Fully one of every three lentils in this country is grown at the eastern fringe of our humble state, in a region known as the Palouse. This rich and hilly patch of loess is a four to five hour drive from our doorstep, depending on how fast you take the town of Colfax, Wash., pop. 2700, reputed to be a big-time speed trap. It’s a fair drive from here to there, but one that some growers do on a weekly basis to get their meats and specialty goods to the Seattle-area farmers markets. And yet, you’ll never find lentils at these very same markets.

Why is this? We’re talking about a near-perfect protein, a legume that delivers tons of folic acid and fiber. And lentils are dry goods, which means they ship light and can store for long periods of time; they might just be the ideal national security food. But it happens that all in-state lentils are grown on a contract basis; large corporations provide farmers with their seeds and buy back the product. No doubt the system is efficient, but we pay a certain price; as of Y2K, for example, our state’s lentil growers had exhausted the efficacy of dithiocarbamate and organophosphate insecticides for their crops. See a newer post for additional details.

I bring up lentils at all because for dinner tonight I cooked up a pot of Melissa Clark’s lentil soup from yesterday’s NY Times. This soup was full-bodied, savory, and absolutely delectable with fresh bread, which I baked according to Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois’ 5-minutes-a-day method and ate hot out of the oven smeared with fluffy goat cheese. (Disclaimer: Jeff and Zoe suggest letting the loaf cool before tearing it apart.) It was filling enough for an entire meal, and I’m no bantamweight when it comes to eating.


Update: I made a modified batch of this soup for an herbivorous crowd and it was a hit. Here’s my adaptation of the recipe. The small, split red lentils are a key ingredient, as is the yogurt, which adds a nice hit of acid.

Red Lentil Soup

Vegetable oil / 1 large onion, minced /2 garlic cloves, minced / 1 carrot, diced / 1 tbls tomato paste / 1 tsp ground cumin / generous pinch ground chili powder or cayenne / 6 cups stock or water / 1 cup red lentils / salt & pepper / chilled plain yogurt / chopped cilantro and mint

Heat 1 tbls oil in a soup pot over medium-high. Add onions, garlic, and carrots and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, cumin, and chili powder or cayenne and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add broth, lentils and ¼ tsp salt. Cook 45 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Puree half of soup and recombine. Season with additional salt and pepper if desired. Garnish with a scoop of yogurt and sprinkled herbs. Feeds 4. Stores well. Adapted from Melissa Clark.

Note: alternately use 1 tsp lemon juice, stirred into soup, instead of yogurt.