I denied it at first, but I’ve come to embrace the fact that it is now soup season. While I always briefly mourn the passing of simple summer meals, made up of little more than freshly sliced tomatoes, piles of cheese (feta or mozzarella, either are fine with me) and a vinaigrette, I quickly get over it and welcome soup season.
Really, the work is not much more than that tomato salad from above. Vegetables are cut and thrown into a pan, water or stock is added, then it’s left alone. Of course, it does require me to think about what’s for dinner more than 15 minutes before it’s on the table—a practice I’ve become accustomed to. But from fresh vegetable to soup it’s really no more than 45 minutes and you are rewarded with a warm and inviting scent that fills the home and floods the mind with memories of soup seasons of the past.
Meals that aid in the process of cleaning out the fridge are my favorite. Inevitably, there are a few random vegetables found at the bottom of the drawer – those get thrown into the pot. Often it’s those stragglers that determine what type of soup I make. With a pantry well stocked with chicken or vegetable stock (or a freezer stocked if you make your own) and your spice rack filled with various scents from fragrant exotic lands, then soup season need not be a boring one or one that requires much forethought.
In the soup (it’s really more of a stew) that I have for you today, I use a spice mixture called za’atar. I’m hoping that the exotic and intriguing sound of that ingredient will mask the name “lentils,” which often stirs up some groans of disgust rather than moans of delight.
The other night, some friends stopped by and I offered them some of our leftover dinner, which happened to be this stew. When I said it was lentils, the response was a very sarcastic, “Ohhhh lentils”—a response I was not surprised to get. Lentils usually are not very exciting, but notice that I said “usually.”
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that is becoming more and more popular here. I picked up a rather large portion at the spice market in Seattle, having no idea what to do with it. Its fragrance was a bit soapy, but when cooked turned into this vibrant floral scent unlike anything I have smelled before. There’s a bit of nuttiness and smoke as the present sesame seeds caramelize in the heat. It’s not crucial that you have this ingredient (I’ll give other options below), but come the middle of soup season a foreign spice might be just the ticket to pull you out of a soup rut.
Enjoy the chilly mornings and settle into the crisp evenings.
Happy soup season!
by Ashley Rodriguez
LENTIL STEW WITH ZA’ATAR
2 Tbs olive oil
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 Tbs za’atar
1 cup lentils
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
5 cups water
1. In a large pot sauté the onions, carrots and celery in the olive oil with a pinch of salt for about 7 minutes.
2. Add the garlic and sauté 2-3 minutes more.
3. Add the Za’atar and stir the spices throughout cooking for just about a minute to warm the spices and release their fragrance.
4. Stir in the lentils, then top with water. Let this simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender but not mushy.
5. Add 1 ½ – 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
6. I served this stew over grilled bread that I rubbed with a garlic clove and I topped the whole mixture with the bright and herby yogurt sauce.
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 tsp lemon zest
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp mint
Pinch chili flake
If you don’t have za’atar you can easily make your own. If making your own sounds a bit daunting then simply adding some of your favorite herbs will give you a similar results. I prefer thyme and oregano. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a bit of zest at the end.
3 Tbs. dried thyme
1 Tbs. lightly toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tsp. dried oregano or marjoram
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbs. ground sumac (if sumac is unavailable, substitute 2 Tbs. dried lemon peel)
Combine everything in a spice grinder. Pulse several times to break up some of the seeds. Store well-sealed in a cool and dark place for six months.