zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

For the last few weeks, I've been putting the finishing touches on some fresh takes on classic Middle Eastern salads, and I'm very excited to start sharing all the recipes and photos. A couple weeks ago, I raved about beet salad with fresh chive blossoms. I recently posted this recipe for ruby fennel tabbouleh, and I've got two others (1, 2) in the works, so be sure to keep an eye out later in the summer for more tabbouleh variations. And on Wednesday, I'm posting a take on classic fattoush.

So, yes: everyone loves a crisp, refreshing seasonal salad with a bright, sunny dressing, and lots of fresh summer produce. But after about a month of nothing but salads with every meal, all those cool cucumbers and juicy tomatoes start to become a little monotonous. And that's when you remember that the right kind of soup can make a wonderful summer meal too.


That's all just to say that this red lentil soup is not one of those hearty, stick-to-your-bones, warm your heart and soul, flannel-blanket-in-a-bowl kinds of soups with russet potatoes, roasted beef bones, cheddar cheese, roux, barley, mushroom, and gobs of roasted garlic. Instead of warming it, this soup will lift your soul, clear your head, and bring your senses back to life after an early summer salad burnout.

How does this soup do it? Lots and lots of cilantro, sumac, lemon, and—most importantly—mint. But you know how sometimes you accidentally add way too much mint to something and it ends up tasting like toothpaste? Dried mint is the key to this soup's subtlety. You can buy dried mint in some specialty stores, but if you can't find it, you can easily dry fresh mint at home, which is absolutely in season right now. If you have a friend who grows it, they're probably already trying to find people to take all the extra mint off their hands. And while it might sound strange to dry out an ingredient before adding it to something wet, it actually makes all the difference.

zesty lentil soup
zesty lentil soup

But I totally understand if you're skeptical—whenever a recipe tells me to add water and then boil to reduce, I roll my eyes and totally ignore both instructions altogether (because who wants to simultaneously waste time and make their house more humid?), but this is different, and absolutely not an oversight.

Just think about how different dried basil and fresh basil taste. Close your eyes and imagine a caprese salad with dried basil; then imagine a sandwich with fresh basil meatballs. I mean, both sound totally delicious, but completely different than what you're probably used to. No matter the herb, drying changes everything! The dried mint makes this soup herby without being too minty, and the red lentils make it filling without feeling heavy. And best of all, this soup is delicious at room temperature or chilled.

But if you're not totally on board with chilled soups, you can absolutely enjoy this one hot on a summer day. My great grandfather Paulos would always drink chai in sweltering weather, because he claimed that drinking a hot liquid actually cools you down. While I've never been quite sure if this is true, he was a wise man, and so on hot days when I'm craving a bowl of hot soup, I just go with it. Or you can just revel in the chill of your air conditioned kitchen while you eat hot soup under a blanket (no judgement!).

zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

yield: 6 servings
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 30 minutes
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  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 small or 1/2 of a large onion, minced (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 3 carrots, diced small (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 2 quarts (8 cups) vegetable broth or stock

  • 1 pound (16 ounce) bag red lentils (slightly over 2 cups), sorted and rinsed

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled dried mint

  • 2 teaspoons paprika

  • 2 teaspoons sumac

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

  • Salt to taste

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 to 1 1/2 lemons)

  • For serving: chopped cilantro, sumac, crushed red pepper, lemon wedges, pita bread or rice

  1. Place a stockpot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Stir in the onion, carrots, and garlic, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring every minute or two, until they soften.

  2. Once the veggies soften, stir in the cumin and coriander seeds, and cook, stirring constantly, for another 2 minutes.

  3. Stir in the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for another minute.

  4. Add the vegetable broth, lentils, dried mint, paprika, sumac, and cayenne pepper. Stir together, cover, and increase heat to high. Once it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the lentils are starting to fall apart. *

  5. Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary. If the soup looks a little dry add 1/2 cup of water at a time. Partially purée the soup, if desired. Once you're happy with the seasoning and amount of liquid, stir in the lemon juice.

  6. Serve either hot, chilled, or at room temperature. Garnish with cilantro, sumac, and crushed red pepper. Serve alongside lemon wedges and bread or rice.

* Most red lentils sold in US grocery stores are split red lentils. If you have whole red lentils, you should increase the cooking time to about 15 to 20 minutes. The lentils should be falling apart and not al dente.

zesty lentil soup

smoky, moody, and deep masgouf

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

My family has always served dinner with a big salad piled high with lots of fresh veggies, drizzled with herby lemon vinaigrette, and sprinkled with lots of zesty sumac. But our salad is no mere side salad. We heap it onto our main course plates, so that there's pretty much a 1:1 ratio of salad to everything else. So needless to say, when I was planning this series of 3 masgouf posts (also known as masguf or masgoof), everyone in my family opted for the green and herby masgouf.

But not everyone has to be so fanatical about fresh, green flavors. On the other side of the spectrum, many people gravitate toward those really umami, smoky flavors that characterize the best barbecue, chili, rogan josh, anchovy pizza, tapenade, and miso soup. And if this list has you drooling, this is certainly the masgouf for you.

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf Marinade
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf Seasoning

All this is, of course, not to say that people who like umami hate freshness, or that people who love bright flavors hate deep flavors—a really good meal will have a balance of both. But everyone has a different idea of what a perfect balance looks like.

To make this masgouf the smokiest, moodiest, and deepest, I replaced some of the curry powder with the deeper flavors of paprika and dried thyme, which gives the final dish a less sunny disposition. But the real heart of this masgouf is the slow-roast tomatoes, which spend hours developing a very intense flavor. My husband and I call these Erin and Alvin tomatoes, after our friends who taught us how to roast them this way. Alvin suggests cutting the tomatoes in half as levelly as possible, so that they don't lose any juices while they roast. As you can see below, for me, this is aspirational. But they come out wonderfully, no matter how wonkily you slice them, and the over-caramelized (ahem, burnt!) pools of tomato juices are simply left behind on the pan, to be washed away with all your worries about perfection.

These tomatoes are also really delicious smeared with goat cheese on challah or brioche, cut into quarters and tossed with some pasta and basil leaves, or spread on cornbread, fresh from the oven (seriously, try these with cornbread). If you're using them for something else, feel free to use different herbs and spices, or leave them out altogether. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to double the tomato part of the recipe, so that you have some left over.

Slow-roasted Tomatoes
Erin and Alvin
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

The trickiest thing about this masgouf recipe is making sure nothing burns, since the tomatoes essentially get cooked twice. You want some char, but you don't want to turn your tomatoes to ashes. If you're really worried about it, you can simply place the roast tomatoes on the fish after it's finished cooking, but I think something special happens when the fish cooks together with the tomatoes. So to have the best of both worlds, I cook this masgouf by topping the raw fish with the slow-roast tomatoes and raw onions, roasting the entire dish for a few minutes at a lower-than-usual temperature, and then tenting it loosely with foil for the rest of the cooking time to make sure nothing burns. All of this is in the recipe, but it's worth nothing that you should use your own judgment when deciding if and when to tent.

For more masgouf:
Sweet, sour, and spicy masgouf
Green and herby masgouf

Masgouf Trio
Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf

smoky, moody, and deep masgouf

Yield: 2 to 3 servings (can easily be multiplied)
Active time: 40 minutes
Total time: 4 1/2 hours

slow-roasting the tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt
14 ounces of whole black tomatoes (or garden variety red tomatoes), about 2 large tomatoes

  • Pre-heat the oven to 325° F.

  • Combine the curry, thyme, paprika, olive oil, and salt in a small bowl.

  • Do not remove the stems or hull the tomatoes. Simply slice the tomatoes in half, cutting from one side to the other, rather than cutting from stem to end. Try to make your cut as level and horizontal as possible.

  • Coat the tomatoes in the oil-spice mixture and place the tomatoes cut-side-up on a roasting pan (optionally, using a silicone mat will help you remove them later).

  • Slow-roast the tomatoes in the oven, checking every 30 minutes to make sure they are not burning. ** If the tomatoes seem to be browning very quickly early on, turn the heat down to 300° F and be prepared to cook them longer. The tomatoes are done once they have have shrunk significantly, browned nicely, and no longer ooze juice. This will take between 2 to 4 hours, depending on the tomatoes' size and sugar content, and can be done up to 3 days ahed of time, and kept in the refrigerator.

  • Once the tomatoes are done, remove the stems and use kitchen shears to snip away any burnt bits.

marinating the fish

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon curry powder (either store-bought or homemade)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1/8 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
10 to 12 ounces of white, lean fish fillets (about 1 big or 2 small fillets) *

  • Add the lemon juice, curry powder, thyme, paprika, olive oil, and salt to a large ziplock bag, seal the bag and mix everything around by squeezing the bag a few times.

  • Pat the fish dry with paper towels, and place it in the bag with the marinade. Squeeze the bag to evenly coat the fish in the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to 4 hours if you want to make it ahead).

grilling the fish

marinated fish (above)
roast tomatoes (above)
2 tablespoons thinly sliced red onions (fill a quarter cup halfway)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Pinch salt
Optional: 1 teaspoon minced parsley for garnish

  • Once the fish has marinaded, preheat the grill to medium-high. If you're baking, pre-heat the oven to 425° F.

  • To assemble the onion topping: combine the red onions, lemon juice, curry powder, thyme, paprika, and salt.

  • Take the fish from the marinade, do not pat it dry, and place it on a grill-safe tray (with a rim if you're using the oven).

  • Top the fish with the roast tomatoes, followed by the onion topping. Bake or grill (with the lid down) for 2 minutes and then check on the masgouf. Loosely tent the fish with foil if the tomatoes are browning too quickly, or leave it untented and continue to check on it every few minutes.

  • Continue to grill or bake until the fish is flaky. Cooking times vary, depending on the shape and size of your fish and the particular quirks of your grill, but you can count on at least 10 minutes on the grill (or at least 15 minutes in the oven).

  • Garnish with minced parsley and serve immediately.

* Catfish is pictured, but you could use tilapia, cod, carp, branzino, or any other similar fish.
** Don't worry if any runaway drippings start to burn.

Smoky, Moody, Deep Masgouf