Vegan: How Not To Ruin Lentil Soup

Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If a waiter were to ask me how I'd like my food to be prepared, I'd generally not be inclined to say "brown and sludgy." And I mean no offense to you folks who are into beige ooze or mahogany goop. I have more than one close friend who's made a meal out of over-chili-ing their nachos and hot dogs from the 7-eleven sludge dispensers, and they're for the most part fine, upstanding citizens. Heck, some of them even work here.

But rules are meant to be broken, and lentil soup is one bowl of brown sludge that I can really get behind. It hits that sweet spot of being not so unappetizing that you wouldn't even try it, but being just unappetizing enough that the mental shock of how good it tastes compared to how it looks is enough to send an endorphin jolt running through your system. Kind of like when the nerdy high school girl takes off her glasses and Freddie Prinze Jr. realizes she was prom-date material all along.

Lentil soup also happens to be one of my wife's favorite foods.

I try and cook it for her a few times a year, knowing how much she loves it. My wife has what you might call first-world problems.

I LOVE lentil soup! But... did you put coconut milk in there? Eww...

Or:

You made me lentil soup? I love you! Oh. You stirred cilantro into it. Let's get pizza.

Wah, wah, wah. I slave over a hot stove making her favorite soup, and every single time I've done something to it that makes it all but inedible. The woman* is simply determined to rein in my heretofore un-rein-in-able artistic impulses.

*beautiful, kind, loving, and ever-tolerant woman, that is

Ok, fine. I got the message. Simple it is. Honey? This particular bowl of tasty brown sludge is for you.

Flavored with nothing but a few sauteed carrots, onions, and celery, and a single bay leaf in the pot while it simmers, this lentil soup really brings lentils to the forefront. It may surprise you how delicious they are on their own even without other flavors mingling in there.

For the best texture, I cook my lentils low and slow until they are practically disintegrated, a few stray lentils just barely retaining their shape to give you a nice creamy bite as you work through the stew-like soup.

It took me a while to figure this simple fact out: acid is just as important as salt in cooking. That is, just a hint of it can make a dish taste brighter, stronger, more of itself, if you know what I mean. I stir in a bit of lemon juice or sherry vinegar right before serving the soup. Not enough to make it taste particularly acidic, but just enough to brighten up the rich, earthy and—let's face it—somewhat muddy flavor of the lentils.

What's that dear? You're out of the country at a conference again? Oh well, I guess the dogs and I will just have to eat this one on our own (sprinkled with parsley, of course). And could you remember to pick up some coconut milk on your way home from the airport?

Get The Recipe!

Vegan Lentil Soup »

And for you folks who don't mind a bit of other flavors making an appearance, try out my recipe for Vegan Lentil and Coconut Soup with Cilantro-Habanero Gremolata »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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