By Joy Howard | Photography by Dominic Perri
When I’m really longing for a bowl of something satisfying, I often make lentil soup. It might seem like an odd choice for a favorite, but for me, this simple recipe does far more than sate my appetite. It reminds me of when I first fell in love with food and cooking, when I discovered the pleasures that happen when you become more adventurous in what you eat.
I first tasted this version of lentil soup years ago as teenager waitressing at a Lebanese restaurant. Before working there, I knew little about food from that region of the world, but I was instantly drawn to the ingredients and combinations: salads tossed with fresh herbs and citrus; vegetables lightly simmered in warm spices; grilled meat studded with pine nuts and feta, then tucked into warm pita. Much of the food that I ate at that restaurant has informed and inspired the way that I cook and what I crave most.
What makes this soup so special? The ingredients are basic—green lentils, lemons, potatoes—but like many of the best dishes, it’s not the individual components that make it, but the singular way in which they meld together. As an experienced cook, I’m still in awe of how this particular combination yields such deep and complex flavor without the boost of broth or hours of simmering on the stovetop. The soup is homey, hearty, flavorful, and each time I sit down to a bowl, it always satisfies. Caramelized onions and fresh cilantro (yes, cilantro) provide richness and depth, while a generous amount of lemon juice gives it an irresistible note of brightness. It took me years to perfect my own version, but after a long series of failed attempts (and some help from a wonderful cookbook called Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Kamal Al-Faqih), I finally got it right.