Red Lentil Soup With Harissa: tasty, cheap and coincidentally, vegan

red lentil soup

I have been on a lentil kick for a long time now. They’re healthy, filling and fast to cook. I recently invented this four-ingredient soup and I’ve been eager to write it up. It’s finished in half an hour and it’s so good. Here’s how to make it… 

This one is so easy. The key is to use red lentils. They’re available in the bulk bins of your grocery store or otherwise, in the “ethnic foods” aisle with the Middle Eastern or Indian foods. They run about $3-4 a pound around here. Red lentils are hulled lentils and they lose their shape as they cook.

This recipe also uses harissa, which is a Tunisian spice paste made chiefly of hot peppers, red peppers, cumin and coriander. It can be so hot that it sears your brain. I use a mix in a jar. I have seen it for sale in places as varied as Williams-Sonoma and Lebanese grocery stores. You can also make your own if you’re in for a project. The key is that you should test out how hot it is and build up the spice in the soup to your tolerance. Harissa is spectacular on grilled meats, but this recipe strays far from that and demonstrates its versatility.

Red Lentil Soup with Harissa

Serves 4

1c Red Lentils
3.5c Water
1tsp Salt
1tbl Harissa

(yes, that’s all you need)

Begin by putting the lentils in a soup pot. Look over them for pebbles. You’ll find one at some point in your life and you’ll be glad you were careful. Then pour over the water. I play with amounts between a 3:1 and 4:1 ratio. The former gives a porridge consistency and the latter is more like a soup. I suggest starting with three and a half cups of water and then thinning it down toward the end if you like it thinner.

Bring the water to a boil, add salt and then drop the heat to a simmer. Let it cook for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. If you cook at too high of a heat, they will burn to the bottom of your pan. The lentils should be breaking down now and thickening up. You can cook them until they’re mush, but I like them to have a bit of texture to them, like in the photo above.

When they are at the texture you like, start stirring in a little harissa at a time. It’ll turn the soup an attractive orange color, which is good because the lentils cook out to an unattractive tan. Stir, taste, add harissa to your level of heat and flavor. If you think it needs a touch more salt, add it here as well.

This soup ends up being very fast to make and filling. There’s no need to use vegetable stock or bundles of herbs. It’s very cheap and it’s not just vegetarian, it’s vegan, if that’s something that matters to you. Want to add more to it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Drizzle a bit of good olive oil on top of the soup after you ladle it into the bowl. I don’t mix it in, preferring to spoon up some oil every now and then with a bite.
  • Brush a slice of good bread with oil and grill or toast it to make a tasty accompaniment.
  • Top with freshly-chopped cilantro, which will echo the coriander in the harissa
  • Put a dollop of unflavored yogurt, sour cream or creme fraiche on top as an indulgent treat

This is my favorite kind of vegetable-based cooking because it isn’t improved by adding bacon to it. It stands on its own, and that’s a great thing.