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A characteristic of lentil soup is that, while there are many recipes, few are considered open to improvisation in the mind of people who enjoy it. Personally, I'm of the opinion that cramming lentil soup full of irrelevant vegetables such as turnips, celery and carrots does injustice to a dish that does just fine without them. While some recipes also call for rice, that makes it a completely different dish. I confess that I am religiously opposed to the use of potatoes and celery (in direct contrast to my "you can never have enough celery in a soup" mantra); many years of observing and eating Greek cooking have taught me that, at least in that country, no such items are used to defile this gloriously humble item of Mediterranean cuisine. Stalk celery, in fact, can't even be found for sale there unless they have it in some expensive place that caters to foreigners--they grow only leaf celery and celeriac, neither of which are part of this recipe. I claim this to be the genuine article.

Base ingredients:

  • 500g brown lentils (a pound will do)
  • 4 or more cloves garlic
  • 2-4 bay leaves
  • 3 or more small onions
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper


The oil is best if not strong-tasting. Anything other than olive oil is out of the question. Do NOT sautee or chop the garlic and onions, I prefer to just drop them in whole. While I'm a great fan of leeks and like to substitute them for onions, this is not a dish in which I'd use them. Onion is de rigeur and the way it's cooked lets even avid onion-haters tolerate them. Unless you use beef stock for flavour, this is a strictly vegetarian meal; ham is possible but iffy and exotic stuff such as partridge and poultry in general is, well, let's just say I wouldn't do it.

Briefly sort the lentils by hand, removing small stones and rotten lentils. Rinse the lentils until the chaff is gone. Place lentils in large pot with a bit more than enough water to cover them. Bring to the boil and boil until the water turns brown, then drain... this removes some of the tannin you really don't want to consume. Rinse as often as you think is necessary and replenish with water or stock, whichever you plan on using.

Add all other ingredients. The garlic may or may not be chopped, the onions should be used whole but can be quartered if all you have is too large to use whole. Bring to a boil again and let it boil for about 20 minutes. Cover and let simmer until ready. Depending on the lentils, this may take anything between 45 minutes and three hours. Remember that--it's for cooks with time on their hands. When it's done, the skins should slide off the lentils and the onions will be boiled through. Here's a good way of telling when it's done: squeeze the onion with a wooden spoon (the ultimate low-tech kitchen utensil) and if the middle can be squeezed out you're getting there. If the lentils start sticking it's done, period. Take it off the heat immediately.

Reheating lentil soup is not a problem. Add a bit more water and simmer for as long as it takes. The only issue is that lentils can and will stick to the bottom of the pan when reheated. Keep a close eye on it or you'll burn your leftover dinner.

Serve with chunks of fresh, real bread, not pre-packaged slices of cotton wool. Bread is as much part of the meal as the dish itself. Offer vinegar at the table for each diner to squirt on their serving according to taste. Most people are fine with two short squirts from a standard plastic bottle (I think that's roughly half a teaspoon). Extra pepper is often welcome. Don't turn up your nose at the vinegar, it can make all the difference between an "okay" meal and a really tasty one.

Feeds six (four if you've invited me) and makes good leftovers.