If you think lentils are boring and bland, this recipe for Mediterranean Red Lentil Soup will surprise your taste buds. The best part, it comes together quickly – 20 minutes of prep and 20 minutes cooking time is all you need to serve a warm and comforting bowl of super nutritious soup. Red lentils have a beautiful orange-pink color and cook up soft and creamy. The addition of smoked paprika (Pimenton) and saffron creates layers of warm, spicy flavor.
I realize saffron is quite expensive and not everyone has it in their spice arsenal. Turmeric is an acceptable substitution for this soup, less pricy, and available at your local grocery store. But, saffron and turmeric are not the same. Saffron is extremely subtle and fragrant and has a slightly sweet and luxurious taste. Turmeric has more of a bitter, earthy flavor. I would not suggest substituting turmeric for saffron in every recipe that calls for saffron.
The smoked paprika used in the recipe is readily available and familiar brands such as McCormick or Spice Islands are good. However, I prefer Pimenton, which is a Spanish product and is available in both sweet (dolce) and spicy (picante) – either works here.
These cute little red legumes have a mild, subtly sweet flavor. Due to how they’re processed, de-husked, and split before packaging, they do not need presoaking and cook up in just 15 minutes! Because they break down almost completely while cooking, red lentils are perfect for dishes like soups and stews. Though small in size, they are a nutritional all-star. They’re rich in fiber and protein‚ making them a healthy meat substitute for vegans and are also packed with folate, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and potassium.
Although the soup is quite delicious and satisfying as is, use your imagination for endless variations. If you want a heartier soup, you can add some garbanzo beans. I love adding either diced potatoes, celery root, or butternut squash to the soup which makes it thick and stew like. If you prefer to keep it light, crumble a little feta cheese on each serving for some added interest and salty, tangy flavor.
Mediterranean Red Lentil Soup
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1½ cups chopped large yellow onion (about one onion)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (adjust if you use Picante Pimenton)
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon saffron, crumbled (or ½ teaspoon turmeric)
- ½ teaspoon salt or more to taste
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
- 4 to 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth, depending on how thick or thin you prefer the soup and how many other vegetables you add
- 1 cup red, split lentils, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups total of diced potatoes, celery root, butternut squash, or garbanzo beans (optional variations for a heartier soup)
- ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
- Heat the olive oil in a stock pot.
- Add the onions and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes until onions are translucent and beginning to soften.
- Add the thyme, rosemary, pepper flakes, Pimenton, saffron, salt and bay leaf. Stir together and cook for about a minute before adding the tomatoes and broth. Bring to a boil.
- Rinse the lentils and add to the pot.
- Add any of the optional ingredients along with the lentils. If adding garbanzo beans, rinse first and add at any time since they are already cooked. Return to a boil.
- Reduce heat and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until lentils have broken down almost completely and additional ingredients (potatoes, etc.) are cooked through. Stir in fresh parsley.