I think it may well have been one of my very first experiences with legumes of any type. While we ate plenty of vegetables growing up, meat was the focal point of our main meals, and U.S. diets and grocery stores were not as cosmopolitan as they are today.
But the year I turned 18, I did what's now called a gap year overseas and shared a house on a farm near London, England with 9 other young people from all over the world. It was an intense, challenging time of personal growth where I learned more than a thing or two about long, hard hours of physical labor, getting along with people, and food.
We had a housemother named Tess who was responsible for preparing meals and keeping the household running smoothly. She was all of 17 years old, a tiny little thing with a lovely, thick Yorkshire lilt and a huge personality, who had taken care of her younger siblings for years after her mother died.
Doing physical labor 6 days a week for 8-10 hours a day, we all worked up huge appetites, but Tess managed to put delicious, meatless meals on the table that incorporated plenty of vegetables and fruit, and even home-baked desserts and breads.
And they were also very satisfying. Despite the very tight budget she was given to work with, we most definitely did not go hungry.
That was my first introduction to vegetarian cooking, and how delicious and dirt cheap it could be. But young as I was, it never occurred to me to ask Tess for any of her recipes, and I soon forgot about most of them after I returned to the States and began college.
Quite by chance, several years later I found myself sharing a can of Progresso lentil soup with a friend.
One mouthful and the flavor immediately transported me back to that crowded farmhouse kitchen and cheerful, little Tess ladling out steaming portions into our bowls from a huge pot on the stove.
I knew I wanted to make my own, and I was sure I could replicate the taste from those long ago meals for a fraction of the cost of the canned soup. So I set out to do so, and the result is this recipe. I think it’s a close representation of Tess’s soup as I remember it.
Just like her soup from back then, it’s pot-licking good and will have you scraping the pot for the last morsel.
And as always, it’s cheap. The recipe makes 10-12 servings, and costs less than $6 to make. That’s only about 60¢ a person! Served with a tossed green salad and a loaf of fresh bread, the total cost is still in the very affordable range of about $1.25 per person.
It also freezes very well and is great as leftovers.
Here’s the recipe:
(Makes 10 generous servings)
(Freezes well and is easily doubled and tripled for a crowd)
Prep Time – 15 minutes
Start to Finish Time – 50 minutes
Total recipe cost – approximately $6.00
Total meal cost per person with bread and salad – approx. $1.25
12 cups of water
½ cup uncooked brown rice
½ package (8 ounces/1 cup) dried lentils
3 stalks of celery
1 medium onion
2-3 vegetarian or chicken bouillon cubes or 1-3 teaspoons of salt
1 can (6 oz) tomato paste
1 10-ounce box of frozen chopped spinach
1-pound bag of frozen spinach. (You can use the whole bag or opt to use only ⅔ of it.)
Lemon or vinegar (to taste)
Recipe continues after photos.
- Put 12 cups of water, along with the 2-3 bouillon cubes or the 2-3 teaspoons of salt, in a pot with a minimum 4 quart capacity over high heat. Bring to a boil.
- Meanwhile, wash the 3 stalks of celery. Cut the ends off and cut the stalks in half lengthwise. Cut across the strips to make pieces about ¼-inch in width. No need to be terribly precise about this.
- Wash and peel or scrub the carrots. Cut them lengthwise in half. Then cut across the strips to make pieces about ¼-inch in size. Again, you don't have to be too precise about this. Set them aside with the celery.
- Cut the ends of the onion and peel it. Cut it in half through the stem portion and place each half, flat side down on a cutting board. Cut the halves lengthwise into strips, and then across the strips to dice them. Set the diced onions aside.
- Once the broth is boiling, add the 1 cup of lentils, the 1/2 cup of rice, the cut carrots, onions, celery, and the 6 ounce can of tomato paste. Stir until the tomato paste is well blended.
- Return the soup to a boil. Once it is boiling, reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and set a timer for 35 minutes. Allow it to simmer gently, stirring frequently and checking that there is enough water. The soup should be thick, but not sticking on the bottom. Add more water if necessary, about ½ cup at a time.
- After 35 minutes, check the rice and lentils for doneness. Add additional cooking time in 5-10 minute increments, as needed.
- While the soup is cooking, thaw the spinach in a microwavable dish or container on low power in the microwave for 3-4 minutes, and set it aside.
- When the rice and lentils are done, stir in the thawed spinach to distribute well. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes until spinach is heated through. Adjust the seasonings.
- Ladle the soup into large bowls and add a teaspoon of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice, if desired, or let everyone add their own.
- Serve it with a tossed salad and a loaf of fresh, whole-grain bread for a delicious, hearty meal.
NOTE: You can add any leftover ham or sausage to this soup if you wish to have meat. Just cut it into cubes and add however much you'd like along with the spinach, and heat it through.