healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week: help me make delicious lentil soup

The healthy slow-cooker recipe of the week - now running about every-other week - has hit a snag: lentil soup. I love lentil soup, but my own is turning out just OK, not really delicious.

After the first try was too bland, Stephanie suggested using allspice and more bay leaves. Excellent idea! I upped the bay leaves from three to six, and added allspice. Result: big improvement, but still not great.

If you make delicious lentil soup, can you share your secrets? (And if the secret is homemade stock, then I'm out of luck.) More below.

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I'm still using the hell out of my slow-cooker. I usually cook with it twice a week - once for food for the weekend, and once for my meals at work, one batch for the week. I'm still collecting meal ideas, if you have any favourites to share.

I notice that recipes I find online tend to be exceedingly bland. With the exception of foods that are supposed to be hot-spicy (which I avoid), the recipes I see are shy of seasoning. Lentil soup, for example, may call for 1/2 a teaspoon of thyme, 1/2 a teaspoon of oregano, and 1 clove of garlic. A pot of soup with only those seasonings would be tasteless. Maybe this is a case for cookbooks, as opposed to cooking websites.

I also note that this is the kind of post that usually goes on Facebook these days, as opposed to blogs. As you may know, I think that is bad.

* * * *

So here's the lentil soup I made yesterday. What's yours?

1 cup dried lentils
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 lb - 1 lb smoked ham, diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
6 bay leaves
2 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons oregano
1 tablespoon allspice
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 litre or more low-sodium chicken stock

Everything goes in slow-cooker, 8 hours on low.


M@ said...

With bland legumes, there are a few things I would try out:

- More pepper. I find I have to use more than I expect with legumes. Or something else that has a bit of bite -- cayenne pepper, maybe, or even curry powder.

- Acid. Lemon juice might be the thing here but I'm not sure -- I've got a book I want to check at home. A few shots of Tabasco sauce might be a possibility too.

- Fresh parsley. Stir some in right before serving. Or if you don't want to use a few sprigs of parsley from the massive bunches at the supermarket and throw out the rest, then you can get tubes of fresh herbs for about $4 that will last for a good long time. The parsley, dill, and Italian seasoning ones are fixtures in my fridge until our fresh herbs start growing.

If I think of anything else I'll let you know!

laura k said...

Thanks, M@! This reminds me that Stephanie also suggested lemon juice, but I forgot that.

I don't want the soup to be spicy, so I'm reluctant to use cayenne or tabasco. But maybe a dash or a drop is called for.

M@ said...

Yes -- I try to add these kinds of things until just before I can actually taste them. Tabasco has the double advantage of acid and heat, and I add it all the time to bean dip.

Stephanie said...

How are you with cumin? We made lentil soup last week while camping on the Bruce Trail. I made a seasoning mix in advance that included cumin and tumeric (according to experts we should all eat more tumeric). I also added an entire bulb of garlic leaving the cloves whole. Always a delight to bite into a cooked clove. I also find that green pepper can add a bunch of flavour to soups. You would add them diced to the onions.

On the issue of homemade stock. Forget making stock and just add a smoked ham hock or any other soup bones of your choice!

I am certain we are going to conquer this challenge. Keep us posted please.

laura k said...

Adding a bone to the ready-made stock is a great idea. I was hoping putting ham in the soup would have the same effect, but it really didn't.

I can do cumin! When I make arroz con pollo or any chicken stew I season the chicken with a healthy dose of cumin while it's browning.

I don't know tumeric. I think it's kind of gingery? Sounds worth a try.

I hope your camping trip was fun!

Stephanie said...

Camping was a blast until I did a face plant on the limestone trail while heading down a slope. Lost my footing and with a pack on I was done. Have a beautiful black eye and other patinas on the face for a memento. Booo!

That aside the camping was outstanding. Now back to the recipe.

I agree with Matt that tobasco will add both acid and spice but when used sparingly it does not necessarily mean too much heat.

Tumeric has a very subtle flavour that might be likened to very very mild ginger. It is often used as a colourant too (curies always have a generous amount in them).

While experimenting in this line you might also try a (Spanish) smokey paprika.

laura k said...

Camping was a blast until I did a face plant on the limestone trail while heading down a slope. Lost my footing and with a pack on I was done. Have a beautiful black eye and other patinas on the face for a memento. Booo!

Oh noooo! You poor thing. Sounds like something I would do! In fact, right now I am (finally) sorting and uploading our photos from Spain. Looking at the zillions of pics we took of La Sagrada Familia, I remember how I walked into a glass door leaving a deli...

I guess I will continue to experiment with the lentil soup. I could probably make it once every month without getting sick of it. Even the not-great versions are not awful, just a bit dull.

laura k said...

PS: Despite your injury, I commend you. I would never pick my way downhill on limestone with a pack on. I'd end up face-down for sure.

Hope your injuries heal quickly. :/

M@ said...

Yes, I find turmeric to have more of an earthy flavour than a gingery or peppery. I can see it working very well with lentils.

I also recall that we had discussed smoked pork hocks in the recent past, Laura -- I haven't done much smoking this year but next time I do I'll pop a couple on there for you as well as for me. They freeze really well.

Stephanie, sorry to hear about your tumble! I'm jealous of the camping though -- I'm itching to get out into the wild myself one of these days.

Stephanie said...

Healing is definitely well underway. The hardest part was being seen in public immediately after. The swelling was so pronounced that I had a Frankensteinesque look that drew far more attention than I wanted.

I must admit that the trail was extremely challenging but the Stormhaven campsites were so worth it! I will have some photos up soon and you can see for yourself No bruised face shots though, since we were on our way out of the park when the fall happened.

laura k said...

Stephanie, I hear you... I've been there. It's better that there's no photographic evidence!

M@, I've thought about that ham hock! It came up in my first slow-cooker post, when asking for recipes and tips. I didn't want to remind you! Dog knows we've both had enough going on lately without bothering with my slow-cooker soups. But if you have some and they freeze well... :)

Stephanie said...

Matt, thanks. We will be off to Algonquin next where we will have a meal of lentil soup again.

Which reminds me of a camping fix that we use in our soup while camping and may be used in the slow cooker too!! Saves much time doing prep ad weight when packing in all the supplies. Also pleasing to the young adolescent palates in our group.

We add dried vegetable flakes (much easier than trying to pack in fresh veggies)!! The flavours imparted by the mixture of carrots celery peppers etc. has made our camping lentil soup much tastier. Give it a try Laura.

laura k said...

Dried vegetable flakes? You buy them in a package like dried beans and legumes?

I imagine they have a more concentrated flavour, like dried herbs. Is that the idea?

But would I use them only for flavouring or actually omit veggies? More info please! :)

Stephanie said...

Dried vegetable flakes are available in bulk stores or in health food stores near you. They do indeed add considerable flavour especially when time is of the essence. They also reconstitute providing some added texture.

The quantity used is going to affect the amount of liquid used in your recipe since they are going to absorb liquid as they are reconstituted.

You could eliminate carrots, (peppers if you were going to add them) and celery but I think you will want to continue using fresh onion and garlic cloves. For 1 cup of lentils I would use at least 1/2 cup of dried veg to start but it is really to your taste. I think we used as much as a cup while camping.

For future use, I am going to send you my mother's French Canadian split pea soup recipe. It could also be done with lentils rather than split peas. It is however usually cooked on top of the stove for several hours. The flavour is smokey from the WHOLE smoked pork shoulder she uses but the seasoning is largely fresh onion and dried savoury and a touch of sage (cumin can be added too but it is not used in her original recipe).

laura k said...

Thanks for the info! It seems strange to use dried vegetables instead of fresh. But I will try it at some point.

I LOVE split pea soup. Please do send! Another reader gave me a recipe in our first slow-cooker thread, which is how the ham hock came up.

My grandmother used to make a Jewish version using kosher hot dogs and marrow from beef bones. I don't know what I would think if I had it now, but I loved it as a kid.

Stephanie said...

Regarding dried vegetable flakes:

Keep in mind this is a strategy that has come out of our camping cuisine repertory (thus not necessarily a gourmet delight).

When camping, we make the lentil soup with water only (+ garlic, salt and pepper) so the dried vegetables are a HUGE bonus but if you are looking for added flavour they *might* do the trick since there is a large variety of vegetables already chopped (a shortcut to vegetable stock in a sense).

I am pretty sure you will find this addition in NO classic recipes for lentil soup.

laura k said...

Gotcha. :)

My question about lentil soup is: Why does lentil soup in a diner or even from a can taste so much better than mine? Those sources might be a clue right there: salt. Perhaps could be my low/no salt cooking methods are incompatible with legumes.

I often wonder why certain vegetables taste so much better when dining out than at home - spinach, asparagus. The answer, I'm sure, is butter and salt.

Something tells me that along with the suggestions here, adding salt will before cooking will greatly improve the outcome of the soup.

Stephanie said...

Ah yes, salt.

In which case you should find that the addition of a smoked ham hock is delightful.

We are also interested in reducing salt which is one reason I like to make my own stock as much as possible. David and I make more vegetable stock than any other kind because we find the flavour so much more rich and as a result the amount of added salt needed to make it really pop is minimal. It is also made easy by the fact that we go through so many vegetables and save anything that can be used for stock.

So in my opinion you must definitely try the smoked ham hock then cumin, lemon juice (when serving) and then perhaps a shot of tobasco too.

laura k said...

I have no doubt that homemade stock is better than pre-made - it has to be.

Maybe one day my cooking will evolve to the point where I want to bother with that. Right now, making meals in advance for my dinners and lunches at work is something to congratulate myself for - and it will only happen if I can do it with minimal effort.

In this latest allspice version of the lentil soup, I thought the ham (organic, nitrite-free, expensive ham!) and the low-sodium chicken broth would provide enough salt.

Meanwhile, it's been in the fridge for a whole day, so it might be very yummy tomorrow. I'll let you know!

Stephanie said...

It was not at all my intent to nag about making your own stock apologies if that was the perception. It is absolutely not necessary. It's really all about the bones (and the other quality ingredients you are already using).

Add a bone-in cheap cut like ribs, shanks or the smoked ham hock and I think you will find a big improvememt. The bone marrow (as youknow) adds so much flavour and the natural gelatin adds a gorgeous consistency. Just like your grandmother's kosher split pea soup.

I look forward to a report back on your next batch.


laura k said...

Oh no no no, I didn't think you were nagging. I was just musing. :)

(But thanks.)

CJ Burke said...

I love this recipe -- no stock needed, homemade or otherwise.


laura k said...

Thanks for that!

They're using a tomato base instead of stock - the tomatoes are the stock. I guarantee if you substitute chicken or vegetable stock for the water, it will taste better. :)

johngoldfine said...

Things to think about adding, either for the whole cook or for nearer the end:

* rice
* tamari/soy sauce (instead of table salt)
* grated cheddar cheese
* leftover boiled potatoes

laura k said...

Hey, thanks, John!

Boiled potatoes plus grated cheese in just about anything sounds good to me.

David Heap said...

So Steph has been urging me to share the details of latest lentil soup around here, which we are just finishing. Let me begin by saying I like everything I've read above as additions to lentil soup. I am particularly fond of smoked pork hocks (in any legume soup), with its combination of ham flavour + a rich bone marrow boost. Sometimes I get a butcher to cut it in quarters when I buy it, which facilitates pulling it apart if you want to discard some of the fat & skin (optional).
I sometimes make this soup meatless, but this time we happened to have something unusual around to toss in: lamb ribs. Perhaps not as rich is flavour as a smoked hock, but interesting in a subtle way.
My emphasis in a legume soup is on vegetables, lots of them (dried if necessary, fresh, whatever). In addition to onion, celery, garlic and fresh garlic scapes (avoid the tough ends!), 2 colours of carrots & a bit of squash, this one got 2 whole chopped red peppers -- lots of veg flavour for maybe 1.5 (?) cups of orange* lentils. Yes, we have veg stock on hand, but I would also use your chicken stock without hesitation. Spices included tumeric, cumin, black pepper and that hot-sauce-until-just-before-you-feel-heat M@ mentions, and not else except...

David Heap said...

(don't tell Steph but I couldn't find the allspice, no doubt as a result of being away for months; on the upside, I brought a large branch of bay leaves back with me, so a generous number of those went in the soup as well).

One nice & slightly unusual seasoning is sumac -- from a plant widely used in Middle eastern cuisines but largely ignored as a weed tree in N. America. Dark reddish powder, we use it as part of the "finish" for each serving we learned from our favourite Lebanese place: a driddle of olive olive + lemon juice, some fresh parsley + a dash of sumac (nicely tart).

I would urge you not to stress about "matching" a diner or canned version: they probably do use tons of salt, and quite possibly a "flavour enhancer" like MSG as well. Part of the delight of homemade soup for me is actually tasting all the ingredients... which will always vary more than any commercial version can. Last night we had some Palestinian lentil soup (a traditional start to an iftar or Ramadan fast-breaking meal) -- very nice but of course different again (pretty watery compared to ours, and guaranteed no ham flavour!).

*One variable not mentioned in your recipe is the lentils themselves! They vary a LOT: there are brown-green ones which retain much of their shape & texture after cooking vs. the red-orange ones we used this time -- same as camping, because they soften to almost mush in maybe 25-30 minutes. All good, vive la différence!

laura k said...

It isn't that I feel my soup *should* taste like some canned or diner variety. It's that I love the way those soups taste, so I'd like to recreate it.

My mother's (and now my) incredible mushroom barley soup is made with marrow bones, and without those, it's not very good at all. I imagine it would do the same for lentils, too.

I've only cooked with the brown-green lentils so far.

I have so many ideas to try here, plus the variable of the slow cooker. I'll keep at it.

Thanks, David! (And Stephanie for getting him to post this. :) )

laura k said...

Question for anyone:

If you're using a slow-cooker, and you want to add something like lemon juice at the end, when do you do it? Before re-heating and serving? Or towards the end of the actual cook time?