The origin story for this red lentil soup goes back to a previous recipe for red lentil curry. I’m a big fan of lentils in general, and warm, Indian-spiced red lentils in particular.
So I really liked that curry recipe, but had to eventually admit that it suffers from some fatal flaws. For one, I was trying so hard to both avoid and substitute for high-calorie coconut milk that I came up with a weird almond milk-cornstarch slurry thing that I really don’t think was necessary, as it added nothing to the flavor of the dish and did little to thicken the already-thick lentils. So, that was out.
Secondly, while it works as a dal kind of dish served with rice, that’s a lot of starch on starch and then the rice cooker is another thing I have to clean. Again, the taste is great but…could it be an even simpler dish to make and eat? That thought started me down the path toward soup.
Finally, the major flaw with the curry was the early introduction of tomatoes. Adding tomato paste and canned tomatoes along with the lentils ensured that it took FOREVER for them to cook through. I’d be standing at the stove stirring and tasting for what felt like all night trying to get that dish to an edible stage.
The Key: Cook Components Separately
All that changed when I learned about tadka or tarka, an Indian cooking technique that perfectly solves this problem by blooming the spices of a given dish separate from its other ingredients. Tadka can either be the base of a recipe (to which you add those other ingredients) or it can be prepared to add to a finished dish.
What I’m doing here is not exactly either, but it’s a similar idea. Instead of cooking the lentils along with the spices, vegetables and aromatics, I simmer them in their own pot on the back of the stove. Meanwhile, I use my large Dutch oven to saute the vegetables, toast the spices and aromatics, and then cook down tomatoes. When both pots are ready, I simply tip the lentils into the larger pot, add water as needed, and simmer them both together for a few minutes. Voila! Perfectly cooked lentils that are excellently seasoned.
The first time I tried this technique, I was floored. The lentils cooked through in a flash, while I was still assembling spices and vegetables!
Once I worked out the timing a little better, things went smoothly. I use a medium saucepan to simmer my lentils on the back burner, and my large Dutch oven to cook down onions, carrots and celery; bloom the spices; and then reduce tomato sauce down to a dark red, umami-filled paste. When both are ready, I simply tip the lentils into the larger pot, add water, and simmer together for a few minutes before adding spinach and seasoning to taste.
I also took a page out of the butter chicken playbook and added a chunk of butter at the end, just to give it a little added richness. You can easily omit this (or substitute with a vegan alternative) for a totally vegan-friendly soup.
As an added bonus, this soup is an excellent meal prep option. I like to make a big pot on Sunday and divide it into mason jars (2 servings per quart jar) to take to work. In fact, here it is on my desk at work…
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314 calories: Red lentil soup! In my experience tomatoes slow down how quickly red lentils will cook, so I save time by simmering the lentils in one pot while I cook diced veggies, spices and tomato sauce down in another. Combine, simmer a few minutes more, stir in spinach and season. Done! Recipe coming to the blog soon. #food #cooking #redlentilsoup #redlentils #lentils #vegetarian #spicy #onion #garlic #ginger #carrot #celery #tomato #spinach #under400calories #soup #lunch #mealprep #1200caloriesaday #1200isplenty #whateverpieces