One of my favorite things in the world might be throwing an impromptu dinner party with just a few hours’ notice. Maybe it’s all those years in my teens and early 20s spent in restaurant kitchens, but I love the mad dash to plan a menu and execute with only what I’ve got in the fridge and pantry.
Just such an opportunity arose Thursday afternoon. We’d scheduled a get together with all of my girlfriends to celebrate the year that was, gathering in a few out of towners in Chicago visiting family for the holidays. We’d planned to go out for dinner, but had not called ahead for reservations, and the spot we’d picked was booked, which gave me the opportunity to offer to host and whip up…something for a crowd of 10. Mind you, we’d just returned from five days in Michigan with family, so the fridge was a teensy bit bare, but there were enough bits and bobs of green, and my well stocked pantry saved the day to make a fitting feast.
With 3 hours until party time, I assembled a big pot of beef and black bean chili, spiked with a tiny bit of Mexican chorizo that was lingering in the fridge, gluten free cornbread, a white peach balsamic vinegar slaw with fennel, apple, cabbage, toasted pepitas and dried cranberries, and finally, this pot of curried green lentil soup, which turned out to be an unexpected star of the menu.
The soup is vegetarian, and can be vegan with swapping out the tiny bit of butter for olive oil and suffer none for the change. Typically, I have homemade veggie broth in the freezer, but the freezer was bare, so as I searched the crisper drawer for flavor options, I knew I’d have to layer in flavors with a couple of tricks to make a full bodied soup that satisfied.
I’ve fallen hard for Indian flavors in the last few years, and with my dear friend Sabera teaching me what her momma taught her, I applied a couple of Indian techniques in the creation of this quick soup. Making the flavor foundation by frying the black mustard seeds and ribbons of fresh curry leaves in oil before sauteeing the veggies gets this humble soup off to a good start, and applying the same technique of herbs fried in oil at the end brings a fresh punch of curry to the finished pot of soup.
Curried French Green Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
Serves 5-6 as main course
Lentil Quick Brine
1 ½ cups of french de puy lentils*
2 T kosher salt for lentil brining, plus more to season soup to taste
2 T olive oil, divided
1 T butter
1 T brown mustard seeds
12 fresh curry leaves, divided*
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 orange or red bell pepper, cleaned and diced
2 1/2 T Madras (or sweet) curry powder, divided
1 tsp garam masala
4 cloves minced garlic, divided
1 T tomato paste
2 Sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite sized cubes
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1-2 tsp red wine or sherry vinegar
*Ingredient notes: I’ve recommended the French de Puy Lentils here, as I like that they keep their shape a bit more than standard brown or green lentils, but if you can’t find them, by all means, substitute with your favorite variety of lentil.
You will typically find fresh curry leaves at Indian or Asian Markets – a flat, waxy leaf, you’ll know them when you smell them, and when you do, buy a couple of bunches and keep them in your freezer in a plastic Ziploc bag, so that you can pull out a few leaves as you need them. Fresh curry leaves add an extra earthy punch that you just can’t get from ground curry leaves that create intense aroma in the finished dish. If you can’t find curry leaves, add an extra teaspoon or two of curry powder for a little extra oomph.
- Soaking the lentils: Boil up a kettle of water, and add 2 T kosher salt to a 2qt bowl. Add the lentils, and cover with 3-4 inches of water, stirring to dissolve the salt. Soak for 1-2 hours while you prep the veggies for the rest of the soup and perhaps enjoy a cup of tea.
- Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil to the hot pan. When the butter has melted, add 1 T brown mustard seeds and 6 fresh curry leaves sliced into ribbons. Stir around with a spatula until you start to hear the mustard seeds start to pop and jump around in the oil.
- Add the diced onion, carrots and bell pepper to the pot with a pinch of kosher salt, and saute for 5-8 minutes, until the onion is translucent, stirring every now and then.
- Add 1 ½ T of madras curry powder, 1 tsp garam masala, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes and 2 minced cloves of garlic to the softened vegetables and stir for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
- Drain the lentils, and rinse for a few seconds under running water in a sieve. Pour the lentils into the pot along with the tomato paste and cover with 2 inches of water, cover and bring to a boil. Once the soup reaches a boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 40 minutes, until the lentils are nearly tender, and just a tad on the al dente side. Stir the pot whenever you think of it, but it doesn’t need a lot of babysitting. Add more water if the lentils get too thick, you want the soup to have a bit of broth to it.
- Add the cubed sweet potatoes to the pot, stirring them in, and then cook covered for another 20 minutes until the potatoes are tender. As before, pour a little more water into the pot as needed.
- When the lentils and potatoes are tender, it’s time to spice up the soup. Heat a small pan over medium heat, then add the remaining 1 T of olive oil, 2 cloves minced garlic, remaining and 6 fresh curry leaves sliced into ribbons. Cook for 2 minutes until the curry leaves start to crisp and the garlic has softened a bit, and then add the 1 T madras curry powder, and stir for 30 more seconds.
- Pour the oil and spice mixture into the soup and stir. The last hit of spices and oil will brighten up the soup and refresh the curry flavors.
- Finally, season the soup with kosher salt to taste – it might take a healthy pinch or two to get the right balance, and finish with 1-2 tsp of red wine or sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor of the cooked lentils. Serve your hungry guests.