Kitchen Classics: Curried Red Lentil (or Split Pea) Soup

I well remember the unbridled glee we all felt in grade school when, first thing in the morning, the Principal walked in to announce that we’d have a substitute teacher that day. We kids practically roared with excitement at the prospect of (a) getting a reprieve from homework (because the substitute, of course, never knew exactly what our regular teacher had assigned); (b) getting a reprieve from the usual discipline and classroom structure (we would just make up new rules that we preferred, and she never knew the difference); and (c) getting a reprieve from, basically, any learning at all (she didn’t stand a chance with a group of squealing, shrieking, squirming children who suddenly considered the day to be allotted for play).

Ah, yes, kids can be so cruel.

At least the class embraced the notion of a substitute with gusto. These days, I think, we’ve got the connotation of “substitute” all wrong. A substitute is not a lesser version of the “real thing”–no sir. It’s the brave soldier willing to stand in for his buddy on the front lines.  It’s the eager understudy who may just surpass the headliner.  It’s the medical resident who steps in to complete the operation when the surgeon’s hands begin to tremble. You get the idea.

Whenever the HH and I go to a restaurant and the menu proclaims “No Substitutions allowed” next to their most popular items, I’m always a little peeved and wonder how much more they’d sell of said pasta or salad if they did allow subs.  In fact, I make a point of seeking out eating establishments that do permit changes to the menu–otherwise, I’d have precious few choices most of the time (oh, wait, I still have precious few choices.  Damn you, ACD!).

And let’s not forget the common phrase, “poor substitute.”  It’s as if those two words are fused at the hip, sort of like Eng and Chang, or coffee and cigarettes, or Simon and Paula (I know–can you believe they’re together, again, on X-Factor??).

Me, I love substitutes.  I think substituting is part of the fun in cooking.  When I first changed my diet, I wanted to play with every new ingredient I could find and figure out how the new could replace the old (or not).  I was so fascinated with substitutes, in fact, that I devoted an entire chapter to substitutes in my cookbook.

The process of coming up with substitutes can be a truly creative endeavor in the kitchen (or, really, any facet of life).  Maybe my interest is rooted in  my cash-strapped twenties when, as a graduate student, I was constantly seeking cheaper alternatives for the latest fashions, buzz-worthy restaurants, first-class travel, or even a favored bubbly. After a while, it was like a game:  what can I use instead of this pernod in the recipe to achieve the same result (without the same cost)? How about this cool aviator jacket from the army surplus instead of the latest runway darling? And these discarded flyers have print on one side only–they’d make great note paper–for free!

My knack for subbing one ingredient for another came back in a flash last week as I prepared a warming soup for the HH and me (sort of how the autumn weather itself decided to blast into town out of nowhere, too).  With the cooler clime suddenly upon us, I found myself wanting some classic split-pea soup.  After consulting my soup bible, Nava Atlas’s Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, I settled on the “Golden Curried Pea Soup.”

Everything was going along swimmingly (except of course, no more real swimming, now that it’s turned cool outside–summer, why hast thou forsaken me?). My onion was sizzling, I was chopping up the carrots, I poured the broth into the pot and reached for my jar of split peas, and–oh, noooo!  No split peas! (I had been so certain I had some, in fact, that I hadn’t even checked before beginning to cook–kids, please don’t try this at home).  But the soup must go on! I scanned the cupboard for a suitable substitute, and came upon a jar of red lentils.  Perfecto!

In went the lentils and the the final result worked out beautifully.  This version offers up the same thick, nubby, substantial base as a split-pea version, albeit slightly less sweet.  The curry provided a warming undertone to the mild flavor of the lentils, and the carrots contributed their own seasonal color and texture.  This is a stick-to-your-ribs, hearty and filling bowlful, one you’ll be scraping clean with your spoon.

In this instance, I daresay my substitute was every bit as good as I expect the original would have been.  I hope you’ll give it a try–and do feel free to substitute another legume of choice for the lentils.

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This is my submission to Wellness Weekend this week.

Last Year at this Time: Quick and Easy Chili Mac Casserole (GF, ACD Stage 3 and beyond)

Two Years Ago: Sold on Old: My Mother’s Vegetable Bread Kugel (GF, ACD Stage 2 and beyond)

Three Years Ago: Pear and Parsnip Soup (GF, ACD Stage 2 and beyond)

© Ricki Heller

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  1. Thanks Ricki…I need to make this. I’m loving that it’s soup season again, even if I don’t appreciate the cold weather.

  2. It’s lentil soup season! This looks lovely and the curry, lentil, rice combo really is hearty, warming and just downright delicious. I’ve tagged this recipe for future use!

  3. Oh my, you make me feel so grateful that my brother was awesome enough to land a permanent full-time primary teaching job straight away, instead of subbing first! However, it’s also funny that your story makes me think of my brother, because the potage st germain soup I entered in your Wellness Weekend a while back is the one thing I’ve cooked that my brother flat out refused to eat 😛

    • Silly bro! Why wouldn’t he want to try a yummy, healthy soup? Just goes to show that teachers don’t know everything–ha ha! And lucky for him to get that job. . . kids can be heartless! 😉

  4. Oh my goodness gracious this soup looks creamy, hearty, and comforting. I adore split pea soup…when it turns out right…but for some reason, I can’t always get my split peas to dissolve into their creaminess. Perhaps red lentils will fare better for me. I also really like the addition of brown rice–I’ve never thought of adding it to lentil soup. Thanks for the recipe!

    • You know, I think that may have been the secret–the lentils dissolve faster than peas would, and I just am not that patient! 😉 The brown rice also sort of melds into the mix by the time you eat it, but in a lovely way, adding a bit of thickening and starchiness that works beautifully. Hope you like it!

  5. That looks fantastic, Ricki! I ate some really delicious lentil soup while in Bermuda. It looked nothing like yours, but it was quite tasty and comforting. It was only on the menu one day though. I’m a huge fan of good split pea soup, too. Unfortunately nobody else in my family is (or of lentils in any regard for that matter). So if I make this recipe, I’ll have to make it for a support group meeting. In either form, it would go quickly there. 😉


    • I find that red lentils are different from all the other kinds–they never keep their shape! I love split peas, too. Even if no one else eats it, you can freeze in single servings. . . worked beautifully for us. 🙂

  6. the kinda thing we like at Yogi Kitchen! When we were in Canada we were amazed at how much subbing was permitted. Here in London, Uk where we are right now you just wouldn’t even think of it lest they might throw you out on your ear! Shame as it’s often not that hard to swap things around in the kitchen (I worked there professionally for 10 years) and really can make all difference to people’s experience.

    • Wow, I guess when I was in London (way back), I didn’t require substituting in restaurants (ah, the good ole days), so it never was a problem back then. Sorry to hear that! But yes, it makes patrons feel appreciated if they can get something custom made. 🙂 Hope you like this soup!

  7. I made my first split pea soup a couple of days ago when the mornings began to get chilly. It’s such a perfect food for this kind of weather. I am glad it is soup season again. I really like the idea of adding brown rice.

  8. Nava makes such lovely recipes and you make them LOOK so lovely! I’m actually craving lentils now.

    You know, I had always been against “chain” restaurants in the past, but lately, I’m preferring some of them because they are becoming so open with their menus, ingredients, and allergens, and always accomodating on substitutions. While I love going to the small guy and seeking out quality, at least here, I’m not finding it. Just a lot of little places where the staff has next to no knowledge on the menu.

    • I agree–love, love, love her recipes! And thanks re: the pics. 🙂 I will have to try out your approach to chains–I can see how they’d be able to accommodate a little more easily, perhaps. Great to know!

  9. The color looks like Split Pea soup,when I read the substitution of RED lentils, I thought the soup would have a reddish tint to it. That’s what makes great cooks, is when they RUN OUT of something “important”!

    • I thought the same thing, Roxee, but for some reason, the color came out the same! I think it’s the curry and turmeric that lend the color most of all. And you’re right–I’m sure many a great recipe was created because of a kitchen “fail”! 😉

  10. Red lentils have always been a great standby for me. Quick, tasty and healthy… But I recently discovered split yellow peas. I put them into a dal recently and was blown away. With red lentils it was good, but the split peas were sublime.

    Substitutions definitely make life easier and glad the soup still went on! This looks delicious, Ricki!

    Btw, at my gym they have newsletter where they mention the instructors that will be away and who will be replacing them. But instead of calling them “substitutes” they call them guest instructors. Love it! 😀

    • I bet you’re right–the split pea version would be divine. I have to try it the way it was meant to be! In the meantime, this “guest ingredient” was still darned delish! 😉

  11. I love lentils..!:) of course as an Indian, i grew up with tons of different types.. I am so used to eating ten as indian daal, that i forget about their potential to make thick hearty soups! i love red lentils and mung bean(green gram) the best for this season!

  12. I can never follow a recipe exactly as written (unless I am recipe testing, of course 🙂 )–I am *always* substituting things here and there and adding random things in…it makes it more fun, right?!

    That soup looks amazingly hearty and delicious.
    I may have to–gasp!–follow your recipe to the letter! Maybe… 🙂


    • Considering that THIS isn’t the same as the original recipe, you would be totally forgiven for changing it up yourself–maybe even so that it’s more like the first version. 😉

  13. Speaking of Simon and Paula…did you notice that Paula looked younger and her dress was shorter?

    Speaking of soup — there is no substitute for red lentils as far as I’m concerned. They’re my favorite of the lentil/split pea family.

  14. I know that feeling of an ingredient not being there – in fact when I made your meat substitute last week the longest part of the recipe was cleaning out kitchen cupboards for a rogue packet of dried sage that appears at odd moments but never when I need it

    great post – made me laugh at all your little comments on the side – yay for reclaiming substitutes – I think that vegetarians and vegans also face this issue when omnivores think if they make a substitute for meat that it is a second class when in fact it often seems superior to the original. But I think you prove just how fantastic substitutes can be (your faux meat for example)

    • YES for meat subs that are tastier than meat! 🙂 And I know that in the house in which I grew up, my mom’s vegetarian meals were almost always tastier than the meat-based ones. . . which may have been more a reflection of her cooking skills, come to think of it. 😉

  15. I have a similar recipe and I just adore it! Curry, lentils…how can you go wrong? I will have to try yours, too!
    I totally agree with you on substitutes. With rare exceptions, I don’t try to make gluten-free alternatives for something specific, I prefer to enjoy things for what they are…

  16. Mmm I love lentil soups, and this one seems so nice and thick.

  17. Sometimes the best meals come from happy little “ut-oh” accidents. I’m loving the sound of red lentils, curry, and ginger. Mmmmm. Time to get simmering!

  18. I looove that chapters in your book about substitutions. I was so excited to see it there!! I love lentils and this substitution looks like it worked out really well. 🙂


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