By Carolyn McDonald Graf
It’s always entertaining to come across an unusual recipe and then look into its origin and the origin of the ingredients. This recipe may seem odd in its combination of flavors, but it makes sense when these are broken apart and looked into. Lentils are one of the oldest foods known to humans and have roots going back to 8000 BC on the banks of the Euphrates River. The Egyptians, Romans, and Hebrews ate lentils. Lentils are mentioned in the Bible story of brothers Esau and Jacob. Esau, the older brother, sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. Lentils made their way from the Middle East across Europe. It is speculated that the lentil made its way to Scotland as men returned from the far-flung British Empire. As a food, lentils are rich in protein and provide B-group vitamins, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Beets are another interesting ingredient in this recipe. Their history also goes back to ancient times. Beets were said to have grown in the hanging gardens of Babylon. Originally, man ate only the greens not the fibrous skinny root. The first recording of the root being eaten was not until the early 1500s CE, but soon became a staple in Northern Europe because it grew well in colder climates. Many varieties were created, including the round red beet known commonly today. In 1747, Andreas Marggraf discovered a way to produce sucrose from beets. Today, nearly 20 percent of the world’s sugar comes from sugar beets. The common color of beets is red, although they do come in colors from white to yellow and a candy cane colored variety. Like lentils, they are a good source of vitamins and minerals including betalains which are now being studied as a cancer cure. Betalains are what give beets the red color. The red beet juice was used as a cosmetic cheek and lip stain in the 19th Century, resulting in the phrase “red as a beet.”
This particular recipe, also called Red Pottage, contains red beets and red tomatoes, although the final color is not a bright red. The lentils give the soup body and the beets add a bit of sweetness.
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 cup peeled and finely chopped carrots
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or two cups canned)
1 ½ cups brown lentils
2 quarts water or broth
½ teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup diced, peeled cooked or canned beets
½ cup red wine vinegar (start with ¼ cup, add more if desired)
Melt butter in a large pot. Add onions and carrots and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes or until onions soften. Add tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Add lentils, water or broth and thyme. Bring to a boils, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until lentils are tender about 30 to 40 minutes. Add beets and cook for another 5 minutes. I decided to use an immersion blender and liked the texture better.
The Scottish Irish Pub and Hearth Cookbook, Kay Shaw Nelson, 1999, Hippocrene Books Inc. New York, NY. P 40.