In starving grad student times, dirt-cheap Indian dinners on East 6th St were a welcome break in a routine of ramen and grilled cheese. For $8-10 a head, my comrades and I basked in the nuclear glow of a bazillion Christmas lights and winking Mylar garlands, sharing lamb korma, palak paneer, steamy basmati biryani, and mounds of naan. Nothing like a caddy of chutney to make a lady feel festive and fed.
In the course of these budget feasts, the little aluminum dishes of complimentary turmeric-touched cabbage and lentils inevitably fell by the wayside. But I've always loved them, and consistently ended each dinner with a portion of rice draped in canary-yellow lentil gravy.
I've discovered embarrassingly recently (like, last week) that the ubiquitous dal is dead-easy to replicate at home. Thrifty-and-filling, delicious-and-nutritious, simultaneously bone-sticking and sunny, dal's an ideal balm on a rainy spring day.
And unlike their pulse/legume cousin, the bean, lentils/dal need no soaking or long-minded prep, and can be ready in 30 minutes. Procrastinators, gather ye lentils while ye may!
This bowl of saffron feel-goods has little to do with anything traditionally Indian; it's a grab-bag of things I happened to have in the pantry, and it produced a generous pot that ensured a week of dal-on-rice, dal-as-soup, dal-with-random kale, with even enough for a quart of frozen emergency dal.
(Just in case there is an immediate and overwhelming need for something creamy, spicy-savory, and punchy carmine.)
Red Coconut Dal (Soup, gravy, what have ye!)Adapted by An Effing Foodie
Base Recipe: 101 Cookbooks
Serves 6 (And by 6, they apparently mean ravenous giants planning to eat nothing but dal. I found it to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10.)
- 2 cups red lentils (dal)
- 1 can (14-oz) coconut milk
- 1 can (14-oz) chicken broth (omit and replace with water or veg broth, ye who be vegetarian)
- 1-2 TBSP vegetable/olive oil (clarified butter, if you got it!)
- 1-2 TBSP curry power/blend*, according to taste and potency
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 TBSP tomato paste
- 1 long red Korean chili pepper, seeds removed, finely diced (optional)
- 1-2 TBSP ginger, skinned and minced (fresh is better, but I used the Chinese jarred stuff)
- 2 leeks, washed thoroughly, cut on the bias (1/2-inch pieces)
- 1/4 - 1/3 cup golden raisins (optional)
- 2-3 scallions/green onions, thinly sliced (optional)
- Kosher salt, pepper and cayenne, to taste (I went with Vietnamese fish sauce for final adjustment to the big pot, seemed somehow more effective than salt)
- Hot rice (or if you're really lucky, naan!)
- Poached eggs
- Sautéed greens
Rinse lentils and pick out any bums/imposters.
In a large pot on the back burner, simmer the lentils in just enough water to cover, plus one can coconut milk and another of chicken broth. All told, they should simmer for about 20-30 minutes, depending on how broken down you like them.
As that is gently bubbling away, bring large skillet to heat. In a good splash of oil (1-2 TBSP) saute your curry powder, a bay leaf, and the tomato paste, to allow the spices to toast and the paste to caramelize a bit.
For a little extra heat, I happened to have a long red chili, so I diced and tossed her into the skillet with the curry/tomato mixture (yep, it's a she), along with the ginger and a fat pinch of salt, frying until fragrant, 2-3 minutes.
Add the leeks to the skillet; re-season with salt and pepper and saute the whole lot until softened, but not devoid of green (about 5 minutes). Scrape entire vegetal contents of the skillet into the simmering pot of dal, along with the handful of raisins and scallions. Simmer for at least 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, cayenne, fish sauce, hot sauce, lemon, fresh cilantro, whatever strikes your fancy.
Serve immediately or gradually, as all will be savory, warm and yellow regardless.