So many recipes so little time. That's a constant thought on my mind. But there's only so much a person can cook or eat, especially after the greediness of the Christmas holidays.
I feel like I can really use a break from meat, poultry, cream, desserts, and butter. But don't go thinking that I'm going to abstain from every type of fat. No, no that would be preposterous. Fat in the form of pure, rich, luxurious olive oil is the fat of choice. The dish of choice is a classic Greek recipe of lentils.
It is well known that the ancient Greeks enjoyed lentils, mainly in the form of soup, and lentils have been praised by Aristophanes, the ancient Greek comic playwright, in a number of his plays. So who am I to doubt their power? I'm a mere modern Greek girl declaring that I love, love, love lentils. I don't know what it is; maybe it's the appetite of my ancestors running through my blood, making me crave those small, round, tasty legumes. Maybe it's the fact that they're so nutritious that, without me even realizing it, they make me feel a little healthier and more balanced after I've eaten them. It's true; lentils are full of iron, dietary fibers, proteins, minerals, vitamin B1, thus an absolute delight for any of you vegetarians out there. They come in so many colors and sizes, which is curiously impressive, and above all they are so easy to cook.
Greek lentil soup (called "fakes soupa" in Greek) is supposed to have a small list of ingredients. Not fancy or flamboyant fare but simple and straightforward. It's soothing yet potent and full of flavor. When you take a spoonful of this dense soup and savor it, you can immediately taste the rich essence of lentils along with the acidity of tomatoes, the sweetness of the onions, the "kick" of the garlic, the silky smoothness of the olive oil and the aroma of the bay leaf. Adding a small amount of red-wine vinegar at serving time takes the soup to another, higher level.
Being a perfect remedy against the cold weather, this hearty dish is traditionally enjoyed with a side of anchovy or mackerel fillets in olive oil, a chunk of Greek feta cheese and a loaf of rustic bread.
Greek Lentil Soup or "Fakes Soupa"
Before you cook the lentils it is important that you pick them over. Sometimes you can find spoiled, blackened lentils or small stones or debris. Just put them in small batches onto a plate and pick them over carefully.
Yield: 6 servings
500 g large* brown lentils
2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, sliced
400 g fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed or canned diced tomatoes
4 tsp tomato paste
3 dried bay leaves
1/2 cup and 1 Tbsp olive oil
5 plus 5 cups water (and a little more if needed)
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Red-wine vinegar (optional)
Pour 5 cups of water in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add the lentils. Bring them to the boil over high heat and drain them immediately through a colander. Through this process the lentils get cleaned and ready for proper cooking.
Heat the olive oil in the same pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté them for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and lentils and sauté for 3 more minutes, making sure the lentils are well coated with the oil. Place the tomatoes and tomato paste in the pot and stir everything around. Pour the rest 5 cups of water all over and add the bay leaves and a pinch of sugar. The sugar is added in order to take away some of the tartness of the tomatoes. Add salt and black pepper, bring the mixture to the boil and then simmer over very low heat with the lid on, stirring regularly, for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the lentils are cooked. They should be soft but not mushy.
It is very important that you keep an eye on the lentils while they cook because they tend to absorb a lot of water. You may need to add more water, so check and stir lentils at regular intervals.
Once lentils are cooked, discard bay leaves, check the seasoning and serve soup in bowls. If desired, add a teaspoon of red-wine vinegar per serving. You can add more or less depending on your personal taste.
*You can also use small lentils, but you'll have to cook them for a shorter amount of time. They need about 30 minutes.