Food Scoop: Lentil soup

It’s been above freezing for a couple days, but it’s still January in Michigan. Winter is the time of year to trot out hot, filling dishes – the kind of dish that does more than fill your tummy. Winter is the time for convivial foods that leave you with a sense of comfort and happiness. For me, the perfect food for that is soup. What’s been on my stove these past couple days is a wonderfully thick rice and lentil soup.

When I was spending time with a new friend, my answer to “What’s your favorite food?” was simply, “Soup. All kinds of soup.” I love minestrone, noodle soups, vegetable soups, fruit soups, hot ‘n’ sour soups, cream soups – the list goes on and on. Growing up, my mother was the master of what we called Kitchen-Sink Soup, because it included everything but the kitchen sink. The chunks of barley, potato and carrot in beef stock and tomato juice were one of the defining flavors of my childhood.

I also loved the salty flavors of Campbell’s soups. Since I started making my own soups, though, I find that depth of flavor is irreplaceable, no matter how much salt is added. I can no longer enjoy canned soup. Instead, I crave soup that simmers on the stove and fills my senses with tempting scents for an hour before I can eat it. Soup tastes better after the carrots, onions and rice have had a day to get acquainted.

Rice and lentil soup does just that. It is perfect for January, although perhaps not as a quick fix for frozen fingers and toes. After the chopping and measuring, it needs to simmer long enough to cook the brown rice grains and let all the flavors mingle. In comparison, a fast noodle soup can be made in a little longer than the amount of time it takes to make noodles. Noodle soup is wonderful, but cold days call for sterner measures. Rice and lentil soup is heavier, the way a winter blanket is heavier and warmer than a summer sheet.

I realize lentils can sometimes be off-putting with their grainy texture. I like them in this soup because it offers their nutty flavor without the texture becoming overwhelming. The carrots, onions and celery contrast nicely with the landscape of lentils and rice. Together with tomatoes and brown rice, they are a hearty combination. For the meat connoisseur sausage is a good addition to this soup. While I don’t add it to my personal soup, my dad tells me that he favors a sweet Italian sausage cut into bite-size slices.

One of the fabulous things about homemade soup is how it will wait a day or two to be eaten. I can put it together one night and then heat it up the next day to find that it improved overnight. Brown rice, lentils and a variety of vegetables are a great example. The flavors deepen and become more complex, and I have a wonderful lunch to look forward to the next day.

Brown Rice and Lentil Soup

1 quart (32 oz.) canned tomatoes

5 cups vegetable broth

3 cups water

1 ½ cups lentils

1 cup brown rice (NOT quick cook)

3 carrots, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 stalks of celery

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced

2 tbsp. cider vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

For a non-vegetarian version:

sweet Italian sausage

You need a pretty large pot for all of this yumminess, about 6 quarts. I generally start heating the water at medium or medium-high for soups as I measure and chop up the rest of the ingredients.

In this case, you can start with the canned tomatoes, stock and water. Add the lentils and rice.
Brown rice, the type that requires 45 minutes to cook, is what is called for here. Otherwise, you run the risk of rice losing its shape.

Chop the carrots, onion and celery and add those. I like to use the leafy parts of the celery bunch in soups, but I try to include an actual stem as well. Now add the garlic and bay leaf. All of these ingredients should cook for about the same time, so don’t dawdle too much – but they don’t all need to go in at the same time, either. Soup is patient, soup is kind.

If you want to add sausage to the mix, now is the time to do it. Add as much or as little as you care to.

Heat all of this to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.

Add the vinegar and the parsley, as well as the pepper and salt. If you don’t have parsley, fresh basil or cilantro might be substituted. Serve hot or serve upon heating the next day.

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