Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Re: Lentil Soup

It is February and in Vermont that means soup weather, conjuring up images of a pot of soup simmering on a back burner all day. Unfortunately, for most of us with busy lives that has to remain a mental fantasy as we feel we don’t have time to make soup from scratch, and besides, there are all those tasty canned soups out there.

Although the canned soups are convenient, they can’t hold a candle to their homemade counterparts in either flavor, nutrition or cost. And with a little planning, a lot of soups can come together quickly, needing a minimum of time on the stove just before eating. And, when making a recipe that makes more servings than you can use in one meal you have created next day’s portable lunch or the basis for a different soup later
in the week. Using lentil soup, my all time favorite, as a study in flavor, nutrition and economics, I hope to show you how to begin to kick the canned soup habit.

Flavor is a personal matter, but most people respond to the freshness of something that doesn’t come out of a can. Also, when you make your own soup you are in charge of what herbs and spices you use. If you adore soy sauce or hot sauce, you may add them. If you don’t like thyme, don’t put it in. Home cooking is about what you like, not what someone else has put into the can.

Nutrition is a big reason why I cook for myself. There are a lot of things in processed foods that I don’t like and one of them is salt. One of the leading brands of canned lentil soup has three varieties out there with 18, 21 or 34% (443, 500 and 810 mg) of the daily allowance of salt in one cup of soup, according to their labeling. My homemade soup has only the amount of salt I put into it: none while cooking and a slight sprinkle when serving. One quarter teaspoon of salt has 590 mg of sodium, 25% of the daily allowance according to the nutritional information on my salt box; there are more than a dozen “three shake” sprinkles in a quarter teaspoon (I counted and measured). You do the math.

And now to look at the costs. A 16 ounce can (2 one servings) of lentil soup costs anywhere from $1.59 to $2.19 in area supermarkets, and takes just minutes to heat and serve. A standard lentil soup recipe that makes five one cup servings uses a half pound of dried lentils at $1.85 per pound, a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery and some seasonings for less than $1.60. But it takes a little time: about 20 minutes to bring the water to a boil, chop the vegetables and put everything into the pot to cook; and an hour for the soup to cook. That hour of cooking can be divided up so that the soup has been assembled and half cooked long before it has to be served. The difference in flavor will more than compensate for the added half hour it will take to finish cooking on the stove. You get five cups of homemade soup for the price two cups of canned soup from ingredients always available on a moderately well stocked pantry cupboard. The added bonus for the environment: you don’t have a can to recycle!

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