Rich bean soups are classic winter comfort food. They are filling, healthy, and inexpensive, making them a worthy addition to the menu rotation. The downside to dried-bean cookery is the time it takes to soak and then cook beans. Canned beans are a reasonable substitute, although they cost more than three times the price of their dried, bagged counterparts.
An easy, money-saving solution is lentils, which you can find easily at any grocery store, next to the dried beans. Brown lentils — the type you’ll most likely find in inexpensive bags next to the rice — don’t require any soaking (although a good rinse is recommended), and are cooked to tender perfection in about a half hour. Green lentils are a little thicker and firmer than brown lentils (and often a little pricier), so they take a few minutes more to cook. Red lentils are softer, holding their shape less, so are best used for sauces or stews where you are seeking a thicker, creamier texture — for instance, when you are making an Indian dal.
Don’t let the cheap price fool you: the everyday brown lentil is a nutrition powerhouse. One serving has over 8 grams of filling fiber, 9 grams of protein and a nice array of vitamins and minerals, including over half the daily requirement of folate and nearly 20 percent of our daily iron.
Lentils themselves have an earthy, mild flavor, so they easily take on the flavors of other ingredients. Today’s recipe for Smoky Lentil Soup is all plant-based, which means it’s truly jam-packed with health-boosting foods but it’s also full of flavor. It gets its smokiness from smoked paprika instead of the traditional ham bone, and a little bit of cumin.
Finely chopped mushrooms add meaty depth of flavor, and I use small cubes of butternut squash instead of classic carrots for just a touch of sweetness. A bonus: the entire dish cost about $10 to make, and you’ll probably have leftovers. Meatless Monday fans, this may be your new favorite dish.
Smoky Lentil Soup
Start to finish: 45 minutes, including cook time
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups chopped)
1 stalk celery, chopped (about 1/2 cup chopped)
4 ounces white mushrooms, finely chopped (about 1 cup chopped)
1 1/4 cup cubed butternut squash (1/2-inch cube) (or substitute chopped carrot)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons dried Italian herb seasoning (or dried oregano)
3 cups vegetable stock
2-3 cups water
1/2 pound dried brown lentils, rinsed and picked through (about 1 1/4 cup)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar (or wine vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, if needed
In a large heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven, soften the onion, celery and mushrooms in the olive oil over medium heat, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the squash, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder and Italian herbs and cook for another five minutes, stirring frequently. Onion should be quite soft now.
Add the stock, 2 cups of the water, the lentils, and bay leaf and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat, cover partially with a lid and let simmer until lentils and squash are tender, about 25-30 minutes. If the mixture gets too thick, add up to another cup of water.
Once soup is cooked, remove 1-2 cups of the soup to a blender and very carefully blend on low until somewhat smooth. Pour the thickened, blended soup back into the pot and stir. Stir in vinegar and taste for salt. Add the salt only if needed.
Chef’s Note: Green lentils may also be used, but add about 10 minutes of cooking time.
Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook, “Supermarket Healthy.”