January is prime soup season. A steaming pot of soup on a cold winter's day warms the soul and nourishes the body. It will fill you up and fill your home with appealing fragrance.
Putting together a pot of soup doesn't have to be an all-day project, and some of the most healthful soups take the least time to prepare.
The place to start is with lentils. Unlike many dried beans and legumes, lentils cook quickly because they don't require soaking. Health experts love lentils because they are rich in vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and the phytochemicals that help protect your body from cancer and other chronic diseases. A standard, one-half cup serving of lentils contains six to eight grams of fiber and so much protein that they can be used as a meat substitute.
Using lentils in dishes is also an inexpensive way to provide hearty, healthful bulk. In addition to soups, lentils are used in salads, dips, stews, and as toppings for whole grains like rice or couscous.
Lentils are ethnically diverse, popular in many parts of Europe, India and the Middle East. Brown lentils are used in hearty peasant stews and tiny green lentils are a French delicacy.
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Brown lentils are the ones most commonly seen in American supermarkets, although red and yellow lentils can also be found, especially in specialty markets. Stored airtight at room temperature, they will keep up to a year.
Before cooking, pick through them and remove debris and any broken or discolored lentils. Rinse them under cold water and place them in a pan along with a bay leaf and enough water or broth to cover by one inch. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer 10 to 20 minutes, adding more liquid as necessary, until they are just tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
When cooked right, lentils are chewy yet tender, with the kind of mouth-feel and flavor we expect from comfort foods. If overcooked, they may become mushy.
In this Italian-inspired recipe, lentils, fresh vegetables and some olive oil are cooked with pasta to make a satisfying, nutritious soup that will warm any January day.
Italian Lentil Stew
Makes 8 servings if served as a stew, more if thinned to a soup.
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium carrot, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 cup diced fennel
- 1-1/2 cups green or small brown lentils
- 1/2 cup finely-chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2-1 tsp. basil
- 1/2-1 tsp. marjoram
- 1/2-1 tsp. chopped dried chives
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/3 cup small pasta
- In a small Dutch oven or 3-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Stir in the carrot, onion and fennel and cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, just to soften the vegetables slightly. Add the lentils and 6 cups water. Stir in parsley, basil, marjoram and chives. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered.
- Stir in the salt, pepper and pasta. Cook until the pasta is done and the lentils are soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Add more water, stirring it in gradually until mixture is desired consistency. Adjust seasonings and add more herbs if desired. (This dish can also be served as a soup, depending on the amount of water used.) At this point, the stew (or soup) can be served, or stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
Nutritional Info Per Serving:
2 g. total fat (less than 1 g. saturated fat),
26 g. carbohydrate,
11 g. protein,
12 g. dietary fiber,
17 mg. sodium