"A Pot of Red Lentils" by Peter Pereira + Sara's Smoky Lentil Soup

My friend Sara wrote a cookbook. It's beautiful, thoughtful, and full of the kind of recipes you've come to rely on from her blog, Sprouted Kitchen. I read it cover to cover the day it arrived, and have since gone back to revisit all the pages I added post-it notes to. You might want to bookmark this recipe for the first cold snap, because it will be here sooner than we realize.

Andrew and I went to the Hollywood Bowl last weekend (it never really feels like summer until I've done that). We enjoyed a picnic in the grass (grilled pepper, onion and goat cheese sandwiches + white bean and zucchini salad + macaroons from Bouchon + a crisp Sauvignon blanc), then found our seats and cozied up to the smoky voice of Diana Krall.

I made Sara's smoky red lentil soup the next day, and Andrew went on a hilarious diatribe about how he doesn't really like soup. But wait. It gets better. (And just for the record, he approved everything I'm about to say, and even suggested that I tell Sara about how this conversation went down.)

I'm a soup person. Every summer I find myself making it on the hottest day of the year, without fail. I'm not sure why this happens, but I quickly come to my senses and vow to hold off until the seasons change. Luckily, the hottest weeks had subsided a bit, and by the time the sun set and we were ready for dinner, soup and a fresh spinach salad with lime vinaigrette and avocado was the perfect way to say goodbye to the weekend.

But about this soup situation. Soup isn't Andrew's favorite meal because it doesn't feel substantial. I asked him to give me an example of a soup I made that he didn't like, and he muttered something about using ginger, which, fair enough, a few months ago I was feeling inspired and wanted to eat a cleansing broth with noodles. It was bare bones, but that was the first soup of its kind all year. 

I reminded him that the majority of the time, the soups I make are not simply broth, but hearty meals like leek and potato soup topped with bacon and green onions, or black bean chili. Those, he said, were acceptable. We went on like this for several minutes, and finally I simply blurted out that he cannot expect me to survive through fall and winter without making soup, and unless he wanted to begin taking charge of our meals, he would have to suffer through. I also made the suggestion of simply calling everything stew, even if it was in fact soup, to give him a good first impression. We had a good laugh.

Then he took his first bite and had a wow-this-is-really-good pause, followed by "What's that smoky flavor?" I mentioned the smoked paprika, and he sort of nodded his head like, yeah, this soup is all right. He announced he would eat it again, and professed his love for soup (so long as it involved more than broth).

Now, let's turn our attention back to Sara's cookbook. While reading, I couldn't help but think that many of the recipes would be worthy of a poem pairing, and now that we'll soon be moving quickly into the crisp fall months, it's the perfect time to put this kind of stew on your radar to make on a chilly day.

This poem, and this recipe, is what cooking is all about.

A Pot of Red Lentils

by Peter Pereira

simmers on the kitchen stove.
All afternoon dense kernels
surrender to the fertile
juices, their tender bellies
swelling with delight.

In the yard we plant
rhubarb, cauliflower, and artichokes,
cupping wet earth over tubers,
our labor the germ
of later sustenance and renewal.

Across the field the sound of a baby crying
as we carry in the last carrots,
whorls of butter lettuce,
a basket of red potatoes.

I want to remember us this way—
late September sun streaming through
the window, bread loaves and golden
bunches of grapes on the table,
spoonfuls of hot soup rising
to our lips, filling us
with what endures.

from Saying the World (2003)

I love the last line. With what endures. It's a desperate attempt to clutch to the last moments of summer before it all turns dark. I know we all go through this every year. I woke up one day this week and the air just felt different. I knew it wasn't fall yet, but it was enough of a scare to remind me to embrace what's left of the season before it's gone.

There is certainly a longing felt in this poem, as if the speaker knows change is right on the brink, and all will become memory. But like always, comfort can be found at the stove. Our meals disappear even faster than the seasons we cook them in, but the beauty is that every day is new. One meal might be temporary, but every day gives us the opportunity to renew those feelings of comfort, nourishment, and purpose. I'm grateful I've found a home in the kitchen, and whether you're just starting out or an experienced home cook, I know you'll find a lot to love in Sara's new cookbook.


from The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook by Sara Forte

Sara says that all-natural liquid smoke is a great addition, but not critical, so if you've started the soup already, don't worry about running to the store to get some. Also, be generous with your garnishes! (I used goat cheese and cilantro.)

You'll need to bake your sweet potato ahead of time. Prick it with a fork, wrap in foil, and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, or until very tender.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, coarsely diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
3 celery stalks, diced
2 cups dried red lentils, rinsed and picked over
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
4 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 small sweet potato (baked)
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 1 small lemon or lime
Whole-milk Greek yogurt, for garnish
5 slices crisp cooked bacon, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a big pinch of salt, stir, and cook until the onion is translucent, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the celery, stir, and cook until just softened, about another 5 minutes.

Add the lentils, paprika, cumin, and broth. Bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat back dow not a simmer. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft but not falling apart, about 15 minutes.

Peel the baked sweet potato and add the flesh and liquid smoke (if using), to the lentils. Using an immersion blender (I used my Vitamix), puree the soup until it is blended but still has some texture. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Stir in half of the cilantro and the lemon juice.

To serve, garnish with a dollop of Greek yogurt, a pinch of the remaining cilantro, and the bacon (if using). Serve hot.