I'm trying out a new feature on this blog where I take a popular local restaurant dish and try to duplicate it—to see how close (or how very far off track) I can get. I don't make any claims about being a supertaster or anything, but I do like a good puzzle. I think it would be especially fun because although I have some insights in the kitchen, there are also some significant gaps. My good instincts alternating with bad judgment ought to make for some fine kitchen capers.
It all started last month when reader Karin asked if I could help her duplicate the vegan red lentil soup from Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square. I had never had the red lentil soup at Cafe Algiers. However, I love lentil soup and, even if I failed, a good bowl of lentil soup would be reward enough. Mission accepted!
Over February vacation, the family and I joined our next-door neighbors for some Looney Tunes at the Brattle Theater. Afterwards, I ducked into Cafe Algiers and purchased one container of red lentil soup to go. I did not try to elicit any clues about the contents of the soup lest I spoil my own fun. I sampled the soup outside on the sidewalk. It was indeed very tasty. I helped myself to a bit more on the T. Husband took a taste or three and declared it the best lentil soup he ever had. I couldn't disagree. By the time we got home, there was very little in the way of soup left to do any comparison testing, but it would have to do.
I got busy right away. My two main questions were: 1. Was the soup thickened with potato or just the lentils themselves cooked down; and 2. What the hell is in their spice mixture? I sketched out a simple recipe and started with that, then added spices as I went along. I tweaked and tested as only a Cook's Illustrated reject can do. Meaning I made two pots of soup and called it a day. I settled on no potato, though you could certainly add some if you wanted.
The beauty of Cafe Algiers' soup is its elegant simplicity, but the spices proved deceptively complex. I think I'm close, but it's not perfect. I'm nearly positive one of the mysterious flavors is a heavy dose of fenugreek. There's definitely some cumin, coriander, and cayenne in there. There's a sour note I'm missing that the lemon juice alone didn't provide. Also a faint smoky sweetness that's maybe paprika, maybe something else. Is there a pinch of cinnamon or ginger? I couldn't tell, and I literally pulled a muscle in my tongue trying to find out.
So, Karin, here's my best guess. Make it and let me know what you think. If anyone else can do better, please report back. As usual, I used as many local ingredients as possible, including a lovely bowl courtesy of the Concord Shop. I'll definitely be making this soup again and again. The next time you're in Harvard Square, be sure to bring home at least two containers of the real thing. And if you have any requests for other Boston-area dishes you'd like me to take a stab at, let me know in the comment section.
Red Lentil Soup
Inspired by Cafe Algiers, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA
Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in medium pot over medium heat. Cook 1 finely chopped medium yellow onion 3-4 minutes until translucent (don't brown). Stir in 2 tsp. fenugreek, 1/2 tsp. cumin, 1/2 tsp. coriander, 1/4 tsp. cayenne, 1-1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and 1 tsp. black pepper. Add 6 cups water and 1 cup red lentils (washed, any stones removed). Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Skim foam. Cook 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lentils have broken down and soup is thickened. Taste to adjust seasoning. Serve with chopped cilantro, lemon wedges, and a drizzle of paprika oil (1 tsp. olive oil whisked with several shakes of paprika).
Red lentils: Baer's Best, Moraine Farm, Hamilton, MA (via Russo's)
Onion: Red Fire Farm, Granby, MA (via Wayland Winter Farmer's Market)
Bowl/Latte Mug: By Waechtersbach Konitz; Available at The Concord Shop, Concord, MA