Friday, December 5, 2008

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, India, and Breakfast

In the beginning of the year, my friend S and I took a ten-day trek through northwest India. It was a whirlwind cultural education, and we walked away with one overarching impression: India is a country of contrasts.

Here's why: we saw small, indestructible Tata Indicas (cars) share roads with camels dragging wooden carts. We saw gleaming, fortress-like gas stations in the middle of towns that hadn’t been rebuilt since the 19th century. We saw the grand beauty of the Taj Mahal, less than two streets away from preschool-aged beggars. We saw modern, fashionable urban New Delhi women standing next to shorter, sari-clad traditionalists, probably waiting for the same bus. And everything – everything - we saw was mushed together in one big Indian melting pot. Really, it was pretty nuts.

(Note: We DIDN’T see any discernible traffic regulations. Seriously, the driving laws there would make a New York cabbie’s head explode.)

And though we got to see things beyond our wildest Long Island-shaped imaginations, one experience still sticks out the most. And it has to do with lentils.

One night, we stayed in a very small, rundown village, surrounded by acres of mustard fields. We had seen poorer towns, but this seemed worse off than the others – the livestock was particularly emaciated, the buildings, especially dilapidated, and a stream of sewage water ran through the center of it all.

Our guide was a local boy, who led us to a potter and his family, tending to their wares on a rooftop. The children were small, the men were quiet, and the women were sweet, smiling and concealing themselves behind light veils. They didn’t seem any wealthier than the other townspeople, but we were offered breakfast almost immediately. A woman held out a plate of dal and chapati (lentils and bread) for us, along with a cup of water. Having just eaten, both S and I politely refused, thanking her profusely.

Then, she turned around and placed the dish in front of her child, a four-or-so-year-old boy in dusty corduroys and the universal v-necked sweater. Slowly, we realized it was his breakfast.


It took us a few minutes to realize the fact, and we were both pretty gobsmacked for awhile thereafter. But for me, that was India in a nutshell: no matter the craziness of a situation, the locals always demonstrated kindness and unrivaled hospitality. It’s like this underlying current of Indian goodwill that I sometimes wonder if we possess here in America. It’s pretty sweet.

Anyway, that’s my lentil story. And to go with it, I present Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, suggested by occasional contributor Rachel and lifted from The New York Times. This is GOOD STUFF. It’s freezable (I think), fairly quick to make, and great for lunch the next day. Plus, the lemon and cilantro give it a clean, perky flavor I don’t usually associate with lentil soup.

It’s a soup of contrasts, you could say. And from what I’ve seen, that’s always good.

Red Lentil Soup With Lemon
Adapted from The New York Times.
Makes 4 2-cup servings or 8 1-cup servings

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil, more for drizzling
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of ground chili powder or cayenne, more to taste
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 cup red lentils
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
Zest of ½ lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon, more to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1) In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat. When very hot, add onion and garlic. Cook about 4 minutes, until onion is golden (but not burnt), stirring occasionally. Add tomato paste, cumin, salt, black pepper and chili powder/cayenne. Stir until combined. Cook 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add broth, water, lentils, carrot, and zest. Stir. Once it begins to simmer, reduce heat to medium-low. Cover pot about 3/4 of the way. Cook around 30 minutes or until lentils are tender and edible. Salt to taste.

2) Puree half the soup with a regular or stick blender. If using the regular blender, pour puree back into pot when finished. Add lemon juice and cilantro. Stir. Serve, with olive oil on top if you like.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
Four 2-cup servings: 261 calories, 5.7 g fat, $1.01Eight 1-cup servings: 131 calories, 2.8 g fat, $0.50

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil, more for drizzling: 179 calories, 20.2 g fat, $0.18
1 large onion: 63 calories, 0.1 g fat, $0.25
2 garlic cloves: 9 calories, 0 g fat, $0.08
1 tablespoon tomato paste: 13 calories, 0.1 g fat, $0.09
1 teaspoon ground cumin: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
Pinch of ground chili powder or cayenne, more to taste: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth: 67 calories, 0 g fat, $1.33
1 cup red lentils: 678 calories, 2 g fat, $1.10
1 large carrot: 30 calories, 0.2 g fat, $0.19
Zest of ½ lemon: negligible calories and fat, free (came with juice)
Juice of 1/2 lemon, more to taste: 6 calories, 0 g fat, $0.33
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro: negligible calories and fat, $0.45
TOTAL: 1045 calories, 22.6 g fat, $4.04
PER SERVING (TOTAL/4): 261 calories, 5.7 g fat, $1.01
PER SERVING (TOTAL/8): 131 calories, 2.8 g fat, $0.50


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