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Hearty Lentil Soup “Can you stay for dinner?” an elementary schoolmate asked me decades ago. “We’re having lentil soup, she said. “What are lentils?” I asked. Being of Asian descent, lentils had never passed through my lips before. To my delight, I found her family’s lentil soup to be rich in flavor and texture and I will forever associate lentils with her.

Lentils, like other legumes, are high in fiber and protein and low in fat. But unlike other legumes, there’s no need to presoak lentils and they take less time to cook. The dominant flavors in this robust soup come from the earthiness of the lentils and the fresh vegetables, but the subtle undertones come from two surprising ingredients: Dijon mustard and vinegar. This soup is hostess-friendly, too, because it can be made a day in advance and it tastes even better when served the second day!

Hearty Lentil Soup
Recipe from the Sacramento Bee

INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups finely diced onion
3 large garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup finely diced celery
1/3 cup finely diced carrot
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1½ cups French green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
Chopped celery leaves and parsley, for garnish

DIRECTIONS
1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over high heat. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to color around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, mince or pound the garlic in a mortar with 1 teaspoon salt.

3. Work the tomato paste into the onion, then add the garlic, celery, carrot, bay leaves and parsley and cook for 3 minutes.

4. Add the lentils, 2 quarts of water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, 24 to 35 minutes.

5. Stir in the mustard and vinegar. Taste and add more of either as needed.

6. Check the salt, season with plenty of pepper, remove the bay leaves and serve, garnished with the celery leaves and parsley.

7. The longer the soup sits before serving, the better it will taste.

Serves 4 to 6

LINNELL’S NOTES
1. I use Italian parsley when I make this soup.

2. Because I like the way French green lentils hold their shape, I prefer using them in this soup over brown lentils.

3. The second time I made this soup, I used vegetable broth in place of the water. I can honestly say that there was no noticeable improvement in flavor using the broth, so I don’t recommend spending extra money on vegetable broth. This is not to say, though, that homemade vegetable stock wouldn’t have added a richness to the soup.

ENJOY!

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Sitting at the dinner table years ago, my meat-loving youngest son took one bite out of his taco and said, “Where’s the meat?” Trying to cut back on the amount of cholesterol-ladened meat I served my family, I had substituted a spicy Mexican lentil mix for the the ground beef in the taco. It must not have been too bad because he continued to eat his taco that night and many other nights throughout his eighteen years at home!

Being Asian, I’d grown up with little knowledge of lentils. My first exposure was at the home of an elementary school friend who had six or seven siblings and whose parents were both doctors. She’d invited me over for dinner and informed me that they were having lentil stew. The first spoonful of this unfamiliar food brought my senses to attention. The firm texture of the lentils juxtaposed against the softer textures of the carrots and the tomatoes, were battling for a place in my memory against the spicy, yet savory combination of flavors. The lentil stew was delicious and from that moment on I was hooked on lentils.

What my school friend’s parents knew was that lentils were inexpensive, enough so to easily feed their brood of kids, and that lentils were packed with nutrients. The Whole Foods website states, Not only do lentils help lower cholesterol, they are of special benefit in managing blood-sugar disorders since their high fiber content prevents blood sugar levels from rising rapidly after a meal. But this is far from all lentils have to offer. Lentils also provide good to excellent amounts of six important minerals, two B-vitamins, and protein-all with virtually no fat. The calorie cost of all this nutrition? Just 230 calories for a whole cup of cooked lentils. This tiny nutritional giant fills you up–not out.

Lentils are also protein rich. They lack only one protein, methionine. Adding grains, nuts, seeds, meat, dairy products, or eggs will provide a complete protein containing the nine essential amino acids. Often times in the fall and winter I pair up a hearty lentil soup with my homemade cornbread to ensure a protein-balanced meal. Making tacos also works because both the cornmeal from the tortillas and the shredded cheddar cheese add complimentary proteins to the lentils.

Here’s an easy recipe for Spicy Mexican Lentils:
2 cups lentils, rinsed and drained
4 cups water
One package dry taco mix

Combine the lentils with the water and bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender. (Note: If you will be using the lentils in a recipe that requires addition cooking time, like a casserole, cook the lentils until they are tender but on the firmer side. Make sure your recipe has enough moisture, like a sauce, so that the lentils do not dry out during baking).

After the lentils are cooked, drain them, making sure to reserve the liquid.

Combine the lentils, taco mix and 1/2 cup of the reserved lentil liquid. Simmer for about 15 minutes. At this point you are ready to use this mixture in any of your favorite Mexican recipes that call for a ground beef base.

Your eyes may say “Where’s the meat?” but your taste buds won’t!

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