Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew

A few months back a very good friend/Auntie of mine, Dr. Betsy Brown (I also refer to her as Dr. Brown the Pickle Queen, and I’m sure eventually I’ll blog plenty about the source of that title), returned from a trip to Seattle with an Ethiopian spice blend she had picked up while there. Aside from being curious as to how the Ethiopian population was holding up in the NW climate, I was thrilled to test the seasoning. I am a nerd for spices (note: unfortunately, I don’t mean “nerd” in the way that’s actually cool these days – like wearing glasses and watching Star Trek and listening to records and seeing zombie movies 400 times in theaters. I mean way more Urkel.), and Santa Fe is severely lacking in spice stores, so when anyone returns from elsewhere with new and fresh spices, I am very excited.

The Ethiopian blend Betsy gifted me is called Berbere, and is a staple spice mix in Ethiopian cooking. It is a combination of up to 15 different spices, and the types and quantities of each spice vary by cook. The most essential ingredients are allspice, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, black pepper, and salt with a large amount of cayenne pepper. Oh my yum. You just hit like 3 of my major spice loves, plus salt. And it is so delicious! It’s reminiscent of Indian curry but notably different, with a deeper, earthy heat to it. Dang that shit’s good.

So a couple weeks ago when I began to formulate (or finally act on) an idea for a “Larder Party” at my house (food you don’t eat taking up your pantry? Expired soup you just gotta get rid of? Feed it to your friends!), it just so happened that I had a massive jar full of red lentils and that bag of crimson Berbere sitting happy in my spice cupboard. I was pleased by the challenge of being limited to the ingredients I wanted to use up (black eyed peas, chickpeas, bulgur, peaches, cornmeal) and started plotting a way to incorporate the items in a menu together, all complementing the lentils. Jerk spiced roasted chickpeas set out on the table, black eyed pea salad with fresh basil, cherry tomatoes and a Dijon vinaigrette, bulgur pilaf with sour cherries and fresh herbs, skillet corn bread with peach preserves, and no shortage of wine, red or white (duh). All balancing a pot of spicy Ethiopian red lentil soup with stewed cherry tomatoes and caramelized onions, topped with cumin sour cream and fresh cilantro garnish. Holy Jeebus. I may have done a jig in my kitchen when I tasted the lentil soup completed, and that had way more to do with the richness of the flavor than the amount of butter I put it in. Everyone knows butter is flavorless, anyway.

My guests were just as thrilled by the flavors, and while I thought a full 6 quart Crock Pot would satiate the 15 of us, we were scraping the bottom for seconds and thirds. It was certainly a crowd-pleaser, and ridiculously easy!

Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew

I’ve reduced the quantities I used to serve 4 –6 people, but I just about tripled this recipe to feed a hungry horde.

Feeds 4 – 6

1 cup red lentils

4 tbsp unsalted butter, plus 2 tbsp (optional but delicious)

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

2 tbsp. Berbere

2 tsp. Cinnamon

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

Chicken/veggie stock or water

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 c sour cream mixed with fresh lemon juice and cumin

Fresh cilantro, rinsed and dried, chopped for garnish

  1. Rinse the lentils and set aside
  2. Heat 4 tbsp of the butter in a saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and cook until starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add ginger and continue to cook until onions begin to caramelize, another 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic, stir constantly until fragrant, maybe a minute. Add the rinsed lentils, half the berbere, and cherry tomatoes. Stir to mix all, then add 4 cups stock or water to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until soup thickens and the lentils are together in a mush, about 50 minutes. Add more liquid as needed to reach desired consistency. Add the second half of the berbere and the cinnamon, add the second two tbsp of butter if desired, season with salt and pepper. Top with cumin sour cream and cilantro.


Note: I made the soup the day before I served it and the next day reheated it, added more chicken stock and a bit more cinnamon before serving to up the spice. It was just as delicious (if not more so) the next day when the flavors had melded and settled.


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