If there ever was a super food, it is the lowly lentil. Consider these facts:
• They are nutritious -- 30 percent protein and packed with vitamins and minerals.
• They are inexpensive -- less than $3 per pound.
• They are more versatile than you might imagine -- think salads, snacks and soups.
• And, unlike most other members of the legume family, they cook really, really fast.
In fact, the lentils I used in this Red Lentil Soup with Cilantro Pesto and Lemon cooked in just about 20 minutes. All of which makes lentils the perfect centerpiece for a fast, healthy soup that doesn't break the bank.
While lentils come in a variety of colors, I am partial to red lentils, which seems to be the nuttiest in terms of flavor. However, they are not always the easiest to find so feel free to substitute whatever lentils you have on hand or come across at the store.
Ironically, they aren't red after they are cooked, but rather a sunny shade of yellow. They also tend to get a bit mushy, but that's OK in this soup recipe because you blend half of the batch in order to make the soup more creamy.
I started with a recipe of sorts from Mark Bittman's "Kitchen Express" that's full of "recipe sketches" rather than traditional step-by-step instructions for dishes you can make in less than 20 minutes. He writes the instructions like Grandma does. You know, "a handful of this" and "a smidgen of that."
If you're not an adaptable sort of cook, you might find this a bit unnerving. Anyway, here's what he wrote:
"Cook a chopped onion in olive oil in a saucepan until soft; add one cup of red lentils and four cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil; continue simmering until the lentils are soft. Purée a handful of cilantro with a few tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt; set aside. If you like, purée half the lentils until almost smooth; return them to the pan. Add about two tablespoons of lemon juice or more to taste. Stir in the cilantro purée, adjust the seasonings, and serve with crusty bread or a mound of rice in the center."
It seems pretty straight forward -- until you actually jump in. I was worried about what a "handful of cilantro" meant (whose hand?) and a few tablespoons of olive oil threw me off, too. But I quickly adjusted and decided to go with the flow.
To that end, I added a few embellishments of my own including a couple cloves of garlic, a pinch of cayenne and about a teaspoon of cumin. My son tossed in a few shakes of Tabasco when he was eating a bowl. I think a dab of tomato paste might have been a nice addition or even some chopped carrots.
That's the beauty of cooking with lentils. They are nothing, if not adaptable. Take Bittman's cue and start tossing things in. Lentils, the perfect canvas for your soup-making creativity, really are a super food.
• M. Eileen Brown is the Daily Herald's director of strategic marketing and innovation, and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.