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Saturday, January 24, 2009

red lentil dal


teaching myself to cook Indian food

Every week I write four or five recipes for my Glacier Grist newsletter that goes in our CSA produce boxes. Sometimes I include Indian recipes, or recipes inspired by Indian flavors. I hope that our customers aren’t put off by unusual recipes, the spices they might have to buy specially, or by the interesting combinations of spices they would normally put in sweet baked goods (cinnamon and cardamom, for example). Are they trying the recipes?

I love to cook vegetables with Indian flavors—no matter what vegetables I’ve got hanging around, I’m bound to find something interesting and relatively simple in one of my Indian cookbooks. I think because there is such a tradition of vegetarian cooking in India, and so many vegetables thrive in that climate, Indians have developed a huge variety of traditional vegetable foods that taste fun and exciting, and as a bonus, are really healthy!

But I wasn’t always so comfortable cooking Indian food. I remember several years ago, when I had collected a few books with Indian recipes in them, I had found some recipes that I put in fairly steady rotation. Beyond those few recipes, though, I didn’t branch out much. Mainly because every once in an while I would get the urge to make a big Indian feast, and it would take me all day just to figure out what dishes I would make. Which dishes would taste good, and which would complement each other? And would those recipes work with anything I already had in my refrigerator or garden? Unlike recipes from cuisines closer to home, I had NO idea what these dishes would taste like. They all seemed to have the same spices: ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin…  would they all taste the same? And would it be soupy or dry? Some of my cookbooks had all kinds of instructions on how to plan an Indian meal. A dry dish, a wet stew, a dal (pulse dish), rice and/or flatbread, yogurt raita, and a chutney or two. It was all so complicated and involved.

But several years ago I had a fantastic vegetable meal in an Indian restaurant in Denver. After that, I was determined to get over my insecurities. My method: I cooked Indian dishes determined only by the color of the vegetable ingredients. With Indian food, you’re never QUITE sure of the final color; those salmon-colored red lentils turn yellow, and the turmeric in a lot of dishes turns things yellow, too—but if you start with a good variety of color in the raw ingredients, you can’t go wrong. For a feast, I would cook a couple of vegetable dishes with contrasting colors, a lentil of some kind, and a rice or flatbread. For example, I would make a beet & mushroom dish with a greens & potato dish. Or I’d make cabbage with lentils to go with a cauliflower & red pepper dish.

This turned out to be very liberating, and a great way to explore a lot of different recipes! The point is that I had no idea what they would taste like—on their own or together—but it turned out not to matter! Maybe these dishes wouldn’t be eaten together by any self-respecting Indian cook, but who cares? It all tastes good to me! After I make a dish, I scribble notes in the cookbook about how I altered it, how it tastes, what it looks like, and what would be good to serve with it.

Nowadays I love to make a big batch of two dishes (a vegetable and a dal, for example) and eat them for dinner, maybe with rice if the vegetable dish doesn’t contain potatoes. The next day, we eat leftovers, and make another Indian vegetable dish to add to the mix. You can go for days like this if you’re like me and love leftovers…  just add a new dish every couple of days and you can have a continual variety of Indian food for a week!

The dal recipe below is very simple, and can be varied in all kinds of different ways. Please don’t be intimidated by the spices or the unusual flavors…  I think you’ll really love it! If you’re up for trying a second dish, try the cabbage & potato dish from the previous post!

red lentil dal

This is a really fun, really yummy dish with fantastic Indian flavors, and it’s quite simple. This recipe is inspired by Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, except I’ve added a lot less oil. She puts loads of zucchini in hers, and while I love that version (a similar one is in my Farmers’ Market cookbook) I’ve found that you can make this soup without the zucchini, and then add any random cooked vegetable to a bowl of this soup afterwards. In the winter, I love to thaw out bags of last summer’s frozen cauliflower or broccoli. You can use any kind of vegetable you like; just pre-cook it (steam, blanch, roast… however you feel like cooking your veggie, or whatever you happen to have leftover),and add it at the last minute before serving, in the middle of a lake of lentils in a bowl. Or you can just use the dal plain, as a side dish to another vegetable dish! This recipe is perfect with the spicy Indian cabbage & potatoes. If you add a vegetable to the soup, you can serve it for a fancy dinner with the carrot & mint salad with currants and some brown basmati rice

I always make a double batch and freeze the extra for later. It’s great the first day, but even better the second!

2 cups red lentils, washed and drained
½ teaspoon turmeric
sea salt or kosher salt
1-2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
a pinch of cardamom seeds, pounded just to break them up a bit (or use ground cardamom, but don’t add it until you add the onion to the skillet)
1 (3”) cinnamon stick
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 teaspoons peeled fresh ginger root, minced finely or grated to a pulp
6 garlic cloves, minced
freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (or more, if you like things spicy)

1. Put the lentils and 5 cups of water in a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil. When it boils, remove the foam that rises to the top. Add the turmeric and stir it in. Cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and cook very gently for 30 to 50 minutes until the lentils are tender. Add 2 teaspoons of salt and stir to combine.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium high heat in a nonstick frying pan. When very hot, add the cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, and whole cumin seeds. Stir for a few seconds until the cumin is fragrant and then add the onion and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir and fry until the onions are golden brown.
3. Add the ginger and garlic, black pepper to taste, and cayenne, and stir and fry for another minute. Stir in a ¼ cup of water or so to deglaze the pan, and then add the contents of the frying pan to the lentils. Stir gently to combine and cook on low heat for a minute or two until the flavors are combined.
4. Season with salt to taste. Serve as a side dish in a small bowl, or put some in the bottom of a large bowl and pile a bunch of cooked vegetables in the middle.


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