I did make dal Thursday, as scheduled, but it took twice as long as normal because we stopped every few minutes to take pictures. I should really come clean here, and let you know that I am NOT a photographer. I was in 4-H for 10 years, and out of roughly 40 projects, I got lower than a blue ribbon on only two. Photography was one; I got a red ribbon, and I’m still mad about it. Dog Obedience was the other, and I don’t want to talk about how much that white ribbon hurt. So I enlisted the help of my wonderful husband, who fancies himself a photographer, and I’m not about to argue if it keeps me from having to take 7 shots of the same cut onion.
Here’s the important thing to remember about dal, which is a basic lentil soup. It’s like chicken soup, everyone has their own recipe. Indian food is totally regional, so where one area, say Karnataka (where Naren’s from) may use a hotter mix of spices, another will use a more sweet and sour flavor palate. We use a more hot/sweet profile, but the recipe below can be adjusted for your preferences.
Lentils are about the most nutritionally perfect food on the planet, and there are a bunch of varieties. Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, did a whole show on lentils, and does a great job of explaining the nutritional benefits, so look it up if you’re interested. It’s really easy to incorporate a meatless night into your weekly meal planning if you consider using lentils. And since there are so many varieties available, you won’t get bored.
For our everyday simple dal, I use toor dal, which is a yellow split lentil. They take a solid hour or more, depending on how old they are, to cook on the stove top, or significantly less time if you’re willing to use a pressure cooker. We’ve used several different kinds of lentils (masoor dal are tiny red split lentils, and cook a lot faster), but toor dal is our favorite. You can also cook your lentils in the crock pot, so they’re ready to flavor when you’re ready to cook; this is a great option, especially if you’re using a whole lentil like moong dal, which are small green lentils. This recipe seems like a lot of steps and work, and I’m not going to lie, the first couple of times, it’s daunting. But I promise you won’t be sorry, and after a couple of times, it won’t seem like such a big deal. The key is to get your mis en place (prep) done while the lentils cook.
Here’s the method I usually use:
Simple Dal (makes 3 generous servings)
If I’ve listed a flavor you don’t like, feel free to omit or replace with something you like. You could easily double or more this recipe. Like most soups, it is usually better when reheated, and freezes beautifully.
- 3/4 c. toor dal
- 1 medium onion
- 3 small green chilies
- 1 inch peeled ginger
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp. each cumin seeds and black mustard seeds (DO NOT substitute yellow mustard seeds)
- 10 fresh curry leaves
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable, olive or grapeseed oil
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp. each turmeric powder and garam masala
- 2 tsp. ground coriander
- 1 -10 oz. can diced tomatoes with cilantro and lime
- 2 Tbsp. tamarind paste
Grab a medium sized saucepan, and cover 3/4 c. toor dal with cold water. Swish the lentils around, and drain off most of the water. Repeat 7 times until the water remains pretty clear. It’s also a good idea to spend a minute picking through the lentils for rocks or other non-edible hitch hikers. Make sure your lentils are covered with about 3 inches of water (you can add more hot water later if it looks like it’s getting too dry). Bring the lentils to a boil, and reduce heat to medium high. Keep an eye on the pan while you’re prepping the rest of the ingredients; you will need to skim the foam off a few times, and make sure your pot doesn’t boil over. Once you’re skimmed off the foam a few times (don’t worry about getting it all, just get the majority), add a bay leaf and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Let the lentils cook, gently boiling, uncovered, about an hour. Check occasionally for doneness, looking for the color to lighten and the texture to be soft, but not falling apart.
Meanwhile, slice or chop a medium sized onion and a couple of chilies, and mince or press 3 cloves of garlic and about an inch of fresh ginger (or use a couple Tbsp. garlic ginger paste). We use the small green chilies, but serrano peppers are a good substitute; remove seeds and ribs if you want a mild heat.
Heat a 10 inch skillet over medium high heat, add 1 tsp. each whole cumin and black mustard seeds, 2 Tbsp. oil, half a cinnamon stick and about 10 fresh curry leaves. It’s worth looking for fresh curry leaves at your local asian market, but you can use dried (add to the dal with the bay leaf) or they can be omitted if you can’t find them. When the seeds start to pop, add the onion, chilies, garlic and ginger, stir for about a minute, then reduce heat to medium low, cover pan, and let cook about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove the lid, and cook another 10 to 15 minutes until onions are soft and beginning to caramelize. Break up 2 Tbsp. tamarind paste and cover it with 1/4 c. boiling water from the cooking dal. Mash this with a fork, and set aside. You can omit the tamarind altogether or skip this step and add a generous pinch of sugar or a Tbsp. tamarind chutney with the tomatoes later instead.
Once the onions are starting to turn golden, increase the heat to medium high, add 1 Tbsp. tomato paste and 1/2 tsp. each turmeric powder and garam masala, 2 tsp. ground coriander and 1 tsp. salt, and stir about 2 minutes until the tomato paste. You’ll notice the tomato smell change, and that’s the sign to add 1 small can diced tomatoes and juice plus about half a can of water, and the water from the soaking tamarind. I like the Rotel tomatoes with lime and cilantro, but you can also do a fresh tomato or whatever canned variety you have. Cook and stir until the juice is nearly gone.
Add the cooked lentils to your pan (or your onions to the lentils, depending on pan size), and simmer about 15 minutes or longer, since it’s basically soup. Serve with basmati rice and/or your choice of flat bread (naan, chapati, paratha). Don’t tell Naren, but sometimes when he’s not looking, I add corn chips to mine and eat it like soup and crackers!