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Lentil Soup Offers A Taste Of History

Faye Levy Los Angeles Times Service

Don’t look down on humble lentils.

These legumes are so esteemed by the French that they have bestowed an official “appellation d’origine,” as they do for fine wines, on their green lentils from the area of Puy in central France.

The French like to use lentils in soup, but they cannot claim to have originated the dish. The best-known lentil soup comes not from a manual of classic cuisine but from the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. In fact, lentil use goes back even further in history. Originating in the Middle East, lentils are believed to be the first legume ever cultivated.

Lentils were perhaps the first convenience food. Of all the pulses (dried beans and peas), lentils cook the fastest; some varieties become tender in 20 minutes. They also have another advantage: Unlike other legumes, lentils don’t need to be soaked before they are cooked.

Lentils are ideal for soup because they are filling and produce a flavorful broth. Cooks around the world have discovered the virtues of lentil soup for preparing economical meals. Some prepare hearty vegetarian soups by combining lentils with spices like cumin and coriander and with aromatic vegetables like onions and carrots. Others simmer lentils with chicken or meat.

Nutritionally, lentils have everything going for them. They are high in protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber. In addition, they are rich in iron, potassium and folate. They contain virtually no fat and are cholesterol free.

Serving a hearty, old-fashioned soup gives dinner a relaxing atmosphere, whether the lentil soup is a first course or entree. You can serve the soup with croutons or with crusty bread or pita. My favorite accompaniment is steaming hot rice, white or brown, for spooning into each bowl of soup at serving time.

Colombian Lentil Soup

A quick tomato sauce is stirred into this thick, satisfying soup at the last moment and contributes a bright, fresh flavor and appealing color.

1-1/2 cups lentils

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

1 quart water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 (14-1/2-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and chopped

Salt, freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley

2 teaspoons strained fresh lemon juice, or to taste

2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced

Spread lentils in batches on plate. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones. Rinse and drain.

Combine lentils, garlic, broth and 1 quart water in medium saucepan and bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat 20 to 30 minutes or until lentils are tender.

Meanwhile, heat oil in skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until lightly browned.

Add tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook 5 minutes or until sauce is thick. Add to lentil soup and return to boil.

Remove soup from heat. Add 1 tablespoon cilantro, salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.

Serve soup garnished with slices of hard-cooked egg and sprinkle with remaining 1 tablespoon cilantro.

Yield: 4 servings.