Lentils first came to my attention when I went to college in New Orleans and stayed to work there a number of years, returning after I finished graduate studies to take a teaching job. My family ate (and relished) many pulses as I was growing up, including pinto or navy beans, which were both cooked with chunks of ham and then served (with their delicious, rich pot liquor) over cornbread — a recurring meal that my parents associated with their Depression-era childhoods, but which we all liked very much, especially when the beans appeared on the table with a bowl of my mother's tart-sweet, hot (from chopped jalapeños) chow-chow, redolent of the mixture of spices used to produce this end-of-garden pickled relish.
We also ate, of course, a wide variety of field peas with roots in Africa, which are a significant gift of that continent to the American South (a gift connected to the slave trade, it goes without saying), and loved them. They included black-eyed peas, crowder peas, and purple-hull peas. The butter bean came to us, I think, from the Spanish-American colonies and was equally prized, especially the fresh, meaty speckled butter beans we could buy from farmers in the summer. It or the crowders or purple hulls were often the main course of summertime "farmers' dinners," to which we looked forward eagerly, and which featured the beans/peas with cornbread, surrounded by platters of fried okra, fried corn, fried eggplant and summer squash, and bowls of smothered summer squash, pole beans, greens including turnip and mustard greens, etc. All of this was eaten with sliced fresh tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, sweet onions, and cantaloupe as a salad.
My mother, her sisters, and her mother spent days working towards such a meal, since an initial step involved going to a farmers' market (or visiting country relatives) to get the fresh ingredients, then spending an afternoon shucking the fresh corn, snapping and stringing the pole beans, peeling and slicing all the salad vegetables, shelling the peas, and so on. Then another whole morning was required to cooki the many dishes, a task my grandmother relinquished to her daughters when this noontime dinner was prepared at her house, though she actively participated in the vegetable-buying and preparing the vegetables for cooking. I looked forward to the preparation stage because I could sit with her under a shade tree outside as we worked on the vegetables (corn was thought to "draw" flies, and so it was shucked outside and away from the house), and listen to the stories she told me as we worked.
But lentils: I don't recall ever having them until I went to New Orleans, where I encountered them at the houses of Italian friends of mine, who often made a soup they called lenticchie soup. Here's how they taught me to make it:
Add to several quarts of water or stock (the amount will depend on how much soup you intend to cook) chopped bell pepper, chopped celery, chopped onion, and chopped garlic. As the water/stock begins to simmer, add dried lentils, which you've culled through for any stones and then washed. (These friends all used green lentils.)
As with the water/stock, the amount of the lentils and seasoning vegetables will, of course, depend on how much soup you want to make. I usually use half of a one-pound package of lentils, that is, about a cup of lentils, to about 2 quarts of stock, with one bell pepper, one stalk of celery, one medium onion, and several toes of garlic. Keep in mind that the lentils will swell somewhat and absorb some of the broth as they cook, so if the soup looks thin when you've just added the lentils, you should expect it to thicken after they've cooked. Salt and pepper are added to the soup, too, of course, as it cooks, though the amount of salt you add may depend on whether you're using a stock already salted.
My Italian friends also add a bay leaf or two to the pot, along with some dried oregano. Because there's much fluidity and exchange in traditional New Orleans cooking, Creole cooks (who have inherited a mélange of French, Spanish, and African culinary influences) have also adopted this Italian soup and added Creole touches. When I have had it cooked in Creole households, the oregano has usually become thyme. Both my Italian and my Creole friends also add a good bit of chopped fresh parsley to the soup as they add the other seasonings, and then add more chopped parsley as they serve it — often, with more chopped garlic, to create a persillade to point up the flavor of the soup right as it's dished into bowls.
In Creole households, the soup is often served over rice. I suppose cooked pasta could also be added, though I haven't seen that done. Both my Italian and Creole friends also often add slices of sausage or some chopped ham as the soup cooks. When I've taught summertime courses in Germany, I've had German versions of lentil soup as an Eintopf that seems essentially not very different from the Italian and Creole versions, except that it doesn't have garlic or bell pepper. The German lentil Eintopf also usually substitutes for the bay leaf, thyme, or oregano some marjoram and/or lovage.
And it invariably has slices of cooked sausage or whole sausages added to the soup. The German lentil Eintopfs I've had also frequently add chopped carrots, which I think are a splendid addition. Steve and I have also found that fresh spinach quickly wilted in a bit of olive oil and added to each bowl along with the liquid from the pan in which the spinach was wilted is a wonderful addition.
You might well try ringing your own indigenous changes with this soup, which is versatile and open to adaptation — and delicious, inexpensive, and, if you forgo the meat, friendly to the earth with its down-to-earth ingredients. As with any bean-based dish, both Creole and Italian New Orleanians invariably serve this soup with a mixed salad dressed with a tart, garlicky vinaigrette, and crusty French or Italian bread.
Hungry now? Go and do likewise.
The photo of dried lentils is from the Wikipedia article on lentils, and is available for replication under a Creative Commons license.