Cold Comfort

Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices

Europe, as you’ve no doubt heard, has been pretty cold lately. After a far-warmer-than-average November, December and January, February donned its icy gloves and sent an entire continent reeling with a left hook that nobody saw coming.

In Germany, though, it’s been pretty much business as usual. People here are simply used to operating at much colder temperatures, and the strange thing is that even I feel myself slowly joining their ranks. Human adaptability is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? I remember as a kid experiencing a rare California cold snap one winter that sent the entire state into chaos: oranges froze solid on their vines, homeless people died of hypothermia, the news channels reported on it as if it were the apocalypse. I also remember breathlessly reporting on the ordeal a few weeks later to my dad’s sister and her husband, who were visiting from out of town. “How cold did it get?” my uncle asked. “During the day we had highs only a few degrees above freezing!” I told him gravely. He burst out laughing; he was from Chicago, where a winter day just above freezing is welcome relief.

By now I can sympathize with my uncle’s reaction—thanks to a few German winters I too have a different conception of ‘cold’. Cold used to be where you needed a scarf as well as a jacket; now it’s where, despite gloves, you can’t feel your hands after a 30-second walk out to the car. Cold is where your face feels like it’s being attacked by a sandblaster and the air is so razor-sharp you restrict your breathing to short, shallow gasps. Cold is where every time you dress to go out you feel you’re preparing for battle.

But cold isn’t all bad. If anything, having to deal with truly cold weather has made me appreciate it in ways I would never have expected. There’s its dryness, for instance, which is a welcome antidote to the soggy, soaked-to-the-bone winters I lived through in the Pacific Northwest and Scotland. Then there’s the phenomenon that the temperature outside is in inverse correlation to what I call the ‘cozy factor’ of home. A warmly-lit room, a soft sofa and a hot mug of tea are infinitely more appealing when you know just how cold it is on the other side of your walls.

And then of course there’s the fact that nothing stimulates the appetite better than cold weather. It even makes food taste better, I find. Hot chocolate, cheese fondue, and steaming bowls of pasta seem to have extra flavor compounds unlocked by plunging temperatures. Lentil soup is another one; although I eat it in warmer months too, it’s during exceptionally cold weather that it seems to comfort and nourish at a whole new level.

I was surprised to realize recently that I’ve never posted a single recipe for lentil soup here. In fact, my selection of soups is pretty paltry considering how much I love them and how often they appear on our table. The problem, I think, is that like with salads, I rarely follow a recipe for soup, instead using whatever I have on hand. For lentil soup this is particularly true; made with a few veggies, an herb sprig or two and a little smoked ham or bacon, it’s always different and always good, but rarely worth noting down for posterity.

But then there’s this one. Sometimes you run across a recipe that’s just so perfect you’re not even tempted to tinker. And so you make it, exactly as written, year after year.

Many of you are probably already familiar with this soup. It was put on my radar by Molly a few years ago, and comes from the cookbook Once Upon a Tart, named after the eatery of the same name in Manhattan. For me, this soup belongs to a rare category of nearly ideal foods, a pitch-perfect harmony of flavors whose sheer deliciousness comes with a wholesome factor to match. Thick with coconut and laced with sweet spices it definitely nods towards India, but the use of French lentils, vegetable (or chicken) stock and thyme ensures it stays firmly grounded in the great European soup tradition, and indeed it seems to take best to accompaniments from this side of the world—a few slices of buttered whole-grain toast, for instance, and a simple tomato or carrot salad. Oftentimes, though, I feel anything else just distracts from its pure, elemental satisfaction; a bowl, a spoon and a freezing cold night are really all the accompaniment it needs.

Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices

Okay, I don’t make this soup exactly as written, but pretty close. My main change involves the ironing out of a few procedural wrinkles. Rather than frying things twice (first onions and garlic, later spices) as called for in the original recipe, I make this according to the Indian technique of cooking the lentils until soft, then frying all the aromatics and stirring them into the soup towards the end. It not only saves time, it allows you to get away with half the butter or oil (which I usually make up for by dumping in the entire can of coconut milk), and it really makes the flavors sing. I also add some fresh greens if I have any on hand, though the soup is plenty fantastic without them too.
Serves: 3-4
Source: adapted from Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau

1 1/2 cups (275g) French green lentils (brown lentils work in a pinch)
6 cups (1.5l) vegetable or chicken stock
1 bushy sprig fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
3 tablespoons butter, vegetable or coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg
1 cup (250ml) coconut milk, or to taste (I normally use a whole 14oz/400ml can which makes a slightly richer soup)
a few handfuls (~7oz/200g) fresh spinach, chard or kale, washed, tough stems discarded and cut into ribbons (optional)
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Rinse the lentils and pick out any debris. Combine them in a pot with the stock, thyme and tumeric and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes. Fish out the thyme.

While the lentils are cooking, heat the butter or oil in a smallish skillet and sauté the onion over medium heat, stirring frequently, until browned and caramelized in places, about 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and fry just until deeply aromatic, about 30 seconds. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the pot with the lentils, and add the coconut milk and optional greens too. Bring everything back to a gentle boil and cook another 10 minutes, or until the flavors have blended and the greens are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot.

27 thoughts on “Cold Comfort

  1. It is been freezing here in Venice too, so windy! Perfect weather to stay in a bake or make soup! I love lentil coconut soup, it is truly one of my favorite comfort food. This version full of spices is truly intriguing and I would surely try it next time I feel like having a bowl! 🙂

  2. After reading your description of cold, I think I am more determined than ever to never live anywhere that doesn't have a Southern California-esque climate. Clearly, I am a bit delicate. The lentils look fantastic, and perfect for the "cold" weather I'm experiencing.

  3. Thank you very much for this recipe! Neighbours used to bring us some and my husband says it is his favourite. Now I can make it too. Wonderful!!!

  4. My favorite meal on a cold day is brie-stuffed bacon cheese burgers with thick-cut homemade fries and a dark beer (Black Butte Porter, to be exact). We make them slider-sized. Maybe not the healthiest, but we could use the extra calories on a cold day here in Alaska. The meatballs in lemon sauce and the pita casserole were both hits for ME dinner and movie night. I am looking forward to incorporating the lemon sauce with crab cakes or salmon, and the pomegranate molasses I think would be great on roasted duck. Thank you as always for the inspiration! Speaking of warm places, your web site is a very cozy place to spend part of a cold, blustery day. Cheers!

  5. I did not grow up in a truly Mediterranean climate: Milan has more than its fare share of cold (AND damp!) weather in winter. Yet, nothing taught me a lesson or two about cold as much as a German winter. I don't miss it, but it did make me appreciate even more German heating and insulation, and yes, the power of soups.

  6. I have had some organic green lentils in my pantry waiting for the perfect use….they are simmering right now, can't wait to try this soup for lunch…even though its 52 degrees here in February in New Jersey.

  7. Delicious! Nothing is better than soup, scratch that, coconut based soups on a cold day! I need to make your soup soon!

  8. There's not much that beats the curry spices when it comes to warming up. I love a curry as well when cold and let's admit it's nearly the same deal 🙂 Love green lentils as well. Yummy stuff that is!

  9. Lovely, creamy and perfect for winter weather!! Lentils are a favorite for Indian meals and the flavors add up real well in your dish

  10. I am a huge fan of lentil soup! I have a difficult time convincing people that it's tasty and comforting, but I guess the Lentil Soup Secret will just have to stay with you and me 😉 Your recipe looks delicious – I made lentil soup the other day but kept the lentils in their full form – I also like it when they "mush" and turn creamy. So great!

  11. Made my own variation of this soup today, with wood sorrel added for bite. The coconut milk is an interesting change for me as I usually make Middle Eastern lentil soup with lots of lemon juice and herbs,

  12. hi melissa. i just came upon your blog the other day and absolutely love it!i've been under the weather a bit and when i saw your lentil soup recipe, i made it. not only made it, but ate it all up;) then i shared it on my own blog, with links right back to you of course. if you want to see too, here is the link you and looking forward to being a regular follower. ~ gina

  13. Hello, I am new to your wonderful blog…made this soup tonight and it was delicious.Will include it on our Thanksgiving menu!Thanks for sharing.MicheleMontreal, Canada

  14. Just found your website via a Pinterest post with this recipe and was about to hit "print" when I saw where the recipe is from! Once Upon a Tart is my all-time favorite cookbook! I have many, but it's the only one that actually sits out on my countertop and from which I have cooked just almost EVERYTHING. Except, possibly, this soup. That's all about to change, though! Glad to see you enjoy the cookbook as well!

  15. Wowzers, just found your blog through pinterest and it's amazing! Will be a regular visitor now 🙂

  16. I've just finished eating this soup! It's delicious! It'll be one of our essentials from now on. Thank you for shearing!!

  17. I am freezing my butt off in Kazakhstan right now, waiting for spring to come, and this soup warmed me straight through. I love lentils but I'm always worried about under-seasoning them and this recipe was just lovely. So tasty! Thank you!

  18. Since I've got that recipe recommended by my friend couple months ago, it's one of the top favorites in my family. We make it at least twice a month. I'm guessing it might be best the next day, but unfortunatelly no matter how much I make , there is never left overs:D Thank you!

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