My parents recently took a trip to Istanbul. They fell in love with the city–the architecture, the sweeping water views, the riotous mingling of cultures in the streets. And they absolutely raved about the food. One of the first things my mother did when they got back was find a recipe for one of their favorite dishes they had in Turkey: lentil soup.
Normally, lentil soup is hearty, rich, winter-warming fare. The Turkish version is a cool-summer-night kind of soup: light, brothy, lemony and soft. The base here is red lentils, which are smaller and more delicate than most other kinds. When cooked, they fall apart almost completely–a disaster for salads, but ideal for soups. And unlike garden-variety green or brown lentils, red lentils turn a sunny golden color when cooked, turning a murky bottomless stew into something bright and almost refreshing.
The original recipe my mom uses is about as simple as it gets: dump all ingredients into a soup pot and simmer until cooked. The result is a simple, lighter-than-air soup, but I found I wanted a little more depth and complexity. I added back in the step of sweating the vegetables, and also toasted the spices and lentils lightly in the oil to jar the flavors awake. I’m on a huge mint kick lately, so I stirred in some fresh mint at the end, and finished it with a drizzle of olive oil. My tweaks may not be totally traditional–I’ve never been to Turkey, so I can’t vouch–but I think they make for a more flavorful soup.
My favorite element of this is that it’s a little bit interactive–the lemon doesn’t get added until the soup is on the table. Put out a platter of lemon wedges, and everyone squeezes a wedge or two into their bowl of soup. Not only does the juice stay fresh and pungent, but each person can decide how much acidity they want. It makes a pot of soup feel like a family affair.
Turkish Red Lentil Soup (serves 4-6)
Adapted from Whole Foods Market, via my darling mama
Note: If you can’t find red lentils, use regular green or brown lentils–the soup will be a little heavier and chunkier, but still very tasty.
1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
8 oz (about 1 1/3 cups) red lentils, picked over for stones and rinsed
6 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth, if you swing that way)
1 cup water
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 bay leaf
2 tsp chopped fresh mint
Salt to taste
Lemon wedges, for serving
In a large stockpot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and carrot and saute for 5 minutes, or until the onion is translucent and the carrot is starting to soften. Add garlic, cumin, red chili flake, and lentils, and cook for 1 additional minute, or until the spices are incredibly fragrant. Add vegetable broth, water, tomato paste, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes, or until the lentils are completely tender and falling apart. Remove the bay leaf.
Transfer half of the soup to a blender and puree until smooth, then stir the puree back into the remaining soup. (Or, if you have an immersion blender, blend the soup in the pot until it’s about half-pureed.) Remove from the heat and stir in the mint, then season with salt to taste. Serve with lemon wedges to squeeze into the soup.