Red Lentil Soup with Grains and Spicy Aromatic Oil

Variations on this heartwarming, vegan soup are infinite. The creamy red lentils regain their attractive color, which is lost when they are boiled alone, when they are cooked with carrots, tomato paste and plenty of Maraş pepper.

My recipe is inspired by the soups of Gaziantep, which often combine bulgur and/or chickpeas with the lentils.


Photo by PENNY DE LOS SANTOS  from my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.     


The pulses in Turkey are usually cooked with lamb or beef bones to add body, and the soup is finished with aromatic-infused butter, though olive oil is an excellent alternative.

Vegetarians can make the soup more substantial by adding diced feta, as Costas and I do, or complement with grilled halloumi cheese.



Serves 6 to 8



1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil, plus 1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil


1 cup (160 g) chopped onions


1 teaspoon salt


1 cup (220 g) red lentils rinsed in a colander under running water


2 medium carrots, thinly sliced


1 cup (160 g) precooked wheat berries (see Note)


1/2 cup (100 g) precooked chickpeas (optional)


1 tablespoon turmeric


3 tablespoons tomato paste


1 to 2 teaspoons Maraş pepper or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, to taste


1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons combination of cumin, ground coriander, and dried basil, to taste


1/4 cup (15 g) chopped fresh basil leaves, or shredded fresh tarragon plus 1 teaspoon or more dried basil or tarragon; reserve extra leaves to decorate


Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Sumac, for sprinkling (optional)



In a thick-bottomed pot, warm 1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil, add the onions, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and sauté for about 6 minutes, until the onions are soft.


Add the lentils and carrots, turn a couple of times in the oil, and pour in 2 quarts (2 L) water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding more water as needed to keep the lentils covered.


Add the wheat berries, the chickpeas, if using, the turmeric, the tomato paste, the Maraş pepper, and the spice blend. Stir to incorporate and add more water to cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, simmering for at least 20 minutes, until all the ingredients are very soft. Taste and adjust the seasoning.


Purée the soup to a thick, chunky consistency with a stick blender, or transfer to a food processor and pulse several times.


In a skillet, over very low heat, warm the extra-virgin olive oil with the fresh and dried basil or tarragon  and plenty of pepper.


Serve the soup in bowls, adding swirls of the basil or tarragon-infused oil, decorating with herb leaves, and sprinklings of sumac, if you like. Also, add 1-2 tablespoons diced feta cheese, if you like.



Precooking Pearl Barley, Wheat Berries, and Farro


Pearl barley, wheat berries, and farro need longer cooking than rice or bulgur, but their incomparable earthy, nutty flavor is ample compensation for the extra work. In order to be able to add the grains to stuffing and pilafs whenever you feel like it, precook 1 to 2 pounds (455 to 910 g) of your favorite grains and keep them in the freezer.


Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups (400 to 480 g) cooked grains


1 cup pearl barley, wheat berries, or farro


Place the grains in a pot and add cold water to cover by 2 inches (5 cm). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer half the time recommended on the package. Cooking times vary greatly between brands, so carefully check the cooking times suggested on the package.

Taste, and if the grains are still quite hard, continue cooking. Taste again after 10 minutes. You want the grains al dente, not mushy. Drain and let cool completely, then transfer to a zip-top bag and freeze flat. They will keep for up to 6 months.


To finish cooking, take out the bag, beat on the counter to loosen the grains, and use as many as you need. Close the bag and return to the freezer.







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With Garden Castoffs and Leftovers

I have almost forgotten the last time I thought of a dish first, and then went to buy the necessary ingredients.

The radish seeds we planted once grew tall, with lush leaves but no radishes. ‘There was some problem with the seeds,” said our friend at the nursery when I asked him if the reason was my planting too many in a small space.





 “Take them out and throw them to the neighbor’s sheep,” he said, offering to give me new, guaranteed radish seeds. But the greens looked wonderful, tender, crunchy and somewhat spicy, so I braised them with garlic, adding slices of the delicious, smoked local sausage I got from Yiannis, the butcher at the port. I complemented the dish with some of the half-cooked wheat berries or farro (see the Note HERE) that I keep in the freezer. We loved this dish of greens and grains, flavored with pepper flakes and turmeric, and drizzled with lemon juice.

I probably will never be able to make the exact same one again, though, as I doubt that I will be able to grow this kind of mock-radish greens anytime soon. See the easy recipe for Risotto with Greens though, which you can make with spinach, chard, or with red beet stems and leaves that make an impressive deep red risotto.


This is an example of how I choose what to cook every day, looking first at the garden, then opening the cupboards, my fridge and the freezer to decide what I could use to supplement the fresh produce and create an interesting and wholesome meal.

I chop and freeze the beet stems and use them to make the bright red Beet Risotto, a Variation of my basic Risotto with Greens.




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Grain Risotto with Kale or Cabbage

I love to make risotto with our Mediterranean wheat berries (farro) or with pearl barley. I use the grains on their own or complemented with some rice; in these combinations I prefer to add the long, basmati rice instead of Arborio or medium gran rice.

The cooking is a variation of my usual risotto with leafy greens, but on this occasion I prefer to cook the grains with a more substantial green, like kale or cabbage. 

A few years back we managed to grow some Russian, as well as Tuscan Kale in the garden; but unfortunately we have not been able to grow these wonderful greens again, so I use cabbage for my hearty grain risotto.

See also Kapuska: Cabbage with Ground Meat and Cabbage.




Serves 4-6 (more…)


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Chickpeas with Orange, Lemon and Squash

There are countless variations of slow-cooked chickpeas all over the Mediterranean. Most are vegetarian, like this one, inspired by a dish Stelios Tylirakis prepares in his wood-fired oven at Dounias tavern, high in the mountains above Chania, Crete.

In Crete chickpeas are commonly flavored with bitter (Seville) orange, while in most other islands lemon is used. I think orange peel is a wonderful substitute for the bitter orange, along with some lemon juice. This simple chickpea dish, like the one without squash, should be made with the best quality, preferably organic dried chickpeas, not the canned ones. Their flavor is so much more interesting. 

I add mustard, something I learned from my mother who claimed that it made all pulses more digestible. I’m not sure it does, but it certainly deepens the flavor of the beans and chickpeas.


I start describing the long, old fashioned oven-cooked method, and then I add my way of making the dish fast, with pre-cooked, frozen chickpeas without losing its original flavor and texture –by the way I, as most Greeks, like the chickpeas meltingly tender, somewhat mushy, not chewy.


I developed this recipe for EATING WELL magazine; part of a piece about the healthy Cooking of Crete (March 2020).



Serves 6-8 (more…)


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Bulgur Pilaf with Eggplants, Peppers, and Tomatoes (Hondros me Melitzanes)

This pilaf is often made not with plain bulgur (hondros in Crete) but with xynohondros, the traditional tangy ‘pasta’ of Crete, which is prepared early in the summer by simmering cracked wheat in goat’s milk that has been left to sour for 3-4 days. Tablespoons of the porridge-like mixture are spread on cloths and left in the sun, turned over a few times, until bone-dry. Usually the pieces are crumbled before drying completely, to facilitate the cooking. Kept in cloth bags xynohondros is used all year round for pilafs, soups, and added to stews with vegetables, meat or poultry.

To imitate the xynohondros flavor I suggest you serve the pilaf with dollops of yogurt and/or crumbled feta.


I developed this recipe for EATING WELL magazine; 

part of a piece about the healthy Cooking of Crete (March 2020).



Makes 4 servings   (more…)


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