My sister-in-law, Maha Tawil-Copps, is a great cook and comes from a family of great cooks, including her mother, three sisters, and sister-in-law Gemma. Every meal she’s ever prepared for me, mostly traditional foods from her native Syria, is a feast for the senses. She’s an instinctive cook and an artist by training. “I’ve tried to follow recipes, but I just can’t,” she says. “I cook by balance, not measuring cups.” This soup – a traditional dish from Syria and Lebanon – is one of the simpler acts from her amazing repertoire. Maha once tried using spinach as a substitute for the Swiss chard but vows, “Never again – it was terrible,” although she admits that my mom and Aunt Ginny loved it. One more thing – and this is important: “Squeeze the lemons over the soup only after you’ve ladled it into the bowl. If the juice sits in the soup too long, or you reheat it, it ruins everything.”
In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, saute onions in ½ cup oil until translucent. Add carrots and garlic and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add coriander, stir well to coat vegetables, and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add lentils and stir well to coat. Add water to cover the ingredients by 3 inches (about 8 cups). Stir in cumin. Cook about 30 minutes, or until lentils are al dente (softened, but not completely cooked). Season with approximately 1 tablespoon salt. Add Swiss chard and cook about 10 minutes. Remove 1 cup of broth and whisk in flour, then whisk back into soup pot.
In a saute pan over medium-high heat, cook pasta in 1 tablespoon oil until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add pasta to soup and cook about 8 minutes. Ladle into bowls and squeeze about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice over each serving. Serve with pita chips or croutons.