Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mercimek Çorbası

On Tuesday, I started learning Turkish.  Through my day job, I've begun learning three new languages over the past eight months---Spanish, Italian, and now Turkish.  But Turkish has been a long time coming.  I first fell in love four years ago, while taking a class on Early Christian and Byzantine Art.  Really, how could anyone see something like this and not be compelled towards something:

At the time, my interest in Constantinople was purely academic.  I could go on about the genius of the octagonal planned church, evidenced here and in countless other breathtaking structures, some of which no longer exist, or the spectacular apse mosaics.  Seeing slides that my professor had taken herself in Turkey and other Eastern Mediterranean countries made me want to become a professor, so that I could do just that sort of thing.  Ever since, my dream has been to study the religious and social history of the Byzantine empire in Late Antiquity, a dream which, for many reasons, was not to be when I applied to grad school.  But I still maintain hope that one day I'll be able to work in this area, and learning Turkish is part of that plan. 

One of the great fringe benefits of being with Jeff is being introduced to several cuisines I might never have otherwise gotten to know, by someone who knows them quite well.  Having an insider when exploring new cuisines and cultures makes the process so much easier and more comfortable.  It just so happens that he's spent a considerable about of time in Turkey, as his ex-girlfriend is from Istanbul, and there happen to be several Turkish places in Delran, NJ, near where he lives.  So from my very first visit we've been eating Turkish food regularly, and I've fallen in love with their simple, fresh way of eating, their tea sipped from tiny tulip-shaped glasses, and especially their coffee which, in my opinion, is the hands down best way to enjoy the bean.

One of the staples of Turkish cuisine is Mercimek Çorbası, red lentil soup, which has as many different preparations as there are cooks.  The soup at Star Mantı, the place in Delran where we always go, is good, but it's usually a little bland for my tastes.  I find the same problem with the countless recipes for it that I've looked at---each is different, but all lack the intensity of flavor that I look for.  So what else could I do but create my own.

Because the Turks seem to prefer a milder soup, this one can't really be called authentic.  But it's good.  Jeff, who has had a lot of red lentil soups over the years, tells me that it's the best he's ever had, and I'm fairly sure he's not just flattering me.  The flavors of this soup layer beautifully---the cumin, coriander, and red pepper create a spicy, earthy base which is then lightened by the delicate taste of mint and the fresh, sour bite of lemon juice.  It's finished with a tiny dab of butter that brings it all together into a thin cream that tastes much richer than it actually is.  It's a soup to be enjoyed year round, just as good cold as it is hot, and it tastes even better the next day.

Mercimek Çorbası
Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
4 cups water
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
salt to taste
1 tbsp butter
lemon juice to taste
dried mint to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot, and celery, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and red pepper and cook 1 minute more.  Then add the cumin and coriander just to heat it up.  Add the water, tomato paste (whisking well to dissolve it), and the lentils, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover.  Simmer for at least 20 minutes, until the lentils begin to break up and vegetables are fully softened.  During cooking, add salt to taste, but make sure to salt it well so that the flavors really stand out.  After simmering, add the butter and stir to incorporate.  When serving, add lemon juice and dried mint to taste---you're looking for enough lemon and mint to cut through the heaviness of the spices.  Serve with extra lemon wedges on the side.

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