Mediterranean Cooking from the Garden with Linda Dalal Sawaya—easy to make springtime lentil soups
lentil soup ingredients © linda dalal sawaya 2016
BY: Linda Dalal Saway/Contributing Writer
Portland days already feel like early spring with sunshine, blustery wind, rain showers, hail, and clouds swiftly passing, opening the sky to the sun once again for a few brief moments. One second the bright sunlight blasts out, and the next it disappears making it dark as night. I check the weather service satellite animation for cloud formations to calculate when it might be dry for an hour to dash out with my little doggie, baba ghannouj, for a walk in the woods. Plum blossoms are in full force with the rain showers creating a snow blanket of pink and white stippling as their fragrant petals besprinkle the pathways.
ornamental plum blossom carpet © linda dalal sawaya 2016
My garden barely manages to absorb the water blessing that our Pacific Northwest rains pour on. Some spots in the garden feel like a full-to-the-max sponge, with each step squishing out water in all directions on the grass. My garden paths that are now completely covered with burlap coffee bags and wood chips feel drier and easier for me to tread upon, but baba prefers the softer, soggy grass to the chips on his tender paws.
After our walk, I enjoy one of several of the lentil soups (shourbat adas) in Alice’s Kitchen. Lentils are full of protein, thus quite filling and the hot soup is gratifying after coming in from the cold. The addition of spring greens and juice of lemon at the end of cooking make this a perfect spring meal, along with a salad of spring greens and sprouts. Steamed spring asparagus, broccoli, beets, or other steamed vegetables add nutrition and if drizzled with our garlic, salt, lemon, and olive oil dressing provide additional refreshing flavor.
Today, I discovered my Italian lacinato kale that overwintered was shooting up making florettes, so why not steam those along with the early spring asparagus I had purchased before they opened into flowers. Cutting these shoots also means the kale will continue to sprout to attempt making flowers and ultimately seeds. And of course the water used for steaming makes wonderful, nutritious soup stock, so I added it to the lentil soup.
Italian lacinato kale florettes © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Soups are relatively easy to make and I’ve just read of a cooking bag developed for places where cooking fuel is expensive, sometimes unhealthy, and hard to obtain. The cooking bag works like a crockpot, only instead of slow cooking soup or whatever for 8 hours, a heavy pot with all the ingredients is brought to a boil for a few minutes, and then placed into the insulated bag and tightly sealed. Five to eight hours later, the soup is cooked, still hot, and ready to eat. Rice cooks in just one hour in the innovative bag, which mimics old methods of cooking by burying a heated pot in the ground for some hours.
The South African organization creating these bags, called Wonderbags, is donating a cooking bag to an African family for each order placed in the U.S. This is really appropriate technology and is something we could all embrace as our need for energy awareness and conservation increases. It does require planning ahead, but wouldn’t it be nice to come home to an already cooked meal?
I remember when my beloved grandmother, mother, and father wrapped heated milk in layers of blankets overnight in our draft-free pantry to make laban. I do the same when I make laban (yogurt). No electric yogurt makers required here.
shourbat adas © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Now, back to soups: My mother, Alice’s lentil soup, shourbat adas, cooks in a couple of hours, uses a few basic ingredients, and is made tasty with garlic and lemon, salt, and cayenne pepper. The basic ingredients are lentils, onions, celery, potatoes, and seasonings with spinach or chard added at the last minute. It can be made with or without potatoes and the greens; olive oil is also optional, which makes it very low fat. I have yet to try the wonderbag method! I know it will work, as many pots left on the stove continue the cooking long after the gas flame has been turned off. For this reason, it is best to add greens to the soup at the very last minute so they retain their bright green color.
Swiss chard that overwintered to add to lentil soup © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Another lentil soup in Alice’s Kitchen was inspired from my visit to a Greek Orthodox monastery in a small village adjacent to my parents’ village of Douma in the north of Lebanon. I visited during Lent season, and their soup had lots more garlic, lemon juice, and spring greens. Absolutely no olive oil in this recipe, as abstaining from it is integral to their Lenten fasting. The addition of noodles (rishta in Arabic) to lentil soup makes it even heartier. The noodles can be homemade, as in the recipe in our cookbook, or commercially made. This lentil soup is called in Arabic shourbat adas ou rishta.
Here’s a photo of it as served to me in Douma at my cousin’s home for lunch. It was served alongside mjaddarah, Lebanese lentils and rice which I recently wrote about, proving you can never have enough lentils—and this was in the fall, not even during Lent!
shourbat adas and shourbat adas ou rishta © linda dalal sawaya 2016
Shourbat makhlouta, which I wrote about in a recent article also contains lentils and is simply delicious and nutritious. Another lentil-based soup recipe in our book is for shourbat kibbet heeli, a real, old-country, mountain village comfort food with potato-bulgar fritters as dumplings! Something traditional for the person with a little more time to experiment with.
The steamed asparagus and kale florettes are ample side dishes that perfectly complement the soups and can be served warm or at room temperature. My beloved mother cooked asparagus until it was quite tender, perhaps so the elders at the table might find it easier to chew. I prefer to cook them to just bright green and tender. The kale florettes required a bit more cooking so their stalks would be tender. Both were drizzled with our traditional mashed garlic, salt, lemon, and olive oil dressing. Zesty and flavorful.
steamed asparagus with garlic and lemon sauce © linda dalal sawaya 2016
asparagus detail and steamed lacinato kale florettes with garlic dressing © linda dalal sawaya 2016
I hope your early spring days are full of flowers, lovely fragrances of blossoms, brisk walks, and soups simmering on the stove. Happy cooking and sahtein!
Remember, as my mother Alice said, “If you make it with love, it will be delicious!”
story and all photos © linda dalal sawaya 2016