Last week, I was at a local organic food store with my colleague and friend Elvira. In the one and a half years that I have lived in this town, I have resisted the urge to purchase some red lentils from them. Finding that resistance significantly weaker than in the past, I purchased two pounds of them for use in future culinary expeditions. After filling one of my canisters with them, I reflected on my first encounter with this strange little legume.

“What are you cooking, dad?” I asked, walking into the kitchen.

“Lentil soup.”

“What in the heck is a lentil?” I shamefully admit that at the age of twenty-one, I had not heard of a lentil.

“It’s a bean.”

“Oh.” If it was a bean, then it was acceptable. After all, I happen to have an affinity for beans. “What else is going to be in it?”

“Well, I’m using red lentils because they have a thinner skin, and I’m going to put some Andoullie sausage in there.” I could tell he was excited because the pitch of his voice had gone up a bit, his eye brows were raised, and his mustache tried without success to hide his smile.

“Sounds good. I can’t wait to try it.” And try it, I did. For years afterwards, I begged him to make another batch, but he never did. He made Italian lentil soup once, which was not quite as good because it contains panchetta and I am not a huge fan of bacon. During one trip home, I finally got the Middle Eastern version of the dish at a restaurant called Ya Halla. There are no words to describe this euphoric bowl of pureed lentils and chicken broth. It had distinct undertones of cumin and coriander. I think there may have been turmeric in it. Whatever the combination of ingredients, I knew there was no going back from that little slice of paradise, found at a table with no one else but my parents. As for my own lentil soup, it had a lot of growing to do. I decided I must pay a true homage to this particular dish, one that I only became familiar with in my early adulthood.

Lentil soup was not the first soup I cooked when I moved out. I tried my hand at it several times before getting the knack of it, adding chicken and kale for good measure, then finally discovering coriander and throwing it into the mix. Batches have gone to sick coworkers and fed a visiting friend from home, and even if it was a relatively recent culinary discovery, I still have an inexplicable affinity for lentils that no one in my family understands and I can’t even properly verbalize. There is just something quaint about these hearty packs of nutrients that appeals to me. I feel akin to them somehow. Maybe it’s the fact that I remember my dad when I eat them even if I happen to be knee-deep in my thesis while I’m swallowing a bowl of it. Maybe I am something like a lentil, a small bean with thin skin who would have no skill in writing if not for my friends holding me up, their thoughts steeling into my head at random times when I’m eating alone. Maybe the lentils represent time, each bean a savory moment that nourishes my mind, or maybe these lentils are my mind–maybe each lentil is a grain of knowledge in my head that, without other grains, is nothing more than a dry and hardened fact. These facts only become something when they are immersed in the stock of experience, combined with a flourish of root vegetables, and seasoned with the smoke and citrus of the everyday.

Or maybe it’s just the simple fact that they taste really good.

Chicken and Red Lentil Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • 3 baby carrots, diced
  • ½ stalk of celery (or a few smaller ones), diced
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 1 ¼ cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 2 chicken strips, frozen
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp cumin, separated into two 1 tsp servings
  • 1 ½ tsp coriander, separated into one 1 tsp serving and one ½ tsp serving
  • 1 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup water

Directions

  1. Add olive oil to pan. Saute celery, onions, and carrots for about 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add 1 tsp cumin and ½ tsp coriander to vegetables. Saute for an additional 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add stock, water, lemon juice, remaining cumin and coriander, bay leaf, black pepper, and chicken strips. Simmer for 30 minutes or until lentils are thoroughly cooked.
  4. Remove chicken pieces and bay leaf. Puree about 1 ½ cups of the lentil mixture in a food processor or blender (you could also use an immersion blender for this). Add to the remaining soup, turn the burner on low, and combine.
  5. Discard bay leaf. Shred chicken strips with a fork and return to pot. Stir in and simmer an additional five minutes.
  6. Just before serving, add an additional dash of cumin and coriander (because they are excellent).

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