Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Mexican Food in Athens Experience



     So, there we were, my good friend Frosso and I, having a romantic long walk on the beach (ok it was at the marina but same difference) when hunger hit us- we were famished (ok not quite but the word creates a bit of drama, don't it?!). We *almost* made the tragic mistake of eating at Friday's (which apparently is a big deal here in Greece. Oh, you silly Greeks.). Yes ladies and gentlemen, I actually considered it...I must have been struck with a case of stupid for a minute there. Anyway, as I'm browsing over their menu like I've never seen it before in my life, Frosso says "Well, we can have Mexican if you want!". Mexican!? Well paint me orange and call me Garfield! Hellz yeah I want Mexican! It was settled, to Amigo's we went! (No really, the place is called Amigos...original, I know).

  Now, let me just throw a little disclaimer out there that I didn't really have any truly high expectations for this place. I knew better than to expect any kind of comparison to what I have come to know as Mexican food and I certainly didn't sniff enough glue to think I was gonna get anything remotely close to traditional. It was at a moment of weakness and the fact that I haven't had mexican food in almost a year that made me have a ray of hope for this place. I figured I'd get another Americanized version of Mexican food. I could live with that. And I did. Only problem is, I got a sad imitation of an an already poor reindition. Like a rap song that sampled some amazing classical music piece and failed. Miserably.

The strawberry maragarita that never was.
   Also, I'm not claiming to be some kind of walking encyclopedia of Mexican food or that I'm an expert at it. Zues knows I have a long way before I get my PHd in Mexican cuisine but I will say I have had my share of authentic and homemade pozoles, flautas and tamales made from some equally aunthentic Mexican moms (love them!). I've roamed the streets (and very questionable areas) of Vegas and have been introduced to the little taquerias that make those delicious tripas tacos and sopes (among other great things) and I have been given confirmation from my Mexican compadres that they were pretty damn close to the real thing. In other words, I have an idea of what's up.

    Well, needless to say, there wasn't any of the above mentioned goodness on the Amigo's menu. Instead, the menu was a weird hybrid of Americanized Mexican food (e.g. Fajitas) aka Tex-Mex and American food (the guy next to me had a burger and fries...along with 10 other dishes him and his broad shared). I will say the actual restaurant was beautiful. Tastefully painted in the traditional colors you would see in a Mexican eatery, mexican music playing in the background (well, more like blasting) and subtle hints of what represents Mexico to the rest of the world (sombreros, fake cactii outside the entrance, etc.).

   Anywho, we started off with some chips and salsa. Nothing to really say about that. They were pretty much chips and salsa (and the tastiest thing I had that night). I figured since Frosso decided to get a margarita, I'd go crazy and have one too. I was gonna get me hammered! (Yeah, that didn't happen). We decided on what we wanted, we ordered and I shit you not, not even 5 minutes later (no exageration), they brought us our food. I almost told the runner he made a mistake but he hadn't.


The "street" tacos. Right.
   Now, some people might get a kick out of getting their food so fast (especially since it was pretty packed in there) but working in professional kitchens for so many years has taught me a thing or two. All that meant was that everything was pretty much pre-made and just assembled right then and there...like the cooks are working off a conveyor belt or something! All they seriously had to do which required any kind of on the spot "cooking" was to melt the cheese over the enchiladas. I am hoping that was done in a salamander at least but Frosso and I have our suspicions it was in a microwave. *cringes* So yeah, my point being...there was no love (or time really) put into preparing our food! Just stuff some meat in the tortillas, scoop some more meat into little cups and throw them on a plate. Sad. Just sad. They could have at least humored us and waited 10 minutes before slinging the food out to us.

  So anyway, I had the "street tacos" that came with 6 flour (I'll let that slide) tortillas and an assortment of little side ramekins of sour cream, cheddar cheese, something that posed as pico de gallo and 3 different kinds of meat: ground beef, chicken and some saucy mystery meat. All bland. All flavorless. By the time you got to the 2nd tortilla, they were already cold....don't they know you're supposed to put them in those little baskets to keep them warm!? Dios mio!

Enchiladas de mierdas
   My dear Frosso had the Enchiladas (we shared both entrees, by the way) which were slightly better because there was a melted cheese party going on all over those suckers (at least they got that part right). They were served with some sort of seasoned rice (which was still relatively bland) and a small sample of some corn/carrot/lettuce salad (which also came with the tacos, and it sucked).

    O
h, but that fun doesn't stop there my friends. There were far bigger violations than just the food being flavorless. That can happen anywhere. Anyplace. With any type of cuisine. With no warning. The following really put this restaurant to shame in my eyes.

    Uno) There were no limes to be found. Anywhere. I ate tacos with no limes. Mexican folk around the world feel my pain right about now. Pure tragedy, I know. And ok, fine, there's no limes to be found in Greece (lies!), how bout some damn lemons!? It's the same difference! But nope, no limes or lemons served with my tacos.

Mi amiga. :-)
  Dos)  No plethora of hot sauces!!! What the funk!? I mean, I didn't think they'd bust out with any Cholula or Tapatio but at LEAST some Tabasco! To be fair, I didn't ask for any (or limes) so maybe they had some in the back hidden somewhere but that's just crazy talk. No tableside hot sauces!? That's just unacceptable. I mean, you don't have to ask for the damn lei when you visit Hawaii, do you!? It's expected! (Although that doesn't hold true anymore...but that's a whole other rant.) Adding insult to injury, none of these dishes were remotely spicy in any way shape or form which made the hot sauces that much more neccesary. I'm pretty certain cheesecake is spicier than what we ate over there.

   Tres) I mentioned before that the enchiladas were served only with rice. Now call me loca but isn't there something missing here!? You bet your sweet ferret ass there is! The god damn beans!

DONDE ESTAN LOS PINCHE FRIJOLES!? 

       I mean come on! How do you open up a mexican restaurant and not serve rice AND beans with the majority of your entrees?! I don't know why but this fact really pissed me off. It was all too much to handle really. The absence of hot sauces, limes and beans offended me in behalf of the whole Mexican population worldwide.

Margarita was too strong for this little ferret.
    Now, as I mentioned earlier, I knew better than to expect anything spectacular from the joint but I cannot help but dock mucho ferret points for this places' obvious cluelessness about certain simple things that make Mexican cuisine as awesome as it is. What really grinded my gears was when I visited their website and read that they "are commited to serving our guests authentic Mexican cuisine...". Seriously? Don't believe me, check out their site: http://www.amigos.gr/ . (You can switch the language to English.). You might say "Well, you're in Greece. Cut them some slack". Screw that! YOU'RE the one telling me you're serving "authentic" Mexican food...you gotta at least cover the basics, "amigo".

   Would I ever go back? No way, Jose. Unless I was with a group of friends that just have to go there (I'd hate to be the only douche opposing about going to some place everyone else seems to want to go. I never want to be "that guy" ). However next time (and I'm praying there isn't), I'll play it safe and get a burger. They can't mess up a burger too bad. Or can they?

    In conclusion, the only thing that saved this place was the atmosphere, chips and salsa and my great company (2 of which are not edible). More bluntly put, any worse and it would have been Taco Bell (at least they give you hot sauces over there and it tastes great when you're wasted...).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mom's "Pad Thai"

  

     OK, I'm not gonna lie. It's not Pad Thai (hence the quotations in the title, silly). It started off as the desire to have Pad Thai again. Like when my mom and I would order Pad That take out from a little dingy Thai place back in Los Angeles (I'd hate to see what the kitchen actually looked like...but who cares!? That stuff was so good!).

    So yeah...there we were today...mom and I, chillaxin' on our bad-ass cheetah print couch (meow), talking about how deliciously wonderful that stuff was and next thing you know, my mom's up and in the kitchen trying to recreate it all over again!  Oh, bless her heart. She's so cute. She had the spirit. She was certain it would come out tasting just like pad thai! Never mind the fact that we're missing a few ingredients...like the fish sauce... and the tamarind pulp..and the bean sprouts..and the rice noodles...and the ground peanuts...nothing much, just half of the main ingredients.:)

   Well, what she created might not have been true, authentic pad thai straight outta the Land...but it was a mouthgasm none the less. My mom is just gangster like that. She can literally throw anything (and everything) in a pot and have it taste absolutely divine (90% of the time. And this fact does not hold true when it comes to baking. Keep her away from baking. At all costs). Screw culinary laws and do's and don't's...she makes up her own!

    So there she was, cooking away and I just barely had enough time to take pics of the whole process. I apologize if the photos are a tad crap-tastic...it was the best that I could do as I was trying to not clash into my mom as she whizzed her short self up and down our minuscule kitchen. Oh yeah and you can forget about an actual recipe on this one, she literally just sized it all up for 3 people (and a little extra for a ever so epicurean-curious kitty).

The Chef du Jour 



 "Just eyeball it!"- Mom










So here goes the story of how mom made the best pasta. Evar.

  


No peanuts? No problem! She just slivered up some almonds and toasted them up in a bit of olive oil along with some chopped up dates.  





  
She set them aside and then sauted a generous amount of garlic in the same pan along with about a tablespoon of brown sugar....








...and then she added some shredded carrots to the mix and stir frequently until the carrots started to caramelize...







Next, she added the almonds and dates back in the pan and let all the ingredients get to know each other a little bit better...about 2-3 minutes or so.







Then, she emptied all that loveliness on to a plate and sauted some green onions in the pan. She cooked them for about 5 minutes and then decided to make some scrambled eggs all up in there adding a nice amount of black pepper as well (she's seasoning as she goes along as well).




After the eggs were well scrambled, she added all the ingredients that have been patiently waiting on a side plate back into the pan and added some sesame seeds and chopped dried red chilies to it all and gave them one more whirl (all this on medium heat, by the way).

  (I should mention that she put a pot of water and cooked our pasta in the midst of all this...)


So there she was, regular ol' pasta, drained and buttered, mixed with some of this Thai-inspired deliciousness of my mother's. There are no words...all I can say is...nom nom nom nom....
  

    

Dad's plate with the whole wheat pasta.


ขอให้เจริญอาหาร!
(man, I really hope that says "Bon appétit" in Thai instead of "tourists suck" or something...)


Saturday, March 19, 2011

One of the many (yummy) ways Grandma is never forgotten...


      I love foods that are able to take you back. Like the scene in Ratatouille, when the harsh and hard-to-impress food critic, Ego, took a bite of Remy's ratatouille and it automatically took him back to his childhood years. I love it when that happens! Taste and smell (as well as sound) have those remarkable powers (I personally believe they're magical...) to transport you to another place and time and trigger a specific memory and feeling.

With my beloved and missed grandparents.
   Well, the dessert I'm showcasing today does exactly that. Every time the house fills up with the aroma it creates when being cooked and every time a take a bite into it's deliciousness, it takes me back to when I was lower case g and my beloved grandmother would make this dessert for our family. An overwhelming amount of dear memories come flooding back with every bite (is that why I end up eating the whole damn thing??) and I truly take a trip down memory lane.

   I remember my grandmother being a fantastic cook but I guess word around the olive tree was that her biggest reputation was in her mad dessert making skillz. Sadly, by the time I was old enough to remember, she had gotten older and didn't have the energy to prepare the baklavas, almonds pies and other sweet miracles she was so famous for. This dessert, however, she did make because it didn't require a lot of ingredients and wasn't as labor intensive. It's one of my favorite sweets not only cause of it's fantastic flavor but for the sentimental value it holds. This version is also very traditional and popular in good 'ol Greece.

   So what's this fantastically awesome, cavity-friendly sweet I'm talking about?? Well, it's called Halvas Politikos....*crickets*. "You mean it's not BAKLAVA!?". Calm down people...there's more to the wonderful world of Greek desserts than the damn baklava! What the world knows of Greek desserts is indeed mostly the baklavas, the kadaifis, the rice puddings and the one no one seems to know how to pronounce (galaktoboureko...geez it's not that hard people!). It's almost as if Greek halva has been kept a secret or some sort of guilty pleasure which I kind of like cause it's always nice to show what other sweet things us Greeks are made of.

     Now, I must note that Halva isn't just a "Greek thing". Halva is also found in many other countries apart from Greece and each country has their own variation of how to make it. I swear, you can teach a whole collage course on this confection. If you don't believe me, check out Halva 101.  As you'll read in this provided link, there are two different bases Halva can be made out of: flour and nut-butter. The "Greek way" is made from coarse semolina flour. There's a few variations of how to make this even within Greece but I make the simplest one, the way Grandma used to make. Easy and only needs 4 ingredients (ok 6 but 2 are optional).

   Now, it's kind of hard to explain how exactly this dessert tastes. It tastes nutty, toasty, sweet (obviously), and crunchy all at once. It's just one of those things you have to personally taste and experience to truly understand it. Also, it is a dessert but do not fear. You definitely don't need to be a pastry Chef to pull this off. It's pretty much whirling a bunch of stuff in a pot. :-)



What great stuff is made of.
  So! Without further ado...


Halvas Politikos

What you'll need:
3/4 cup olive oil
2 cups coarse semolina flour
3 cups sugar
4 cups water
almond slivers, optional but highly recommended
ground cinnamon, optional but also highly recommended

 A few side notes:

- It's commonly said that this dessert is easy to make like 1,2,3,4 because that's the ratio for the ingredients listed above
(respectively). Personally, I feel like 1 cup oil for 2 cups semolina makes the final product a tad too oily, which in turn makes it kinda heavy on the stomach. So, I personally add 1/4 cup less.

-  Do use olive oil! Anything else and it just won't taste the same. 

- You can use either toasted or un-toasted almonds. If you use toasted one, add them to the semolina near the end, if uncooked, add them in the beginning and they will toast as the semolina does.


"Blackbird singing in the dead of night..."


1. Get a mold you wish to put the halva in and lube it up with a pastry brush. It is very forgivable and can shape into whatever you put it in.

2. Get a pot and heat the water and sugar in it. Once it comes to a boil, let it simmer for about 10 minutes (You're not looking for a syrup consistency). Turn the heat off and set it aside once time is up.

3. In the mean time, take a large surface area pot and heat the olive oil in it. Once oil has been heated, add the semolina and almonds (if un-toasted) to the pot and stir. Keep your heat to a medium and make sure to constantly stir, turning the heat to low if you see the semolina getting too much color, too fast. Semolina can burn very quickly so leaving the pot unattended for any amount of time will lead to some not so desired results. Keep stirring until the semolina has changed into a golden brown color. This take about 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Once your semolina is nice and golden, slowly add the sugar water to it. When I say slowly, I really do mean slowly.  You will get a big bubbling mess when you first add the liquid so be careful while doing so. It'll seem at first as if the liquid is way too much for the amount of semolina in the pot but do not worry, it will soak it all up!


5. Once your sugar water is added, continue to stir for another 5 minutes or so. The halva will be ready when it "un-sticks" from the walls of the pot and takes the shape of the pot as it does.

7. Take your mold and pack the halva on in there. Make sure you press it down.  

8 Once you've got your halva in it's last resting place, set it aside and let it cool off a little. Once it's cool, turn your mold upside down with a plate under it to release the halva. Sprinkle a generous amount of ground cinnamon around the halva, if desired.



  You're done! The great thing about this desserts is that it holds well over the course of a few days (if it lasts that long) and even longer if it's kept in the fridge ( I'm more partial to warm or room temp. halva). I really encourage people to try this. I'd love to hear opinions, impressions and thoughts on it.

   Every time I make this, I think of my Grandma. I absolutely love the whole process (especially the eating part!) cause it makes me feel connected with her again.  It's like grandma died and came back as this dessert or something...




Καλή Όρεξη!!!






Friday, March 18, 2011

Death! to Processed "Foods"

Photo found here.
   


     I had written a similar post in my other blog but I figured it bares repeating...I'm ranting in both but I just can't help myself...


    I hate processed food. Don't even get me started on fast food joints. I absolutely despise every and any establishment that claims it sells just that. They shouldn't even be allowed to say they sell foodWhat they are selling is not food but a grotesque imitation of what looks like it could be edible. The quality of the food you're eating at these places is that of what is used to make dog food.  I don't care what these companies claim and tell people, there is no way in hell you're eating a burger of good quality meat for under a freakin dollar (or,-enter relevant currency here-). They promote convenient and inexpensive meals but it's really anything but cheap. The health problems and risk you run every time you ingest that stuff make health related bills much higher in the future.

      I hate anything that comes in a box, I hate microwave "dinners". I hate any thing that says "just add water" to the damn thing to make it a meal.  . I hate anything that claims it's a "helper".  Do I sound angry? It's because I am. It seems that in this day and age. we chose to go through the drive through or punch a few buttons on the microwave and minutes later Voilà! "food" is served...


     If it takes less time for a meal to be prepared and served to you than it takes for Paris Hilton to find a new boyfriend....then we have a problem.  If you can't pronounce half the ingredients in what you're about to eat or simply don't know what they are...that you might want to reconsider eating it. Speaking of which, here is one of the many interesting articles that are out there regarding additives, preservatives and all the other crap they put into processed foods.


   It's almost as if the (junk) food and drug corporations are in cahoots. In fact, I know they are! Let's make healthy foods expensive, so people resort to consuming junk on a daily basis thinking it's cheaper. They'll eventually make a habit out of it and get sick and then they will need drugs in order to stabilize their conditions! These suckers will end up paying way more in medical bills and insurance than they would have had they just consumed healthier foods to begin with! By then, they're addicted to this junk and the vicious cycle just keep doing its rounds. Let's keep them sick enough to where they're not dying (some of them anyway) but need our medications in order to function "properly"! It's genius! We're rich! Sick bastards (them, not us..we're just becoming sick).

Photo taken from this site.
  
     Am I a food snob? Why yes, yes I am, thank you for noticing but this topic right here has nothing to do with being a snob or not. It's about looking at the reality of the situation and realizing that what these companies are doing is dangerous and harmful to our health and the health of our children. 


    Sadly, this junk has become so heavily embedded in todays modern society that many people have become dependent on it. For a good chuck of the population, it's not just eaten in moderation anymore. If it was, there wouldn't be such a diabetes epidemic, among other diseases that have suddenly decided pop into our lives within the last 30 years. It has sadly replaced the home cooked meal. Going out for some burger and fries isn't just a monthly treat for yourself and your family, is has become the norm.  And when we do cook at home...everything seems to magically appear out of a box, can or some sort of container. It's overwhelming!There's just too many food products out there that make it so convenient for us to NOT take the time to actually cook  I swear this convenience factor will be the death of us. It scares me to think that a majority of people simply don't know how to cook from scratch anymore or worse, don't even bother to learn.

   It's called junk food for a reason, people!! 

Scary stuff. Picture found here 


   I don't want to hear the excuses. "I don't have time", "It costs too much" "I don't know how to cook". There should be nothing more important that making sure you are feeding yourself and your family the best stuff possible. Simply put, it should be a priority. What you put in your body should never be compromised because it really does determine everything else in your life. Home cooked food doesn't have to take hours to make. If you don't know how to do that, pick up a cook book. God knows everyone and their mother has written one.  There are other ways, don't tell me they're not. It's just a matter of making a plan and sticking to it. Make something at home that can last for you and your family for 2 days. Find recipes that are quick, easy and above all, healthy. As corny as it sounds, where there's a will, there's a way.

     I wish I was making all this stuff up. I really do. But I am not. It's a sad and scary reality. These companies that provide us with all the processed foods are getting away with murder, literally. There's a lot of political agenda behind all this and I encourage people to search and really find out what all this stuff really means and contains.

Photo found here 
Some other excellent websites to check out are this one and this one. The last link I provided is highly interesting and if you have the moment, check out the part where the article discusses the Pottenger's Cats experiment. Also, a fantastic documentary I highly recommend watching is Food Matters. The title says it all.   I come across too people that are in the dark and still trust and believe what the companies are telling them. I'd love to see more people become more educated about this issue.

  

<End of Rant>
  


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meatballs!!

      

     Such nifty little bastards, they are!  You can roll them in flour and fry them, you can freeze them for future use, you can include them in soups and sauces, you can add whatever ingredients your creative little self wishes to add to them...in other words, (meat)balls are just awesome!  And I'm not one to rave about meat, which is ironic since I've worked in 3 different steakhouses. It's just not something I feel is vital in every meal. Maybe it's my Greek upbringing, we're more of a fish and windex kind of folk anyway. ;-)

    Having said this, when I do want meat, I more than likely want minced meat and when I want minced meat, I more often than not want THIS dish! Greeks call it "you-var-la-kia" (γιουβαρλάκια) and it's basically meatballs swimming in a fabulous pool of an egg-and-lemon sauce: avgolemono (αυγολέμονο). 

    Now allow me to rave about this egg and lemon sauce I speak of. It's true! I'm a sucker for lemons (get it!?)! Lemony chicken, lemony potatoes...lemony ANYTHING and I will devour it. I love the tart and tangy-ness a lemony dish caters to my taste buds. Now, add some egg in there for added flavor and thickness and well...you got pure divinity! Such a simple unison yet such an explosion of flavor and pure joy in your mouth...:-)

    My grandma used to serve the meatballs with sauce only, with bread as your only vessel in soaking up all that saucy goodness. I loved it but I prefer the way my father makes them. He does his the same way but with some extra rice in the sauce, making it feel more like a "full" meal, plus you don't need as much bread as the rice pleasantly fills you up.
Chef Dad. He hates getting
 his picture taken!
  
 So today's fabulous meal was prepared courtesy of my lovely personal Chef/Father.

    

                                            



                                                   ~
Meatballs in Heavenly Lemony Sauce
Serving, 4 peeps

What you'll need for the meatballs:
750 gr. of ground meat (about 1 and a half pounds)
1 egg
1 medium sized onion
a generous amount of minced garlic
fresh chopped parsley, as much as you feel you like
1 teaspoon cumin seed
olive oil, a few swirls around the bowl
3 Tablespoons uncooked rice 
salt and pepper, to taste

What you'll need for the sauce:
2 eggs
the juice of one juicy lemon :-)
3- 3 1/2 cups water or home made stock
slightly less than half a cup of rice
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

A few side notes:

- The meatballs can be "flavored" in a ton of ways. This is just one of many. Some like to add basil and mint to them as well. I've even heard of ouzo being thrown into the mix. Add or subtract whatever you feel you would like to. It's your world.

- The type of meat you buy is entirely up to you and your preference. You can use pork, beef, lamb or even a mixture of all 3. 


- This dish makes an excellent soup and more often than not, it IS served as a soup! The way you decide to serve it is completely dependent on how much liquid you're going to put in your pot.  

-Like i said before, youvarlakia are usually served with just their sauce...we personally just add extra rice to it. :-) Adding rice to the sauce is completely optional since there's rice in the meatballs as already.

- Be careful when reheating this soup. Reheat on low heat and stir frequently. Heat just until med-hot, if it comes to a simmer again you might break your eggs. Also, it's best to consume this dish within the first day or two of making it. You don't want stuff with egg sitting around for too long. You won't have a problem though, this stuff is good and it goes fast.


 Hark! Is that music I hear in the background?

1. Place your meat in a bowl and mix all the ingredients in it. Shape the meat into as many medium sized balls as you can (it should make about 12).

2. Get your water and oil in a pot and bring to a boil. Season the liquid. Once it's boiling, add the meatballs and rice. 

3. Lower your heat to a low and let it cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.

4.  Remove from heat and let it sit for a few minutes. In the mean time, get a bowl and whisk your eggs with the lemon juice. 

5. Take some liquid from your pot and slowly temper the lemon/egg mixture. Tempering means you want to add the hot liquid slowly because if you pour too fast...chances are you're end up with scrambled eggs, and we're not making no breakfast here.

6. Once you've added enough liquid and the whole mixture is now relatively warm, go ahead and pour all this back into the pot. Give it a good stir and let it sit for a few more minutes. You can warm it up slightly under low heat but be very careful when doing that. You don't want to get the sauce pipping hot again at this point cause your eggs will break.




     Man! I truly wish blogger has some type of smell-o-vision and taste-o-vision going on cause these pics can't do the meal justice!! The whole house smelled absolutely amazing and the taste...oh my word! Tangy, saucy, meaty...just heavenly! 



Καλή Όρεξη!!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Loving Lentils

The lentils we get are the Laird variety.
   
   Mmmm....lentil soup. One of my most favorite things to eat on a cold and cloudy day. I feel like it's got magical powers that can just seep into your soul and warm it right up. Lentil soup is a staple in Greek cuisine as well as in many other cultures in the Middle East, India and Africa. It's a phenomenal source of iron and protein, which is pretty sweet considering many cultures eating this are vegetarian. To learn more about how awesomely healthy these littles guys are, check out this link right here.

   Lentils come in over 10 varieties that include many shapes, sizes and colors and in comparison to other legumes, they have a huge advantage to that they do not need soaking ahead of time. You do, however, need to sort through them before cooking just in case there are some small stones or bruised lentils amongst them to pick out and discard. Lentils on their own cook relatively fast (about 30 minutes, give or take) and can be very versatile in how they are cooked.  They make an excellent soup, can be cooked with rice and can be included in a variety of salads as well (I've also heard it's a great meat substitute in chilis!)
    
    I've also noticed lentil soup popping up in many upscale restaurants but more often than not, lardons (fancy French word for pork fat) are added and personally, it ruins the soup for me. Lentil soup is something I personally like to keep strictly vegetarian however, if you want to include a nice cut of steak in there, then by all means, go ahead and do just that! 
   
   That's the beauty with lentils! They are very versatile and so easy to make! Just making soup out of them alone can result to a variety of different flavors, depending on what other ingredients you decide to include in it.  

Look at those pretty colors!!!
  
  The following recipe is Lentil soup how my father and I like to enjoy it. It's very similar to the way Greek households prepare it and for us, the table condiments are a must!

  
Yummy Lovely Lentil Soup
4 servings

What you'll need:
1 and a half cups of lentils, picked and rinsed
1 cup fresh tomatoes (about 2 large ripe tomatoes), grated
garlic and lots of it (I use around 8-10 cloves), sliced in slivers
2 medium sized onions, medium chop 
I medium sized carrot, medium dice 
2-3 small to medium size bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seed, optional
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes, optional
about 5 cups water or homemade vegetable stock
salt and pepper, to taste

The table condiments:

Some delicious feta cheese
black olives (preferably pickled)
extra virgin olive oil (always)
vinegar (red or white, whatever you prefer)


 A few side notes:

- I personally tend to go easy on the carrots in this soup. One carrot too many and the soup is too sweet for my liking,

- Celery is another great ingredient to add to this soup but for some reason...I never add it!

- The liquid measurement is an estimation. You want enough to cover the lentils but also to have left over once the lentils are done absorbing what liquid they need.

- The chili flakes and cumin are definitely optional but HIGHLY recommended !! I guess if you're not into spicy foods, omit the chili flakes but the cumin seriously adds a whole other level of aroma and flavor to this soup! Today was actually the first time tasting lentil soup with cumin in it and I must say, I don't think I want to eat lentil soup without it again! (I know, I know, the littlest things excite me...)

- The onions become somewhat invisible once the soup is done so don't worry to much about how you chop it. As long as it's even, small size pieces, you're good to go.

- In the cooking instructions below, I mention sautéing the veggies and lentils first before adding the liquid. I find that the sautéed veggies do add a little extra flavor to the final result but it isn't a vital cooking step to the soup. So,if you're pressed for time, you can definitely omit this step and just literally throw all the ingredients in the pot at once and proceed to step 3!

                                              I have my music playing, do you?

1. Alright, heat some olive oil in your medium sized pot (enough to cover the bottom of it) and saute your onion, garlic and carrot. Cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until you see some golden color forming on the onions and garlic.





2. Stir in lentils and cook for a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and the cooking liquid. 





 3. Turn the heat to high and let the soup reach a boil. In the mean time, add the bay leaf and other spices. Add a small amount of salt and pepper and taste as you go to see if you need more.

The finished good stuff
   
   

4. Once soup has come to a boil, turn the heat to low. You want the soup to cook in a slow, simmering trance. Cook for about an hour and a half or until carrots are soft (everything else cooks a tad faster) and all the flavors have come together oh so beautifully.

    Now the fun part!!! Once you serve the food in a bowl, take a look at your condiments and go to town with 'em! If you're gonna omit anything, please don't let it be the oil and vinegar. The flavor they add is wonderful! Olives and feta are very popular in Greece and some bread to soak up that tasty liquid is definitely recommended! 


Once all is said and done, you get this:




Κάλη Όρεξη!!!