Lentil Soup Mystery
December 11, 2013 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Many years ago I had a fabulous lentil soup in a very nice Greek restaurant (in Greece) whose owners/chefs were Cretan, and which used many ingredients from Crete (which may or may not be pertinent to my question). This soup was very, very dark, like mahogany colored, rich but not thick, and fairly "oily" (which sounds bad, but it was heavenly), and it was soooo good. Now, all lentil soup is good, really. Mine is quite marvelous, but I've been remembering this soup for so long, and have never figured out how it acquired that color, or what ingredient(s) made it so different and special. Any ideas?

I made my lentil soup today, and it turned out looking like the soup on this page, just as it always does. Just as pretty much every lentil soup anywhere does.

I used chicken broth, olive oil, onion, bell pepper, carrot, potato, spinach, smoked ham, garlic, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste, hot paprika, black pepper, and bay leaf, and it's wonderful, yes indeed.

But I keep keep thinking of that one soup, and wondering, wondering, wondering. Was it... a whole lot more tomato paste? Different, exotic dark lentils? Soy sauce or similar? A roux? (it didn't seem to have a roux-type consistency, but maaaybe.) Some kind of carmelization of ingredients? Wine? I don't know!

If you are familiar with or make a lentil soup that seems similar to my description, what is in that soup?!
posted by taz to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
That sounds delicious... did it have any hint of frenchonion type richness?

Dark mahogany colored soup to me suggests a cup of red wine and super caramelized onions as a base...

Also perhaps a dash of cinnamon in the spices- unusual in savory dishes, but really adds a lovely different layer to whatever dish you're making.
posted by larthegreat at 7:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, it seemed very rich, and also less... thick or "chunky" than most lentil soups. It was a soupy soup, yet intensely flavorful, so maybe that's it. I'm also interested in info/links to techniques that would help coming up with that part of the recipe.
posted by taz at 7:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

An ingredient that is both deeply mahogany-colored and always used in great quantities in my lentil soup -- sumac?

My usual recipe starts with frying onions and garlic in ~1/4 cup olive oil until they're nicely browned, tossing in 3-4 tablespoons of tomato paste and cooking for 2-3 minutes, adding a tin of tomato sauce, covering and cooking everything down for 10-15 minutes, and finally, deglazing with a big glug of red wine. This results in a thick, deep red base.

Good luck in your quest, sounds delicious!
posted by divined by radio at 7:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are you using the black lentils?
posted by Ideefixe at 7:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is just a guess, but could the mystery ingredient have been olive paste? Some like this....
posted by neroli at 7:32 AM on December 11, 2013

They could have mixed truffle oil or very good quality olive oil in it as well.

Also... always add lemon to your lentil soups. It is like a good pair of earrings on a very nice outfit.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:33 AM on December 11, 2013

I suspect some combination of a beef broth, red wine, and caramelized SOMETHING (meat, onions, mushrooms), and using brown or green lentils.
posted by Kololo at 7:53 AM on December 11, 2013

I would bet beef or veal stock and caramelized onions
posted by rmless at 7:55 AM on December 11, 2013

I have been told that Greeks like to put balsamic dressing in lentil soups to give it that extra oomph. That may have contributed to the dark color.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:56 AM on December 11, 2013

They may have simply used more olive oil than we are accustomed to using. Like in this recipe there is a half cup of olive oil for 6 servings of soup! Oil is a simple source of calories for poor people in many cultures.
posted by mareli at 8:01 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I make lentil soup, I always a) remove 1/3 - 1/2 of the cooked lentils and blend them in a blender and return them to the soup pot and b) add a splash of balsamic vinegar. This makes the texture super velvety, and the balsamic adds dimension.
posted by Seppaku at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2013

I've had similar lentil soup in Turkish restaurants and I make my own from this recipe. It doesn't taste quite the same as restaurant soup, but it's close.
posted by essexjan at 8:02 AM on December 11, 2013

mareli has it - I suspect the soup is simply far more oily than you think it is. If you can get your soup to vaguely taste like "the" soup, then I suspect the residual "secret ingredients" are some combination of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or caramelized onions. I also suspect the reason the soup didn't seem overtly oily was because the oil was emulsified with the soup - it's a trick restaurants use to get more oil into a sauce (rather than, for instance, cream, which is expensive and doesn't go with all cuisine).
posted by saeculorum at 8:11 AM on December 11, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers and ideas so far! By the way, I should mention that I live in Greece, so this wasn't so much a general "Greek qua Greek" recipe, as perhaps a particular region variation, or the special recipe of these chefs. The restaurant was a very nice, sort of trendy, "homey nouvelle" kind of place, for lack of a better description, with a lot of emphasis on locally (especially Cretan, but country-wide -- it's a small country) sourced top ingredients. Definitely not taverna style, or haute.
posted by taz at 8:17 AM on December 11, 2013

Our lentil soup is usually very dark brown. It's base is an onion, a carrot, and a stalk of celery, very often a bit of bacon, all finely chopped, then sautéed in olive oil till soft (not brown). Add tomato paste, garlic, paprika, white pepper and stir for a while so the tomato paste darkens (but not the garlic!). Add one glass of red wine and let all alcohol evaporate. Add 2-3 cups of crushed tomatoes (not a whole can). Then the lentils, then broth. Thinking of lovely greek stews and soups I've had, I'd think it might have been a beef broth in the one you are thinking of.
Then herbs: definitely thyme, oregano, maybe also a touch of rosemary. When the lentils are soft, I add salt, additional pepper, lemon juice, and yes, balsamic vinegar to taste. And sprinkle with parsley.
I don't have any Greek cookery books. But in all of my Turkish and Middle Eastern ones, a cup of rice are included in lentil soups and stews. That would be good for "hiding" the larger amount of oil several above have mentioned, which I agree is also very likely. In a dark brown soup, there may have been rice you didn't notice?
posted by mumimor at 8:22 AM on December 11, 2013

I forgot two ingredients: some cumin in the spice mix with the paprika and pepper, and a bay leaf with the herbs.
posted by mumimor at 8:42 AM on December 11, 2013

The soup could be Cretan Fakkes or Fakes. Here is a search that produces a lot of recipes...
posted by jim in austin at 9:15 AM on December 11, 2013

Yes, it seemed very rich, and also less... thick or "chunky" than most lentil soups. It was a soupy soup, yet intensely flavorful, so maybe that's it.

To get that intensely rich, flavorful but still soupy texture, I suggest first trying a very concentrated base of homemade stock. Dramatically reducing a homemade stock will make both flavor and texture indefinably rich and luxurious, and will also add to the dark color you describe. You'll know it's rich enough when it turns to a very firm jelly in the fridge; the gelatin from the bones that gels at fridge temperature will give a luxurious depth and texture when it's hot.

Whatever your recipe for stock, be sure you start with very light salt because it will concentrate as you reduce it.

Once you have your intensely rich stock base, try your current favorite lentil soup and see what a difference it makes. From there, you can go with the additions mentioned above. But I'd bet you a shiny nickel that a richly concentrated stock is the first step to making this incredible soup.
posted by Elsa at 9:26 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

And I mean "a VERY firm jelly." Any decent stock can gel softly in the fridge; you want it to be at least Jello-mold solid, indicating that it is loaded with gelatin from the bones and collagen from the meat, if any.

It won't do any harm to over-reduce the stock so long as you do it gradually; you can always add water back in to the pot if you think it's too strong. In the days when I cooked with meat regularly, I would sometimes reduce a whole pot of stock down to a soft little hockey puck to keep in the fridge.
posted by Elsa at 9:31 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The second result in jim in austin’s search (Cretan Diet & Recipes: How to cook: Fakkes) uses 2/3 cup of olive oil for 1 pound of lentils, so I think mareli was right. I only use a tablespoon or two of oil, and my lentil soup looks like OP’s photo.
posted by editorgrrl at 10:37 AM on December 11, 2013

I think it probably had a gelatin sheet melted into it. Give this a try with your recipe, you might get what you are looking for.
posted by bkeene12 at 10:39 AM on December 11, 2013

A lot of the fakes recipes call for red wine vinegar.
posted by Houstonian at 11:11 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Never discount a roux-- as roux get darker and richer, they also drop some of their thickening power. A white roux will make soup muuuuch thicker than a brick-red roux. I'm not sure how best to quantify that.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2013

Caramelized onions are one secret. Start with yellow onions and cook them down slowly. This will take *at least* 45 minutes of frequent stirring.

Wild oregano will be a great addition.
posted by KRS at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2013

Commercial cookery generally contains fats and oils in amounts that would scare a home cook witless.

Fat tastes good.
posted by flabdablet at 4:39 AM on December 12, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I will be trying the variations suggested and will update.
posted by taz at 10:21 AM on December 12, 2013

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