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Red Lentil Dal

Ideally, I should have been posting this sometime in the winter, but I like it all year round–except for Passover week. Which is the real reason I’m posting it now: I bought a 2.5 lb. bag of red lentils from my corner grocery (Armenian, in this case) a month or so ago and have only used half. And Passover’s coming in a week.

Dal or rasam–depending on your Indian restaurant of choice–is a tangy thick soup of red lentils and tomatoes, with a variety of spices and either tamarind (traditional) or lemon juice (my personal preference). A lot of restaurant-style and westernized Indian recipes call for fairly shocking amounts of salt in savory dishes. This recipe doesn’t include salt at all or ghee (clarified butter) and doesn’t really need it. Like a lot of home-cooked soups and stews, it gets better overnight as the spices meld with the vegetables. Put in a good amount of garlic, lemon, cilantro and savory spices and see how it is–you can always add salt to your own dish at the table, but by day 2 it should be pretty good on its own.

I’ve given approximate amounts for the spices because you might add more lentils or have older or fresher spices–whole spices are usually more potent, especially if you grind them up just before you cook with them. You need to taste for yourself and adjust–this is easier if you’ve eaten dal before, obviously. Standard curry powder has a lot of spices in it but this tastes better if you add some extra coriander and cumin, and a sprinkling of something sweeter–cardamom plus cinnamon or 5-spice powder or garam masala.

Unlike most beans, lentils don’t need presoaking. Red lentils in particular are usually already split and cook up pretty well within about half an hour. I cook this dish in a big deep-sided teflon frying pan, but it gets a bit awkward to dish out–use what works best for you.  A regular soup pot is fine too.

Red Lentil Dal — Makes about 2 quarts

Spices:

  • 1/2 med yellow onion, chopped
  • 1″ chunk fresh ginger, grated, if you have it–don’t sub in anything if you don’t
  • 1 large T unsalted curry powder (Indo-European or other decent brand)
  • 1-2 t ground coriander or 1 t coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1/2 t cumin either ground or seeds
  • A good pinch of cardamom seeds crushed, or a teaspoonful of whole pods tossed in after the tomatoes (below) to stew with the lentils and then plucked out by the diners…
  • pinch cinnamon or 1/2 t garam masala or Chinese 5-spice powder
  • 1/2 t black mustard seeds if you have it
  • pinch nigella (“black caraway” or “kalonji” or “black onion seed”) if you have it–a little goes a fairly long way, because the flavor develops overnight in the fridge, so a pinch is enough
  • Hot stuff–add according to your own taste or leave it out: 1/2 t crushed hot pepper flakes, a bit of cayenne pepper, or 1/2-inch dab of z’khug (hot pepper/garlic/cilantro paste)

Tomatoes and lentils with liquids

  • 3-4 roma tomatoes (canned is fine) or 1-2  medium salad tomatoes, chopped or broken up
  • 1-2 fat clove(s) garlic grated–you might add one, then more later once the lentils are mostly cooked
  • ~2 c. red lentils, washed well and picked over. If you pour water over them to soak a bit while frying the spices, expect them to stick together–break them up with a fork to add to the pan.
  • Enough water to cover the lentils
  • juice of 1-2 lemons (add one first, stir and let cook and taste, then add more lemon as needed)

Adjustments and garnishes

  • additional garlic, coriander, curry powder, hot peppers or lemon juice to taste
  • fistful cilantro sprigs chopped

To a large teflon frying pan or soup pot, add the ingredients in stages:

  1. First, fry the spices in the oil with the onion and ginger, stirring for a minute just until they’re starting to smell fragrant, but don’t let them burn.
  2. Add the tomatoes and garlic, then the lentils, and water to cover. Add the lemon juice. Let the pan simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have turned from red-orange to yellow and fluffy.
  3. Add more water as necessary and when it seems cooked, taste it and adjust for any additional spices, garlic, or lemon juice to  taste. I tend to add a bit more lemon and coriander as things go, and sometimes more garlic if it seems to need it.
  4. Stir in or sprinkle on the chopped cilantro leaves and serve with rice as a thick curry or in a bowl as a soup–a little chopped raw onion and tamarind chutney are also pretty good with this. Have hot pita bread or naan at the ready and maybe another sliced-up lemon.
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