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Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup

November 14, 2013

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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.

Lemony Lentil Spinach SoupPin it!

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.)

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread and LabnePin it!

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).

Lemony Lentil Spinach SoupPin it!

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.

Ingredients for Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup

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!)

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread

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.

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita BreadPin it!

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.)

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread and Labne

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.

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread

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.

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread and Labne

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.

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita BreadPin it!

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.)

Cooking lentils for Lemony Lentil Spinach SoupMaking Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread

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)

Lemony Lentil Spinach Soup with Pita Bread and LabnePin it!

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Homemade Pita Bread & Greek Yogurt Hummus Lemon Roasted Broccoli with Pine Nuts Lentil Green Bean Salad with Vinaigrette
71 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2013 8:16 am

    That is my idea of good comfort food. X

    • November 14, 2013 8:27 am

      Mine, too!

      (My comfort foods = inviting, hearty soups like this; kimchi fried rice; anything with melted cheese; and kimchi fried rice with melted cheese :)

  2. November 14, 2013 8:22 am

    Perfect recipe as we enter soup and stew season! UW-Madison is one of the schools my senior is considering — would be a great city to visit with a great array of dining!

    • November 14, 2013 8:28 am

      Yes! I firmly believe that it’s one of the best food cities there is! (Which is not a bad trade-off for the weather…)

      • November 14, 2013 8:30 am

        Coming from Duluth, weather is not a concern! :-)

      • November 14, 2013 8:34 am

        Haha, that may be true, but your high school senior *could* be dreaming of schools in, say, California, since from age 18+, cold weather is a choice! ;)

      • November 14, 2013 8:36 am

        (Although speaking from experience, the hardest part about living as far away as CA from my parents in Wisconsin is that visits in either direction are so incredibly inconvenient and expensive. :( But on the bright side, for my parents, they have a warm, sunny place to escape to for a week or two in the winter.)

  3. November 14, 2013 8:22 am

    Great soup! Sad – I remember Lulus from years ago.

  4. November 14, 2013 9:10 am

    Yumm this sounds really great! A perfect cozy fall meal!

  5. November 14, 2013 9:11 am

    you know, i find that it’s the smaller towns/cities that usually have the best restaurant selections. it always surprises me when we visit dw’s family in Louisville or Rochester that they have SO MANY vietnamese restaurants (and other ethnic) to choose from, whereas we’re hard pressed to find more than 2 in baltimore.

    it is full on soup season and i counted, we have THREE bags of lentils in our pantry. i do love the hint of lemon in a hearty soup.

    • November 14, 2013 1:34 pm

      Well it depends on the smaller town/city, but yes that’s definitely sometimes surprisingly true!

      I’m glad it sounds like you can spare 1 cup of lentils for this recipe from the three bags in your pantry! :)

      (I only have two bags of brown lentils in my kitchen at the moment, but then again I also have red and green lentils, mung beans, toor dal, and urud dal.)

  6. November 14, 2013 9:44 am

    Great recipe. Looks like the soup has barley in it too :D

  7. November 14, 2013 9:50 am

    Looks so good! I have a very similar recipe on my blog, I just use red lentils! :) Love the homemade pita bread with it..yummy! That would be great dipping it in the soup.

    • November 14, 2013 1:36 pm

      Nice! I love red lentils, too; I’ll have to try that sometime!

      Paula (my fiancée) is the one who always makes our homemade pita bread. (And that makes me very lucky!)

  8. walgenbe permalink
    November 14, 2013 10:04 am

    Aww. I’m so sad that Lulu’s closed, they did have amazing hummus! I have to admit though, when I saw this soup posted and saw the wisconsin reference, there was a part of me that was hoping you were able to recreate the lentil soup from Himal Chuli. I crave everything they make in winter. But this looks great and I just bought some new middle eastern lentils. Totally making.

    Have you tried the Old Fashioned? It’s now in my madison rotation!

    • Jessica permalink
      November 14, 2013 10:47 am

      Yes – work on recreating the soup from Himal Chuli!!

      The restaurants on that block of State Street were all forced out! So sad. But, I agree – the Old Fashioned (and Merchant) are great additions.

      • walgenbe permalink
        November 14, 2013 1:11 pm

        Wait, Himal Chuli didn’t close did it? Please tell me they just got a different location?! I don’t like the corporatization of state st. Still remember the hold out (and delicious veggie burgers) at Dotty’s Dumpling Dowery…

      • November 14, 2013 1:42 pm

        Omg! I love the Himal Chuli dal so much, too. I promise I’ll work on recreating it! :) I think along with various kinds of yellow lentils it also has carraway seeds or fennel seeds in it, right?

        Em, I haven’t tried the Old Fashioned (YET), even though I’m sure that Jess has recommended it to me before!

        Jess, which block of State St. do you mean? The one with Himal Chuli? Or the one I mentioned in the blog post, with Kabul/Buraka/Husnu’s?

      • Jessica permalink
        November 15, 2013 12:55 pm

        The block of Kabul/Buraka/Husnu’s. Sorry for the false alarm. Although I did just hear that Chautara also closed. As far as I know Himal Chuli is safe and sound.

      • November 15, 2013 6:07 pm

        Oh no! Buraka closed? That was one of my favorite meals the last time I visited!!

    • November 15, 2013 6:10 pm

      Noooo… I mean I’m relieved that Himal Chuli is still open (I saw that Chautara was closing the last time I was in Madison), but I had no idea that was happening to the Kabul/Buraka/Husnu’s block! Now I really wish I’d gone to Kabul & Husnu’s again more recently! At least I brought Paula to Buraka… Do you know if those three places will relocate, or are they closed for good?

      • walgenbe permalink
        November 21, 2013 12:43 pm

        Allison and Jessica, you know this means we have to go do some product testing at himal over christmas if you guys are around at all. I got my (super expensive!) tickets home for the 19-28. Hope to see you there!

      • November 21, 2013 1:55 pm

        Oh man, Emilie, that sounds soooo fun, but I’m not going home to Wisc. this winter! (Instead my parents are going to visit me in CA.) Bummer that we’ll miss each other! I’ll probably next be in Madison at the very beginning of June.

  9. November 14, 2013 10:43 am

    This looks delish! Can’t wait to try it! Love the rustic photography too.

  10. November 14, 2013 11:02 am

    Sometimes I also use lentils in Autumn soups. I love your recipe and I’ll try to cook it. Ciao. Silva.

    • November 14, 2013 1:47 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Silva! Yes, I love lentil soups, and even without any particularly autumnal ingredients I think of them as seasonally fall food, too (even though soups are just as welcome in winter as in autumn—but when the weather has just started to cool off in the fall, then being able to enjoy warm soups is more novel and exciting!)

  11. November 14, 2013 11:29 am

    I’ve never made farro, but I like the idea of them for hearty soups like this. Will try!

    • November 14, 2013 1:49 pm

      Thanks, Valerie! I’ve never done anything with farro other than add it to soups, although Heidi Swanson (of the blog 101 Cookbooks) has a recipe for baked farro risotto that I’d like to try… It’s really great in soup, though! I like soups that have rice in them, too, but farro holds up even better than most types of rice, and seems more substantial and with a nice, slightly chewy texture.

  12. November 14, 2013 11:32 am

    This looks terrific! And as a UW grad and Madison-born foodie, I loved the walk down State Street memory lane. Thanks for sharing! :)

  13. November 14, 2013 12:09 pm

    this looks like absolute comfort in a bowl.

    • November 14, 2013 1:56 pm

      Yes! It’s definitely comfort food. (And for some reason I think it’s the cinnamon—of all the ingredients—that makes it extra comforting.)

  14. November 14, 2013 1:02 pm

    Oh my goodness – I love everything about this soup!!!

  15. November 14, 2013 2:00 pm

    This is a very beautiful post. Love your lemony soup! Photographs are stunning and I’m keeping this recipe handy for sure. Never made farro but I can see it is about time!

    • November 14, 2013 2:05 pm

      Thank you! That’s all so kind of you to say. :)

      I’d say it is worth buying a small amount of farro just for this soup, especially if you think—like has happened at our house—that you’ll be making it more than once; but of course if you don’t have farro, you could always use rice, barley, bulgur, or quinoa (or nothing) instead!

  16. November 14, 2013 5:50 pm

    Reblogged this on 58 Day Dreams and commented:
    Yummy! Check out this recipe :-)

  17. November 14, 2013 6:54 pm

    call me crazy but i have not ever tasted or cooked lentil can someone explain the taste and best way to prepare it thanks – darla

    • November 15, 2013 6:15 pm

      Hi Darla, cooked lentils are really delicious! Especially in citrusy soups like this one or vinegary/citrusy salads like this.

      Lentils taste similar to beans, but are much faster to cook (you can just boil them without first soaking them for hours), and they can be much more interesting, too, since they absorb the flavors of their cooking liquid.

      The best way to prepare lentils is exactly what it says in the recipe above: you boil them in water or stock (although you might want to cook them in a little more liquid than it calls for above if you’re *not* going to put them in a soup).

  18. November 14, 2013 7:00 pm

    Oh, that sounds good. Lentil soup is a cool weather staple, here, and I often try to vary it. I use cumin all the time, but the coriander and cinnamon sound like a great addition. Thanks for the idea!

    • November 15, 2013 6:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Anne! I hope you enjoy this lentil soup variation. Like you, I use ground cumin all the time, and I could say the same for ground coriander, but I don’t add cinnamon to savory dishes very often, unless I’m making Indian curries, so for me the cinnamon (along with the fresh lemon juice) are what makes this soup so unique!

  19. November 15, 2013 2:34 am

    Oh thank you for this lovely soup! It surely looks fantastic and judging from your description it must be delicious. Soups are a great way to be introduced to lentils. I’m seriously thinking to re-blog this in the near future (in Swedish…). If I do, I will let you know in advance.

    • November 15, 2013 6:22 pm

      Thank you for commenting! Yes, I love lentils in soups, and adding farro to this one gives it even more of a variety of textures and flavors.

      You are definitely welcome to translate the recipe into Swedish for your blog! (And I assume you would use your own photos?) If you do so, I’d appreciate if you simply gave me credit for the original recipe and included a link back to this blog post. Thank you for letting me know, and I hope you enjoy this recipe! :)

      • November 17, 2013 8:19 am

        Of course I will let my readers know the source!! I’m a researcher by profession, so it comes almost automatically… :-D

  20. bec {daisy and the fox} permalink
    November 15, 2013 7:08 pm

    this looks and sounds delicious!!
    a perfect winter cozy meal :)
    and your photography is wonderful! :D

  21. November 16, 2013 7:11 am

    This looks delicious! I’ve been looking for a lentil soup recipe and now I’ve found it! :)

  22. November 19, 2013 5:56 pm

    This would be great as a curried version also

    • November 21, 2013 1:52 pm

      Definitely! It’s already not too far off from a curry if you think about it, since cumin, coriander, and turmeric all appear in most spice mixes that call themselves “curry powder”! It’s not super strongly seasoned or spicy, though, so you could definitely increase the amounts of spices and add fenugreek and some other spices to it (or just use a storebought curry powder mix) to make it more like a curry!

  23. November 27, 2013 3:45 pm

    wow, great blog! glad I clicked through. following your blog now too. :)

  24. Kris permalink
    December 3, 2013 7:29 pm

    I made this tonight and it was wonderful. Filling and healthy and delicious. The 10-minute farro from Trader Joe’s is perfect for this. Thanks for the recipe!

    • December 5, 2013 10:09 am

      Yay, I’m so glad to hear it!! Thanks for stopping by again to let me know! :)

      (I’m glad you live near enough to a Trader Joe’s, too, that the 10-min. farro was easy to find– I was a little worried about that, but I also was not going to pass up getting to use 10-min. farro myself!)

  25. January 2, 2014 10:19 am

    I made a version of this tonight. Thanks for inspiring me!

  26. January 29, 2014 8:44 pm

    Making this tomorrow! Kaythanksbyeeeee


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