This is a new favorite. I improvised something like it a few weeks ago while staying at a stranger’s house with some friends. We were wandering around an unfamiliar supermarket trying to figure out how to make dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen, and someone grabbed some sweet potatoes because yams are a man’s crop. I decided they should become soup, and found some red lentils, coconut milk, smoked pork neck bones, and a cheap bottle of “Jerk Seasoning” (with cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, and chilis).
Back at the house, I simmered the smoked pork neck bones in water to start breaking them down while I prepped the “duh, soup” ingredients like onion and garlic. I also found a knob of ginger, so I minced that and threw it in, too. I added the lentils and sweet potatoes and Jerk Seasoning once the onions had started to caramelize and then added the pork bones with their broth and simmered it all until everything had melted into a thick stew and the meat was ready to fall off the bones. Coconut milk for creaminess, lemon for brightness, and a little salt. It turned out pretty tasty—smoky, sweet, spicy, and rich with the pork and coconut fat. We ate it with a super fast loaf of crusty no-knead bread (made with a full package of of rapid-rise yeast, 2 hour first rise, 30 min second rise, still damn tasty). It would be just as good with long-grain rice or flatbread or crackers or just all by itself.
It occurred to me later that it could have used a little cilantro, so I added some when I made it again at home, and I think that did improve it. In my own kitchen, I like to toast and grind the spices myself rather than using a prepared blend. You might not be able to taste the difference, but the smell of spices toasting in a pan is one of my favorite parts of cooking.
Like most soups, especially ones you make up on the fly, this recipe is very flexible. You could use another kind of lentil or dried peas, adjust the spices based on what you’ve got or use another kind of prepared blend, substitute cream or yogurt for the coconut milk (or skip that part entirely). If you want bigger, more distinct chunks of potato, leave them out until the last 30-40 minutes of cooking. If you keep kosher, you could substitute smoked turkey necks for the pork. Or leave the meat out entirely for a vegan version and use bouillon or vegetable broth instead, in which case you can reduce the cooking time to 1-2 hours or however long it takes for the lentils to be tender. To make up for the smokiness and umami you get from the bones, you can add some mushrooms, canned or fresh tomatoes, MSG, nutritional yeast, and/or liquid smoke.
Recipe: Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup
- 2 onions
- 6-8 cloves of garlic
- 2” piece of ginger
- 2-3 Tablespoons butter, lard, or oil
- 1-2 lbs smoked meat/bones (like ham hocks or turkey necks) OR 1-2 Tablespoons bouillon/MSG/nutritional yeast/liquid smoke
- 8-12 cups of water or stock
- 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice, or 1/4 cup white wine
- 1 lb red lentils (about 2 cups) or split peas
- 3 large sweet potatoes
- spice blend below, or about 2 Tablespoons of curry powder or jerk seasoning or any other spice blend you like, preferably cumin-centric with a little heat
- 1 can coconut milk
- juice of 1 lemon or lime
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, plus more to garnish (or parsley if you’re cilantro-averse)
- salt and black pepper to taste
Spice blend (adapted from Post Punk Kitchen)
- 2 teaspoons whole coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon whole fenugreek
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 4-6 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 dried red chili peppers (omit or remove the seeds if you don’t like heat)
1. If using smoked meat, put it in a large pot along with 8 cups of water and vinegar or wine and let simmer while you prep the other ingredients. The acid helps leach minerals from the bones.
2. Peel and dice the onions and mince the garlic and ginger. Heat your cooking fat of choice in another large pot for a couple of minutes and then add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until the onions are translucent and beginning to turn gold.
3. Meanwhile, peel and dice the sweet potatoes into roughly 1” cubes. Add them to the onion mixture and toss to coat in the fat.
4. If using the homemade spice blend, toast the coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, and cloves in a small pan for about 5 minutes or until fragrant and beginning to darken. Pulverize them along with the turmeric and chili peppers in a coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
5. Add the spice blend to the onions and potatoes and stir to coat well. Add the red lentils, and the smoked meat & the liquid they’re simmering in OR 8 cups of water or broth and the bouillon.
6. Simmer for at least two hours, stirring occasionally and adding more water if it gets too thick. About an hour before you want to eat, remove the bones/meat (if using) and let cool for 30 minutes. Pick the meat off the bones and add it back into the soup.
7. Add the coconut milk, lemon or lime juice, and cilantro. Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust other seasonings as desired. Serve, garnished with more cilantro.