While the Midwest US and much of the Middle East are in the grips of a significant heat wave, here in the Pacific Northwest where we live, we’re having an uncharacteristically cool and rainy Summer. To add insult to injury, my husband is off on a guy’s trip for a week, to a place I’ve always wanted to go. When it is blustery as it has been this week, and I’m being a baby, as I currently am, I turn to one of my favorite Middle Eastern comfort foods, shorbat.
Shorbat is one of those recipes I love best: a handful of ingredients and very simple cooking steps that provide a gastronomical gestalt effect. It’s as soul-satisfying to the lactose-intolerant vegans in your life as it is to the die-hard carnivores and it’s dead simple to make. For me it’s the edible equivalent of a pashmina.
Based on the cookbooks I’ve read, there are many regional variations to Shorbat. What follows is how one transplanted midwestern girl makes it nowadays:
Shorbat (red lentil soup)
6-8 cups of water (you can use chicken or veggie stock if you prefer)
1 cup red lentils (you can find these in the bulk bins at most stores nowadays. They are small and a corally pale orange in color)
1 medium white onion, diced
Lemon juice (about two lemons or 1/4 cup reconstituted)
salt and pepper to taste
Dice the onion and saute it in the bottom of a large saucepan on medium heat until the onions become translucent and start to brown. Meanwhile, pour the lentils into a strainer and pick through them to discard any small pebbles, then rinse them under cool water. Pour the lentils, salt, pepper and then the water into the pot. Bring to a boil, then turn down to just above a simmer. You want a steady boil, but not a rolling boil.
During the first 20 minutes of cooking, you’ll want to skim the foam that rises to the top of the pot and discard it. This is the soup’s way of rejecting any impurities or odd tasting bits and you want to help it along. If you don’t do this step, your soup will survive. It’ll just be much tastier if you do.
Let the soup cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, during which the corally legumes and milky pale onions marry into a thick, golden liquid. If you like your soup thick like the green split pea soup I grew up with, cook it to that consistency. If you like it a little thinner, add some water halfway through the cooking.
When the soup reaches the consistency you want, add the lemon juice, taste, add as much salt and pepper as you like, and let it cook another 10 minutes to let the lemon and the lentils get acquainted. That’s it. That’s Shorbat.
Occasionally my husband will toss in some shredded chicken. My mother in law would add some of that thinner than capellini pasta you can find in specialty grocers. If you’re watching your carbs, leave it out. Mostly I like my shorbat straight up. That said, I will often use chicken bouillon in place of salt, because it adds saltiness and rounds out the flavor. If you are MSG intolerant, this is not a good option for you.
One oddity I’ve noticed: When I cooked this on a gas stove, I can cook it at a lower heat and the soup will make itself. On an electric burner, I find I need a slightly higher heat to make the soup turn that velvety, uniform consistency. A food chemist could probably explain to me why this is. For now, I’m just satisfied to do what works.