Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Recipe: Easy Lentil Soup

My home state of Rhode Island is home to a lot of Italian-Americans.  One of the more traditional meals served in Italian-American homes around this time of year (or so I'm told) is Lentil Soup.  Why?  Well, most Italians are Catholic and we'll soon be entering the season of Lent.  Lent is a time of fasting and sacrifice, usually involving certain days when the faithful are not supposed to consume meat and in special cases, limit food intake to "one large meal a day."  As a result, good hearty vegetarian meals are a must in many cultures centered around the Catholic faith.

Aside from the religious aspects, lentils are cheap--dirt cheap, and they're incredibly healthy for you as they're high in protein, fiber, and vitamins.  Unlike most other legumes, they cook-up in about 20 minutes and do not require pre-soaking, which makes them a great weeknight meal.

About a week ago, I made my first successful batch of Lentil Soup and we absolutely loved it.  I think my wife ate leftovers for lunch 5 days straight because she enjoyed it that much.  The recipe is based on some verbal instructions given to me by a former co-worker who comes from a true Italian family, so I think it's fairly authentic.  I hope you enjoy it.

Incidentally, this recipe is not only vegetarian, but it's vegan too (minus the serving suggestions involving cheese).  If you have any vegetarian/vegan friends, make this for them and I guarantee they'll be thrilled.

Easy Lentil Soup

2 cups onion, diced
2 cups carrots, diced
2 cups celery, diced
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes
6 cups filtered tap water
2 cups green or brown lentils
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil

1) Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven.  Saute onions, carrots, and celery, a pinch of salt, and the bay leaf until vegetables begin to soften.  Add garlic and cook 30 seconds, stirring.

2) Add the white wine and stir.  Cook 1-2 minutes to let the alcohol dissipate.

3) Add the tomatoes, water, pepper, lentils, and salt.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Simmer covered 20-30 minutes or until the lentils have softened but still retain their shape.  Add hot water if soup gets too thick.

4) Taste and adjust seasonings.  Remove the bay leaf.  Optionally serve with toasted crusty bread and a good-sized grating of Parmesan cheese on top of the soup.

Optional Canning Instructions

1) In step 3 above, only simmer 10-15 minutes and add 2-3 more cups of water.  This will par-cook the lentils but prevent them from becoming mushy during canning.  The extra water will be absorbed by the beans during canning.

2) Prepare jars, lids, and rings in the normal manner.  We like to use Ball 12-oz "Jelly Jars" because they most closely mimic the serving size of a commercial can of soup.

3) Fill jars, leaving a generous 1-inch head space and making sure the jar is filled with no more than 2/3 solids (the rest should be broth).  The lentils will absorb a *lot* of water during the canning process (remember, they're only half cooked).  Clean rims and close.  Process in a pressure canner for 75 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure.

4) If the lentils absorb all of the liquid in the jar, no worries.  As long as the jar seals, it's safe to eat.  When you open it, add water before reheating.  You may need to add additional salt as well.

Disclaimer: This is not a commercially tested canning recipe.  Canning times were based on times for similar bean soup recipes, most of which involved a meat product (this one does not), so it should be overkill if anything.  Use at your own risk and as always, use your own good judgment about what's safe for you and your family.

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