By Angela Denstad Stigeler
If Ash Wednesday brings to mind modest soup suppers that warm body and soul, you might want to add this one to your repertoire. Even if you’re not in the habit of fasting or abstaining from meat, this red lentil soup is a tasty winter warmer with an impressive balance of nutrition. The lentils and brown rice combine to form a complete protein with very little fat, lots of cholesterol-fighting fiber and B vitamins to help boost your mood during the long wait for spring. Smokey paprika and a little heat are also the perfect flavors to chase away the winter chills or any other ills that may be lingering.
Red lentils are preferred for this soup. Since their outer husks have been removed, they cook quickly and break down easily to thicken the broth. They also contribute to the lovely color, along with the tomatoes and spices. If you don’t have red lentils, you can make a similar version with brown lentils or split peas, though you’ll find the red lentils worth seeking. In this soup, they offer a simple, frugal cure-all for any little season-of-Lent ills you might endure.
Red Lentil Soup
2 cups red lentils
1/4 cup long-grain brown rice
2 slices sandwich bread
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup onions, finely chopped
2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup finely diced canned tomato
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
9 cups chicken or vegetable stock or water
Salt to taste
plain yogurt or sour cream for serving
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped mint or cilantro
Place the lentils and rice in a sieve, rinse well and allow to drain. Meanwhile, dice the bread into ¼-inch cubes. Heat a tablespoon of the oil in a heavy four-quart saucepan. Add the bread cubes and toast, stirring constantly, until golden. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
Wipe out any burnt crumbs from the pan and add the remaining oil. Add the onion and sauté until soft but not brown. Stir in the tomato paste, tomato, paprika and cayenne pepper and let cook until darkened and fragrant. Add the lentils, rice and stock, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes stirring occasionally, until the rice is cooked and the lentils have nearly dissolved into a puree. Add salt to taste. If the soup is too thick, add a little water.
Ladle the soup into bowls and place a dollop of yogurt in the center. Top with the toasted bread cubes and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Serve with lemon wedges on the side.