I never regret buying lots of carrots. They’re great for snacking, for roasting as an elegant side dish, and they’re entirely soup-worthy as well. Bonus points for staying crisp quite a while in the fridge. But as much as carrots play a quintessential role in a mirepoix, the basis for so many soups, I’ve never seen them quite fit to play the starring role in one. Carrot ginger? Just not quite enticing enough, sorry. But if we’re going with a South Asian or curry-inflected theme, why not combine carrots with daal?
Daal basically means lentils, but it also refers to a thick soup made with them. Gently spiced and simmered til very soft, it’s a simple winter comfort food with mighty health benefits. Red lentils, often used in Indian daals, cook faster and become slushier than French green or brown lentils — and they also share the same color as cooked carrots, incidentally.
Something about smooth, pureed vegetable soups remind me too much of baby food. Whether it’s a delicious cauliflower bisque or a silky potato velouté, there’s an odd absence of texture that makes me not want to finish. So I wanted to retain the whole, softened lentils in the soup, as in a classic daal. But I felt like the carrots could hide in the broth, blended up, as a compromise.
Because you can’t separate cubes of carrots from tiny little lentils once they’re already in the pot together, I cooked the carrots first, outside of the soup, to blend up before adding them. How to cook them? Well, you could boil or steam them easily. Or, you could roast them slowly until their flavors concentrate and insides soften. Sounds better to me.
As for the aromatics, a big, gnarly leek took the place of the more traditional onion (for daal or Indian cooking). Some garlic, and fresh mild-hot red chilies were chopped up, too. (It’s incredible that I was still able to find fresh chilies this late into the season at the Farmers Market!) Finally, the stems of the cilantro bunch that was meant for garnish were finely chopped to sweat with the rest of the aromatics. These stems hold lots of flavor and aren’t tough at all — they practically dissolve. You could also just pull apart one half of the cilantro bunch you’re using and chop the entire sprigs, saving the other half for soup garnish instead. Either way, you’ll still get that cilantro flavor cooked into the soup, as well as sprinkled on top.
Apparently we’ve just made another vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, super granola-crunching, one-dish happy meal with a few cheap ingredients. Way to save your caloric intake for the holidays!
Curried Carrot Soup with Red Lentils
(makes 6-8 servings)
1/2 cup red lentils
1 lb carrots
1 large onion, chopped (or substitute 1 large leek, white and light green parts only)
2-3 small, fresh red chilies (optional, if you like heat), finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch cilantro
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
(or, skip all the spices above and just add your favorite curry powder blend to taste)
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse and scrub the carrots well (they do not need to be peeled). Chop into halves lengthwise or pieces of equal size no thicker than 1/2″ in width. Coat with about 1 tablespoon of the oil. Arrange on an oven-safe dish in a single layer. Roast for 30 minutes, or until carrots are soft to the touch. Let cool. Transfer carrots to a blender or food processor and puree.
Cover the lentils with 2 cups of water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cook, stirring once or twice, for 10 minutes, or until lentils are softened.
Finely chop one half of the bunch of cilantro from stem to leaf. Reserve the other half of the bunch for garnish. (Alternately, you can just chop off all the stems of the cilantro bunch and reserve the entire leaves for garnish.)
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion (or leek) and chilies and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped cilantro and cook, stirring occasionally, another 2-3 minutes. Add the dry spices and cook, stirring, another minute. Add the soaked lentils and all its cooking liquid, and the pureed carrots. Stir to incorporate thoroughly. Add 2 cups more water (or slightly more or less, depending on how thick you want your soup). Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cover. Simmer another 30 minutes, then taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve with the remaining cilantro for garnish.
(for 6-8 servings)
1/2 cup red lentils (at $4/lb): $0.50
1 lb carrots (at $2.50/bunch): $2.00
1 leek: $0.50
2 chilies: $0.25
4 cloves garlic: $0.25
1 bunch cilantro: $2.00
dry spices, salt and pepper: $0.50
4 tablespoons oil: $0.25
Three brownie points: This is nearly perfect, but I’d save that kind of score for something that maybe has kale or spinach in a daal rather than carrots. (Oh wait, I did.) With lentils, you’ll have a heart-healthy plant-based protein as well as lots of fiber. Carrots will boost your immune system with antioxidants and beta-carotene. Spices will tingle your nostrils and energize your spirits. There is really nothing bad to say here.
Seven maple leaves: Despite the hearty help from the dry spice cabinet, the flavors here are seasonal — carrots, garlic, onion, and even some late-season fresh chilies. I was able to find organic lentils but in any event, this dried pantry staple is a pretty eco-friendly choice of protein.