Red Lentil Soup Provides Something to Chew On

For an Argentine and self-professed meat lover, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to actually figure out how to eat and feed my family less meat. It's not easy, because to me, comfort food is a good steak. The first thing my mom cooked for me after I had my first baby was a big salad and steak. I'm an animal-protein girl, and nothing gives me the Popeye arms like a succulent piece of meat. But even though there are cultural and maybe even physiological reasons for me to love meat as much as I do, I know that it is better for my health, my wallet, and the environment to try to eat less of it.

All of this is a round about way of saying that I've always got my antennae out for good vegetarian recipes that satiate and satisfy as much as a steak dinner. Tall order, I know, but, it's not impossible. I am beginning to realize that you have to play tricks -- with your eyes, your palate, and your teeth. When a dish is colorful and pretty, it's hard to pine for a brown piece of meat. When a recipe is spicy and tangy and bright, I don't even miss the charbroiled goodness of grilled flesh. When a recipe provides something to chew on (literally), I feel like I'm really eating and my happy choppers can forget their carnivorous ways for just a bit.

With that purpose, this recipe for Red Lentil Soup from Kitchenography recently caught my eye because of the lemon and cilantro. I also happen to think a red lentil is just gorgeous, almost unfairly so when compared to its homely cousin the brown lentil. I decided to try it out. Writing for Simple Good and Tasty (SGT) has turned me into a bit of an ingredients-sleuth, so I decided to go to the Linden Hills Co-op to find the most local and/or organic red lentils possible.

First I eyeballed the bulk bins with trepidation. This is going to sound ridiculous to the likes of you SGT readers, but the bulk bins make me nervous. First of all, I always have visions of getting all flustered with the lever and an ensuing avalanche of almonds cascading over the floor. Secondly, everything looks the same -- like a sea of seeds only a botanist could tell apart. And finally, those mysterious codes and little stickers seem like too much trouble when I have to worry about a toddler swan diving from the shopping cart. But my toddler was at preschool, so I summoned my courage and approached the row of bulk bins with narrowed eyes and alert senses.

Everything was clearly labeled and, in no time, I found the organic red lentils. Most of the items had a notation on the label that said "Current supplier information available upon request." Gaining confidence by the second, I asked the nearest employee, Emily, about the red lentils' provenance. (Don't worry, I didn't use that word. How annoying do you think I am?) Emily stopped stacking yogurt, sighed, and sweetly said that it was hard to know, but that if I wanted, she would research it and get back to me. I told her I didn't want to put her out, thanked her, and proceeded to expertly work the lever without spilling so much as one lentil. I could tell everyone around me, including Emily, was deeply impressed. Feeling proud of my mad bulk-food skills, I stopped and looked at a bag of Bob's Red Mill lentils that were packaged in Milwaukee, Oregon. Surely, my bulk lentils, with all the dexterity required to procure them, were more local than that!

I didn't give it another thought until Emily practically bounced on me a few minutes later when I was perusing cheeses. "The lentils are from Turkey!" she exclaimed. "From Turkey! Not local! Not local! Our guy in back knew how to find out. Turkey!"

Go figure.

I walked out of the co-op having learned three things:

1. How to operate the bulk food levers.

2. That bulk food is not necessarily local or better, despite how natural and lovely it looks sitting there in all its bulk glory; and, most importantly...

3. That it's okay to ask. Obviously, Emily and others like her, are passionate, motivated and willing to help. Far from putting her out, she considered my question to be valid, so she went out of her way to answer it for me.

My Turkish lentil adventure gave me kind of an "aha" moment: eating locally sourced, organic and sustainable food is not as hard and complicated as it might seem at first. You can find out a lot by simply taking a moment to wonder: Where does this come from? And then a few additional moments to read a label. If you still don't know, you simply have to be willing to ask. There are a lot of knowledgeable, committed people who make it their business to know these things and they're just waiting for a klutzy lady to peer around the corner and say "Excuse me, but do you happen to know the provenance of these red lentils?"

I ended up making this red lentil soup with the Turkish lentils (if you think I was going to try to get those babies back in the bin, you're crazy) and boy, did it hit the spot! This soup is perfect for these dregs of winter days because it's warm and substantial, but bright and citrusy and sassy. Don't be shy with the lemon and the cilantro -- they take this soup from ho-hum to yowza! And the red lentils have a little chew, so you won't even miss the meat. It looks like a little bowl of sunshine and should do nicely to tide us over for a few more weeks until we get the real thing. Enjoy.

Red Lentil Soup (Adapted from A Beautiful Bowl of Soup via Kitchenography)
Serves 6

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon ground coriander

1 Tablespoon cumin

2 carrots, finely chopped

1 3/4 cups red lentils, picked over and rinsed

3 14-oz cans chicken broth (or an equal amount of vegetable broth)

1 cup water

1/4 cup lemon juice

Additional lemon wedges

 aleppo pepper
 and cilantro leaves

1. Saute the garlic and onion over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the cumin and coriander, saute briefly, then add the lentils, chicken broth, and carrots.

2. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the lentils are soft, which will take about 30 to 45 minutes.

3. Add a cup of water, stirring to smooth the soup a little. Bring it back to a boil, remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice. Taste for seasoning.

I found that I needed no additional salt -- the canned broth provided enough.

4. Serve garnished with aleppo pepper and cilantro leaves. Pass lemon wedges for those who want to add additional lemon.

Gabriela Lambert is a former lawyer who, after 10 years of practice, decided to stay home with her three kids and pursue a life of leisure. Given the choice between salty and sweet, Gabriela will hit the salty every time. Given the choice between pig and cow, she will clutch her chest and whimper that it’s like asking her to pick her favorite child. On her birthday, she is most likely to choose a trip to the farmers' market with her family, but that’s one of her favorite things to do on any given day. In addition to minding her brood, she spends her time practicing yoga, driving around in her minivan, and blogging at