Maybe you've heard this one before:
A long time ago, a woman carries two babies inside of her belly. They wrestle in her womb, each longing to be first-born, until her labor pains come and one baby boy emerges, ruddy-fleshed and with a full head of hair. The second is longer, leaner, and grasping the heel of his now older brother.
The ruddy one becomes tall and strong. He hunts for game, bringing home limp animals slung over his shoulder, ready for the fire. The ankle-grasper stays by the fire, seasoning and stirring pots of stew.
"Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I am famished," said the ruddy one, throwing down his burden, and thrusting a bowl towards his brother.
"First, sell me your birthright," said the second-born, with a little laugh, stirring the pot.
"Look, I am about to die. What good is a birthright to me?"
And so the ankle-grasper poured his ruddy brother a bowl of this ruddy lentil stew. He gave him some bread. And the older brother ate and drank, and then got up and left.
A humble, simple pot of soup sits in the middle of this ancient, Middle Eastern story of two brothers, Esau and Jacob. This isn't fancy food. This isn't feast food. It isn't the wild game, dripping with fat, roasting over the fire, that the older brother brought home. This is just simple, every-day fare, the kind you eat for lunch most days, the kind that you find waiting for you when you get home.
And yet, it is delicious. If you have never cooked with red lentils before, they are a little revelation. Bright red in the bag, they look like little chips of a legume, but when cooked down, they yellow, soften and melt into the soup. Smooth and creamy, when this soup cools a little, it sets up into a thick and stodgy stew. Yes, I said it: stodgy. Palestinians like to keep this soup very simple: a little onion or garlic, maybe, a few spices from the cupboard, lemon squeezed on top. It is a humble, everyday sort of soup, but it sings until you scrape down the bottom of your bowl.
This soup, in particular, is one of those "emergency meals," for me. If I'm not sure what to make for dinner, I fall back on this recipe. If I'm out of onion or garlic, I don't sweat it. If I have to use bottled lemon juice, I do. The lentils, the spices and the broth are enough for a light meal, with a little bread or leftover rice. This time, the bread that I reached for was starting to go a little stale, so I decided to cube the loaf, toss the bread cubes in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and sumac, spread them on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven. The result: croutons, bright and crunchy in a bowl of creamy soup.
Would I give away half the kingdom for a bowl of this soup?
Would I give away my birthright?
What is the value of a few handfuls of lentils?
But what if . . . they are hot and filling and I am cold and hungry?
That is the question I think about, as I eat.
1 lb red lentils, soaked, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons butter or ghee
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
3 lemons, juiced
1. In a large, heavy pot, saute onions and garlic in butter until translucent.
2. Pour broth and lentils into your pot. Stir in cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low heat for 20-25 minutes, until lentils are softened. If desired, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth. Squeeze in lemon juice and stir; taste and adjust seasonings and serve.
Sourdough Sumac Croutons
Mix all together in a bowl, spread onto a baking sheet and toast in a hot oven until crispy, stirring frequently.
*Lemony Lentil Soup
*Ancient Herbs: Za'atar and Sumac
*Lentil Rice Pilaf, or Mujaddara