Happy New Year! Let us hope that 2017 is less terrible than 2016.
Lentil soup is one of the oldest Jewish dishes – it is probably the “pottage” mentioned during the story of Esau and Jacob in Genesis, and we have recipes from ancient Greece that may date back as far as the second millennium BCE. It has remained a “classic” – and one that I was recently asked to make.
The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Lentil Soup with Leeks and Split Peas
Vaguely based on the recipe of Esther Katz
2 medium-sized leeks, washed, diced, and washed again
2 tablespoons table salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon za’atar
1 teaspoon fenugreek (dried seeds or ground)
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon vinegar (rice wine or apple cider should do)
13oz/370g canned diced tomatoes (about one medium-sized can)
1 large turnip, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups vegetable stock (you can use water)
2 cups dried green or brown lentils
1/3 cup dried split peas
1 cup rice (sweet brown or another short-grain rice is best)
1 tbsp rosemary, chopped if fresh
2-3 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
8-10 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated cheese for garnish (optional)
- In a large, deep soup pot, sauté the leeks in olive oil until they begin to wilt and soften, about two minutes.
- Add the salt, pepper, sugar, paprika, thyme, sumac, za’atar, fenugreek, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for another minute or until the leeks are uniformly soft.
- Add the vinegar and stir in thoroughly. Then, add the tomatoes and stir in thoroughly. Cook for another minute, stirring throughout.
- Add the turnip and garlic and mix in thoroughly with the tomato mixture. Then, add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil.
- Add the lentils, split peas, and 8-10 cups water. Mix in thoroughly, then bring to a boil.
- Simmer for 45 minutes, or until the lentils are thoroughly cooked and the water has reduced slightly. The turnips should also be soft to the fork or tooth.
- Stir in the rice and the rosemary and another cup of water. Simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft. The soup should be quite thick.
- Turn off the flame and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then, serve hot with salt and pepper to taste. You can add a bit of grated cheese. The soup tastes best on the second day.
Thank you to Jay Stanton and Julia Clemons for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.