It freezes beautifully and doesn’t require any exotic or expensive ingredients. In fact, everything in it is a staple of a well-stocked pantry. Although you can use onions, skipping them makes prepping this version quick and tearless. And it’s infinitely adaptable. Experiment with seasonings. Do a red lentil, spinach, curry, and cilantro version; or go Italian, subbing thyme for the cumin, adding chopped tomatoes after the lentils soften, and topping it with parmesan.
I owe some of my ideas for this version to Cheryl Stern’s blog, 5 Second Rule (5secondrule.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/10/wheatberry-lentil-soup.html), and to journalist Mark Bittman’s recipe for greens with double garlic.
¼ cup olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
2 carrots, chopped fine
1 bay leaf (optional)
a pinch of chili pepper flakes, to taste
2 teaspoons cumin
½ to 1 lb. young greens, such as baby kale, mustard, arugula, chard, or spinach, washed but not dried; or use a thawed package of frozen greens
2 cups red, brown, or green lentils
salt and pepper
Water or broth
Lemon wedges for serving
Put olive oil into a soup pot over medium heat and, as it warms, add chopped garlic, carrots, and celery. Saute until the vegetables have softened, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf, cumin, and red pepper flakes and stir to blend.
Add damp greens and a good pinch of salt, and toss with oil and vegetables until coated and mostly wilted. Cover and simmer 2-3 minutes, then remove cover and let most of the liquid in the pan cook off. Add lentils and stir to coat them with all the oil and vegetables in the pot, then add water to cover by about 2 inches.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring every few minutes, until the lentils are soft. (This could be as fast as 10-15 minutes for red lentils and 30 for green.) Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a squirt of lemon, either as a stew with flatbread or over rice, couscous, or quinoa; or as soup (add water or broth to thin as needed). Hot sauce is nice, too.