In her well-detailed cookbook The Arabian Delights, Anne Marie Weiss-Armush writes that the delicate, tea-rose-colored red lentil soup prepared with lamb is a standard for breaking the daily fast during the month of Ramadan in Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. She also lists variations in seasonings and accent ingredients for this same soup in Turkey, Kuwait, Gulf States, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Armenia and Yemen, and notes that a proverb in Fez warns that this soup must be “as smooth as silk” Its creaminess results from the slow cooking of the tiny, bright coral lentils. I have adapted it to chicken with savory results and added Moroccan touches of ginger, chili pepper, and saffron. For a milder, more innocent flavor, eliminate those spices.
Yield: About 8 to 10 first-course servings; 4 to 5 main-course servings
For the soup:
One 3½- to 4-pound chicken, quartered, with all giblets except liver
10 cups water, or as needed
2 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter
1 medium carrot, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove
1½ cups red lentils, rinsed in 2 changes of cold water
½ cup canned crushed tomatoes
Pinch of ground ginger, or to taste (optional)
Pinch of ground saffron (optional)
1/8 teaspoon harissa (Moroccan chili paste), or ¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup broken-up vermicelli, in 1- to 1½-inch, lengths (optional)
For the garnish:
Chopped fresh parsley and/or cilantro (coriander)
Place chicken and giblets in a 4- or 5-quart enameled or stainless-steel soup pot and add water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and skim all foam as it rises to the surface. When foam subsides, simmer soup, partly covered, as you prepare vegetables.
Heat olive oil or butter in a small skillet and sauté carrot, celery, and onion until they soften and begin to turn light golden brown, about 7 minutes.
Add to simmering soup along with garlic, lentils, tomatoes, and all spices. Simmer gently but steadily, partly covered, for 1 to 1½ hours or until chicken is falling from bone and lentils are disintegrating. To prevent scorching, stir frequently and add water as soup thickens. Remove chicken and reserve dark meat for another use. Trim breast meat from skin and bones, dice or shred, and return to the soup. Adjust seasonings.
The soup can be prepared ahead up to this point and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 1 day. Add water during reheating to prevent scorching.
If adding vermicelli, do so 15 minutes before serving and simmer in soup. Garnish each portion with parsley and/or cilantro and pass lemon wedges at the table. Rice should be served on the side, in a small dish, to be eaten along with the soup. Do not serve rice if soup contains vermicelli.