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Turkish-style red lentil soup with chard

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Blue Kitchen

(Read caption) Lentil soup makes for a hearty autumn meal. This dish incorporates the zip of Mediterranean spices.

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We mostly try to eat fairly sensibly. But on occasion, we don’t (and when we don’t, it’s usually pretty wonderful). When we have had a shockingly sumptuous meal, I often say for the rest of the week all I am going to eat is one lentil.

Not that eating lentils is suffering. Really, I can’t say enough about how good and important they are. Lentils are not only so, so delicious, but so, so healthy. They are an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering fiber and packed with plenty of important minerals, like magnesium, plus two B vitamins and slow-burning complex carbohydrates. And they are low in calories. Lentils are at the heart of many cultures – they are one of the first plants to have been cultivated, before recorded time, and while they are growing, they are even good for the soil. In fact, Health.com has named lentils one of the world’s five healthiest foods. People all over the world love lentils, and so do we.

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What’s more, lentils, of the entire class of dried pulses (dried beans, chickpeas and other legumes), are the ones that cook up fairly quickly. Most kinds take only 30 or 40 minutes on the stovetop to become a hearty, satisfying, inexpensive meal – with no soaking beforehand.

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For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with lots of lentil recipes, from all over the world. This is just one of them. This soup was inspired by several Turkish recipes, but, this being us, with extra touches. Adding rice brings in the two missing amino acids that complete the protein. Adding chard increases the vitamin, calcium and fiber punch. For this recipe I also like adding a little meat, for the umami flavoring, and I like it to be lamb, in honor of delicious Turkish cuisine.

The recipe also calls for sumac. This pleasantly tart Mediterranean spice adds a nice, bright zip to dishes. You’ll find it in many Middle Eastern recipes and, increasingly, in markets in the US. If you can’t find it locally, it’s available online at The Spice House. Alternatively, you can substitute fresh lemon juice.

Like any lentil soup, this one is terrific for the cooler months. It would be suitable for a casual autumn lunch with friends, or as something to make on Sunday for heating up when you come home from work during the week. It’s robust and satisfying, as well as healthy. And, with its hearty texture, the rich rust color of the lentils and the deep emerald green bits of chard, it just invites you to pick up a spoon and dig in.

Turkish Style Red Lentil Soup with Chard
Serves 8

1/2 pound ground lamb (see Kitchen Notes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup onions, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons paprika
1 10 to 12 ounce can diced tomatoes with jalapeños (see Kitchen Notes)
2 cups dried red lentils [see Kitchen Notes]
5 tablespoons white rice
4 cups water
2 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon sumac plus 1/2 teaspoon per bowl for garnish
1/2 pound chard, center rib removed, cut into small pieces (see Kitchen Notes)

1. Put 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan and heat the pan. Brown the lamb, then drain it on paper towels or in a sieve over a bowl. Discard the drippings.

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2. Rinse the lentils and pick them over to make sure there aren’t any tiny stones in the mix.

3. Put the rest of the olive oil in a deep, heavy pot and heat it to medium. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes, until the onion is translucent and limp. Lower the flame, then add the paprika all at once and stir into the oil – stir and sauté the mix for a couple of minutes. Then add in the lentils, stir everything, and add the stock and water and stir again.

4. Stir in the rice, canned tomatoes, cayenne, and black pepper. Bring the pot to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Add in half the lamb at this point. Let everything simmer and kind of keep an eye on it, stirring to make sure it does not stick and does not need more liquid.

5. The lentils should be cooked through after about 35 to 40 minutes. At this point, turn off the heat. Take out about a third of the soup and blend it smooth, then return to the pot. Add the rest of the lamb and reheat the soup. When it is simmering, stir in the 1 tablespoon of sumac and then the chard. It will look like way, way too much chard for the volume of soup. Don’t be alarmed—as it cooks, it quickly shrinks down to a cooperative size. When the chard is deep green and cooked, the soup is ready to serve. Serve in individual bowls, garnished with a scattering of sumac.

Kitchen Notes

Lamb – varieties and possible substitutes. This version calls for ground lamb, but I’ve also made it using meaty lamb bones we had in the freezer that were left over from another dinner. There was less actual meat involved with that version, but a stronger lamby flavor. You could also use a stew cut of lamb, or you could go for goat, another kind of meat used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. You could even use pork – it wouldn’t have the authentic Turkish flavor, but it would be very good. The idea is to use meat, but just a modest amount of it, as more of a flavoring than the centerpiece. For that matter, you may omit meat entirely from this. It won’t be the same, but it will be different.

Tomatoes and heat. If you don’t have canned tomato with jalapeño (such as RO-TEL), substitute plain canned tomato and add a little more cayenne or a little jalapeño.  If you really don’t want any hot peppers at all, you can omit them entirely.

What color is your lentil? There are many kinds of lentils, each with its own variation on the basic earthy flavor. This recipe calls for red lentils, which I chose for the pretty color and their lighter nutty taste. (Note that red lentils happen to be lower in fiber than other varieties.) Brown lentils, the everyday variety that is most widely available in North America, would be terrific in this recipe.

Cutting the chard. Cut the chard into pieces the size you would like to eat with a spoon – that is, no snaky ribbons or huge sheets.

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