Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup
Every time I fly more than halfway across the country to visit my family in Wisconsin, I have a second not-so-secret agenda—and I am NOT subtle about it: to hit up as many of my favorite Madison restaurants as possible.
Although believe me when I say that there is never enough time (or stomach space).
I think I have a longer list of Madison restaurant loves than in any city that I’ve ever lived in (and I’ve lived in Seoul!). It’s not just the amazing variety and selection of food; it’s also the complete affordability and unpretentiousness of most Madison spots. That cozy family-owned restaurant feel. The dirt cheap lunch menu options. The fact that there are three unassuming yet memorable Mediterranean restaurants in the span of two blocks of State St. with an excellent East African restaurant wedged in between them.
In a different part of town, across the street from a beloved Korean restaurant, was another restaurant love that has now closed: Lulu’s Deli & Restaurant. (I actually forgot they had a deli part in the back until just now, when I Googled it for the official name; to me it was always just “Lulu’s.”)
Lulu’s was a small space, dimly lit, yet cozily carpeted with red and black rugs, a little worse for wear. The eclectic wall-hangings and patterned tablecloths made it feel like you’d landed yourself in someone’s living room for tea. (And oh man, their cardamom tea… but that’s another blog post.)
Before Lulu’s closed, it was easily my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in Madison, despite some stiff competition. I most frequently ordered the “vegetarian delight” combination platter, which aside from perfect hummus and perfect falafel, also came with a basket of warm pita bread and a choice of soup.
…although now I can’t remember if there really was a choice of soup or not, since I always ordered the adas bel-sabanekh (lentil spinach soup).
This was no ordinary lentil-spinach stew. It was like nothing I’ve ever tasted anywhere else: seasoned generously with cumin and cinnamon, and finished with fresh lemon juice, the flavorful soup had a lovely texture of al dente lentils and rice.
I couldn’t get over the cinnamon-cumin combination, and the brightness added by the lemon juice (which is really what pushes this soup above and beyond any otherwise-similar lentil soups or curries).
(A sprinkle of fresh cilantro complements all of the flavors, too, though sadly I forgot to include it for these photos!)
Lulu’s closed in 2011, so the last time I went was likely either three or four years ago, yet I’ve continued to pine after this soup, and it was always in the back of my head that I would love to attempt recreating it. With days of cooler weather approaching (and an urgent need after an exhausting Friday for a quick, mostly hands-off dinner), this dish finally rose to the top of my mental to-cook list a few weeks ago.
I added quick-cooking farro to the soup instead of rice, since it’s just that: quick cooking. Toss it in and simmer for 10 minutes and the farro will be just-cooked with an appealingly chewy texture, long before there’s any chance of your lentils turning mushy. (Or simmer for longer with semi-pearled farro—see below.)
Since it’s most definitely not a complicated recipe, it won’t sound quite as obnoxious when I brag that I nearly aced it the first time around. Since then, I’ve just made some small tweaks that included: more broth, more garlic, more cinnamon, more spinach, and less farro.
Leftover soup, packed away in the fridge, will continue to develop richer flavors for 2-3 more days, though the farro will continue absorbing the broth until it’s a little larger and fluffier (but miraculously still not mushy!); you may just want to add a little more broth to soup that’s been sitting in the fridge.
You could also use this knowledge to your advantage and make this soup a day or two in advance of serving it! But in that case, I’d recommend waiting to add spinach until you’re re-heating the soup on the stove, just before serving it. Bright green, just-wilted spinach is infinitely more enticing than cooked spinach that’s been hanging out in a soup.
I’m so glad I took the time to figure out this simple way to recreate one of my favorite (former) restaurant dishes from Madison; now I can enjoy Lulu’s lentil spinach soup anytime.
Lulu’s closing may have shrunk my to-eat list in Madison, making it one restaurant less overwhelming, but it is still dearly missed.
p.s. Stay tuned for a bonus weekend edition of Spontaneous Tomato, for the Virtual Vegan Potluck!
Print this recipe. (PDF)
Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup
(Inspired by adas bel-sabanekh from the now-closed Lulu’s Deli & Restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin)
(Makes 4 large servings or 8 smaller ones)
Active time: 15 min.; Total time: 35 min. (with quick-cooking farro)
~ 1 cup brown lentils
~ 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, divided
~ 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
~ ⅓ of a large onion, finely diced (by hand or in food processor)
~ 1½ tsp. ground cumin
~ 1 tsp. ground coriander
~ dash of turmeric
~ 3 cloves garlic, minced
~ 2 tsp. tomato paste
~ ½ cup quick-cooking farro (or semi-pearled farro)
~ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
~ 3-4 handfuls/cups fresh spinach
~ ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 1-1½ lemons)
~ dash of ground cayenne pepper, to taste
~ salt and pepper, to taste
~ fresh cilantro, roughly chopped, to garnish
~ 1-2 Tbsp. labne per person, to serve
How to make it:
1. In a small saucepan, combine the lentils, 1 cup of the chicken/vegetable stock, and 1 cup water. Add a small splash of olive oil if desired. Bring to a boil (cover it to speed things up), then lower the heat just a bit and keep it at a strong simmer, uncovered, for 18-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until all of the liquid has been absorbed by the lentils.
2. Meanwhile, in another (larger) saucepan, heat 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the onion, cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Cook the onion, stirring frequently, for 5-10 minutes.
3. To the saucepan with the onion and spices, add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then add the remaining 3 cups of stock, plus 1½ cups of water, and bring to a boil. Stir in the tomato paste and season with salt and pepper, to taste.
4. Once the lentils from step #1 have absorbed all of their liquid, combine the contents of the two saucepans (carefully add the lentils to the boiling broth, or vice-versa—you’ll want everything in the larger of your two saucepans). Bring the soup back to a boil, then add the quick-cooking farro. (Quick-cooking farro will take 10 minutes to cook; semi-pearled farro will take more like 30 minutes.)
5. When your farro is 5 minutes away from being done cooking, add the cinnamon. When it’s 2 minutes away from being done, stir in the spinach until it’s wilted. During the last minute of cooking, add the fresh lemon juice, and season with cayenne, salt, and black pepper, to taste.
6. Serve warm with homemade pita bread. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Once the soup has cooled a bit in the individual serving bowls, garnish each bowl with a heaping spoonful of labne if desired.
Print this recipe! (PDF)
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