Any kind of humble pulse makes a good Lenten ingredient and while beans, frijoles, are indigenous to the Americas, lentils originated in the Near East, where they were first domesticated. They are therefore a more recent and post-Hispanic addition to the Mexican larder but they have made themselves very much at home and team up regularly with more native ingredients, particularly during Lent, La Cuaresma, in the spring and the Días de los Muertos, Days of the Dead, in November.
The Oaxaqueños like to add fruit to their lentil soups, chiefly pineapple and plantain, providing sparkle and richness as well as balancing the acidity of the tomatoes and heat of the chillies. Pork is also often used – chorizo, bacon, sausage – making the sopa into a meal in itself, but obviously during La Cuaresma, the dish becomes vegetarian. A good handful of salty queso fresco, fresh cheese, makes up for the lack of meat and gives the flavours a tangy, sharp lift, while crisp, crunchy tortilla chips or totopos sprinkled over the top just before serving provide texture.
Any lentils except split red ones can be used but Puy, black, slate and green ones tend to turn into a rather sludge-coloured soup so I prefer to go for the little brown ones.
Lenten Lentil Soup – Sopa de Lentejas de Cuaresma
500 g/18 oz tomatoes, halved
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
45 ml/3 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
5 ml/1 tsp chipotle chilli powder or paste, or to taste
5 ml/1 tsp ground cumin
3 allspice berries, coarsely ground or crushed in a mortar
250 g/9 oz brown lentils
15 ml/1 tbsp bouillon powder
150 g/5 oz peeled fresh pineapple, net weight, diced – about half a small pineapple
300 g/11 oz ripe plantains or barely ripe bananas, weighed with skin, peeled and sliced into 1 cm/1/2 in discs
15 g/1/2 oz fresh coriander/cilantro, coarsely chopped
25 g/1 oz red or green chillies, as mild or hot as you liked, deseeded and finely sliced
200 g/7 oz Mexican queso fresco, Ricotta Salata or Feta cheese
50 g/2 oz tortilla chips
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the grill to high. Line the grill pan with foil and arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, and garlic cloves on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat for about 20 minutes, until lightly charred, turning the garlic cloves over half way through. Cool, then peel the garlic cloves and place them in a food processor with the tomatoes and any juices. Process to a chunky purée. Leave in the food processor.
While the tomatoes are grilling, heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a medium saucepan and cook the onions until soft and golden. Sprinkle in the chipotle, cumin and allspice and fry for one minute. Stir in the lentils and enough cold water to cover by 2.5 cm/1 in. Bring to the boil, turn the heat right down, cover the pan and leave to simmer until the lentils are soft, about 45 minutes.
While the lentils are cooking, heat the remaining olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and cook the plantain slices for one minute on each side, until they turn a light gold. Keep them moving around in the pan as they tend to stick easily. Remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper and set aside.
Ladle approximately half the lentils and their cooking liquid into the food processor with the tomato purée and blend until fairly smooth. Return the mixture to the saucepan, add the bouillon powder, some seasoning and just enough water to make it the consistency of a nice thick soup rather than a porridge. Bring back to the boil, stir in the pineapple and plantain and cook for just a minute or two, to heat the fruit.
Check the seasoning and divide between four warm soup plates. Sprinkle first with coriander and chillies, then the cheese and finally the tortilla chips.
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