- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

I came down to breakfast at the Tugcan Hotel on my first morning in Gaziantep, in southeast Turkey, and noticed the chef ladling what looked like a golden gruel from a large pot into deep bowls.

It must be some kind of breakfast cereal, I thought. He prepared a bowl for me, and I noticed the accompaniments he added: a few croutons, a lemon wedge and a swirl of red pepper oil drizzled over the top. Clearly, this wasn’t oatmeal.

The soothing puree went down easily. Since I was rather sleepy, it took a few spoonfuls before I realized it was lentil soup.

When I thought about it, eating this warming, satisfying pottage in the morning made a lot of sense. The creamy textured soup wasn’t spicy, but gentle and smooth. Eating it gave me a pleasing feeling, similar to the one I get from a bowl of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. And lentil soup has an important advantage: protein. Lentils, like other legumes, are much richer in protein than grains.

With their long history in the Middle East, lentils have played a culinary role since biblical times. Jacob’s lentil pottage may be the most famous soup in history, and this ancient dish has remained a great favorite in the land of its birthplace, both at home and in restaurants.

Lentils are ideal for soup because they are filling and they produce a flavorful broth at little cost. Lentil soup is convenient, too; it keeps well for a few days in the refrigerator.

Chef Veysel Ozturk of the Tugcan gave me his recipe. I find it perfect for cooks in a hurry, whether it’s intended for breakfast, lunch or supper. Red lentils are a terrific, fast-cooking ingredient. They soften more rapidly than brown or green lentils, cooking to a tasty puree in only 10 or 15 minutes.

To enrich the soup, Mr. Ozturk sautes the onion in oil or butter. Then he adds flour and cooks it briefly with the onion mixture to create a roux, which gives the soup a velvety texture. I skip this step when I want a fast soup.

For further refinement of texture, he processes the soup in a blender and strains it so it is silky smooth. At home, I skip the straining step, too. I either leave the soup chunky from the vegetable pieces or, when I want it smoother, quickly puree it with a hand-held blender.

Mideast cooks make many different kinds of lentil soup. Like the Turks, Persians serve lentil soup in the morning, flavoring their soup simply with salt and oregano and enjoying it with a pat of butter and a sprinkling of sugar.

In Turkey, the lentils are sometimes cooked in chicken or beef broth for a rich flavor. Often, the soup is reddish from tomatoes or tomato paste. It may be spiced with dried mint, garlic or crushed hot red pepper or even, in the southeast, hot red pepper paste.

Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman, the authors of “A Taste of Turkish Cuisine” (Hippocrene), prepare a red lentil soup with wheat berries and chickpeas flavored with garlic, lemon juice, tomato paste, bell pepper paste and, to finish, a topping of mint and semihot red pepper heated in butter. It sounds delicious, but for breakfast, the following mildly seasoned soup is easiest and best.

Golden lentil soup, Gaziantep-style

Red lentils are actually orange and turn golden when cooked. They are favorites for soup because they naturally fall apart and cook to a puree. They are available in Middle Eastern and Indian grocery stores.

Soups are also made from the common brown lentils, which retain their shape, as do the French green lentils. If you make the soup with brown or green lentils, cook them for 30 minutes or until tender. Serve the soup with pita bread or croutons.

This recipe was inspired by lentil soup served at the Tugcan Hotel.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

½ teaspoon paprika

A few pinches Aleppo pepper or cayenne pepper (see note)

1½ cups red lentils

1 large onion, chopped

1 carrot, diced

1 potato, diced (optional)

1 zucchini or pale green Middle Eastern squash, diced (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lemon wedges

Make red pepper oil: In a small dish, mix 1 tablespoon oil with paprika and Aleppo pepper or cayenne. Spread lentils on a plate in batches. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones. Rinse and drain lentils.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a medium saucepan, add onion, and saute over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until light golden. Add lentils, carrot, potato (if using) and 5 cups water.

Bring to a boil, watching pot so foam doesn’t boil over; skim foam. Cover; simmer over low heat for 10 minutes, adding more water if soup becomes too thick.

Add zucchini, if using, and salt and pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes or until vegetables and lentils are tender. Leave the soup chunky, or puree all or part it with a hand-held blender or in a blender or food processor. Taste, and adjust seasonings. Serve with lemon wedges for sprinkling over soup. Serves 4.

Note: This soup is embellished with red pepper oil, which adds an attractive color and pleasing flavor. You make it by stirring paprika and a pinch of hot red pepper — either Aleppo pepper from Syria or cayenne pepper, which is much hotter — into olive oil.

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