Lentil Soup with Merguez

Merguez sausage adds a smoky heat to this lentil soup.

It’s a cliché to quote TS Eliot’s aphorism that April is the cruelest month. So let me just say that the weather this month in Chicago has been abysmal: cold, grey, rainy and dreary. Gosh, it’s almost like the weather is supposed to be in March. Except this year, March was like July.  Anyway, all this talk about the weather is a long way of explaining that it is still soup season west of the Loop.

2012 has been the year of the lentil for me in the kitchen. I have embraced this humble legume as a way of expanding my repertoire of vegetarian meals. Lentils were always something I enjoyed eating in restaurants but felt intimidated to make at home. I have since learned, however, that dried lentils are easy to make at home and don’t require the long soaking time of, say, dried beans.

Since overcoming my fear, I have used the red Indian lentils to make a curried lentil dish that was inspired by my Sri Lankan cooking class. And I regularly use the green French lentils — called lentils de Puy — to make lentil soup. Lentil soup is one of those foods that makes you feel virtuous — it’s like 70’s vegetarian restaurant fare — yet still tastes really really good. I am particularly excited about this lentil soup recipe because it uses merguez, which is a spicy Moroccan lamb sausage. (Yes, I know that this soup is therefore not vegetarian. It could be though! Just skip the sausage.)

I am excited about using merguez for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, merguez is a lamb sausage, meaning it does not contain pork. After all, it comes from North Africa, where the majority of people are Muslims, who — like observant Jews — do not eat pork. We do not have pork in our house (because we are semi-observant Jews) and I miss having an ingredient that imparts a smoky spiciness the way pork sausage can. Merguez is a happy substitute.

I also enjoy cooking with merguez because it reminds me of my student days in Paris. Merguez are street food in Paris — sold on street corners on a bun with matchstick-thin frites piled on top. When you are stumbling home drunk after a late night out, a merguez with frites really hits the spot — or so I am told. I wouldn’t know anything about that.

So, for all these reasons, I was thrilled to discover that Gepperth’s Meat Market sells merguez and my friends at Artizone.com deliver it. I have been stocking my freezer with several pounds at a time. Merguez is also good grilled or added to pasta dishes. My husband is not sure that he likes merguez as much as I do — but then again, he’s never had one on a Parisian street corner at 2 am. But he does like this lentil soup recipe, in which the merguez is solidly in the background adding richness and depth without too much lamb flavor.

If you can’t find merguez or have no religious objection to pork, a smoky pork sausage would be a fine substitution. And again, if your goal here is to eat vegetarian, just skip the sausage altogether. This soup makes a satisfying vegetarian dinner when paired with a salad and some crusty bread.

Lentil Soup with Merguez

12 lb Merguez sausage
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 lb green French lentils
1 Large Onion chopped
3 Carrots peeled and diced
3 Whole Celery ribs, chopped
3 Cloves Garlic minced
1 can whole plum Tomatoes with juice
6 Pints Chicken Stock
2 Teaspoons Cumin
2 Teaspoons Coriander
1 Pinch Cayenne pepper
2 Tablespoons Red Wine Vinegar

After checking for any random pebbles or other undesirables, soak the lentils in boiling water for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the Merguez sausage meat from its casings and brown in a large stock pot. When the meat is browned, remove and set it aside. Add olive oil to stock pot over medium heat. Saute onions, garlic, carrots and celery over medium-low until tender and translucent. Add spices and salt and pepper. Saute a few more minutes until fragrant. Add the tomatoes with their juice, crushing the tomatoes with the back of your spoon, and bring the mixture  to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, 15 minutes. Add lentils and chicken stock. Bring back to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until lentils are soft, about 45 minutes. If you have an immersion blender, you may want to use it to puree the soup at this point. I prefer to do that for a smoother texture, but it’s not necessary. After pureeing, return the browned sausage meat to soup. Simmer until warmed through. Add red wine vinegar at the end to brighten the flavors. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.