Budget Gourmet: Lentil Soup

My yiayia's recipe for Greek lentil soup saved my life. It was the winter of 2010 and I was 25. I was also dead broke, sharing a mattress on the floor of a loft in New York with my best friend. Those were some of the most fun days of my life, but in order to be able to pay rent, eat, and occasionally go out for a $4 Budweiser, vigilant budgeting was constant. This usually meant a lot of lentil soup. Lentil soup is perfect when you're on a budget - it's nutritious, filling, and you can make enough to feed a basketball team for around $5. Here's how.

1. Rinse your lentils.

I like to use brown lentils, which generally cost less than $2 for a one pound bag. You'll get about two cups of lentils out of this, and depending on how much broth and vegetables you add to your soup, this can yield around eight servings. That's around $0.25 per meal! For this recipe, I would recommend using 1 cup of lentils, which will leave you with enough leftovers to freeze for later. Before you start cooking, be sure to rinse your lentils in a colander, and pick out any small twigs that might have found their way in there - especially if you're buying loose lentils from a deli or market.

2. Add vegetables.

Chop up one brown onion, two large carrots, two sticks of celery and a few cloves of garlic (if you want to really get Greek with it, make it 4 big, juicy cloves). Fry all this up with some extra virgin olive oil on a medium to high heat, until it's tender, and season with salt and pepper. Throw in the lentils and toss it all together for about a minute.

3. Get the juices flowing.

If your wallet is a little more lined than usual, you can add a dollop of tomato paste and a can of peeled whole tomatoes to the lentil and veggie mixture. Not so flush? Chop up two or three fresh tomatoes and throw 'em in. You can even pulse them in a blender to get a thick juice, but make sure you add at least one chopped tomato to the soup for texture. Add as much water as you need to get it to a soupy consistency.

4. Extra ingredients.

You don't have to add a lot of fancy or expensive things to your soup to give it a kick. Toss in two or three bay leaves and a tablespoon of vinegar (either white vinegar or red wine vinegar). I also like to throw in some chicken stock, use vegetable stock if you're vegetarian.

5. Make it tender, not mushy.

Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then turn down the heat and let it simmer. Cook the lentils until they're just tender, but not mushy. Keep an eye on your soup as it cooks, and if the liquid starts to evaporate, just add more water until it's ready. Enjoy!