Friday, December 16, 2005

Indian Dal with Radishes

Last night, Jeff and I made dal, which is a spicy lentil-based Indian soup. Dal is so simple to make, so nutritious and so CHEAP (not to mention delicious) that I'm surprised it's not more popular here. Jeff and I make it about once a week, sometimes more when we‘re broke.

To make the recipe, you will need to buy some form of lentil. If you're only familiar with brown lentils, you'll be surprised to discover how many forms of lentils there are. Red, green, white, black, split, whole, with skins, without skins. You name it. The most commonly-used dal, the one that's easiest to find--and the one I use in this recipe--is called "split moong dal," usually sold without the skins. It is small and yellow. You can find it at Indian and other specialty markets. If for some reason, you don't have an Indian market nearby, you can substitute dried yellow or green split peas which are available just about anywhere.

As I said, dal is incredibly cheap. The market I go to, Chamblee International Farmer's Market in Atlanta, sells split moong dal--and just about every other kind you can think of--in bulk for as little as fifty cents a pound. Considering you only need one cup of the stuff to make a soup that feeds about 4 people, you can see what a total deal it is. It's also easy. It takes about an hour of time to cook, about 5-10 minutes of which are actual work.

You'll also need some Indian spices for this recipe. If you don't have those around, just a simple basic curry powder will flavor the soup nicely.

1. Pick through your lentils to make sure there are no rocks or chafe in them. Put them in a pot and rinse them in several changes of water. Drain well and then add water in a ratio of 1:4 (ie If you're using one cup of lentils, add four cups of water. Two cups of lentils, eight cups of water, etc).

At this point you can add some of the spices to the pot if you like. There are a few that work well when they're added at this point: a teaspoon of turmeric, a fresh or dried chili pepper, a hunk of ginger.

2. Bring the lentils to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer the lentils until they are good and soft (about 30 minutes, sometimes less sometimes more).

3. When they're very soft, whisk the soup with a fork, wire whisk or immersion blender to achieve a smooth puree. At this point, you can add some vegetables if you like: We added fresh, organic radishes with their greens to ours. Spinach is good, too. Countinue cooking until the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 30 minutes depending on the veggie.

4. Heat some oil (we use two tablespoons of olive oil, but Indian ghee or clarified butter is more traditional) in a frying pan and when it's hot, throw in your other spices. Throw in your seeds first and fry them until they're brown, about 30 seconds. What are some good "seed" spices to add? A teaspoon or two each of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, in any combination you like, accompanied by dried crushed red chili flakes and a tablespoon of sugar. When the seeds are brown--but before they start to burn--throw in your dried ground spices: curry powder (if that's all you have around), ground cumin, ground coriander, chili powder. Immediately--quick!!--dump the spicy oil into the cooked dal. It will sizzle loudly but do not be afraid.

5. Stir in some fresh herbs--chopped coriander or parsley. Salt to taste, then ladle into bowls, top with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, a bit of hot Indian pickle or chutney on the side. DELICIOUS! Indian nan bread (or toasted pita) and/ or rice make great accompaniments. Jeff and I usually drop in cubes of diced tofu to up the protein content.

I suggest keeping it simple your first few attempts at Dal. (Sometimes the simplest dal soups are the best: even the most basic dal with just one or two spices will surprise you with its satisfying complexity). As you get more adept at making this simple soup you'll want to explore the world of Indian spices: kokum, curry leaves, anardana, asafetida, ajwan seeds. Try stirring in some grilled onions and garlic. Vary the vegetables. Every dal you make will be different and every dal, once you get the hang of it, will be delicious.

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