Dal

I am not a South Asian person

If this is good at all, it’s because I’ve read some cookbooks and tried a few things. Maybe this stuff shouldn’t be called “dal” because it contains or fails to contain certain key things. Whatever. Cook at your own risk. The end goal is a bowl of mush, more or less, so in my opinion there’s a lot of leeway.

Beans

My local HEB now carries “channa dal” and “toor dal” dried split beans. I think they’re tasty. They come in 2lb bags. I suspect that at a real South Asian grocery they might be less expensive, but at less than $3 for 2 pounds of dried beans it’s still inexpensive food.

Chickpeas work too, and those are available everywhere. Yellow split peas tend to get a little mushy, but it’s dal so that hardly matters. Green lentils work fine too. Heck I bet pinto beans would be OK though because they’re not split they’re going to require a long soak and more cooking time.

Soaking

Mr. McGee points out that with dried beans, it takes a lot longer for moisture to get into the bean than for heat. That’s why soaking is helpful. For split beans like the Indian dals or yellow split peas, I’ve found that pouring hot water over them an hour or so before cooking is plenty of soaking time. Chickpeas require a lot more.

Cooking

This is not so much a recipe as a process description. There are several “parts” to the dal:

  • Spices
  • Aromatics
  • Beans
  • Liquid/stock
  • Finishing Touches

The spices will be the place where you can experiment or guess and develop experience. What I combine in a dry little skillet is a mix of cumin seed, caraway seed, fenugreek seed, ajwain seed, clove, and coriander seed. Cumin and fenugreek and coriander are usually in equal parts, then a little caraway, 2 or 3 cloves, and the ajwain (which is really optional – it tastes like thyme and caraway basically). For a moderately large pot of dal (I think it’s impossible to make less dal than enough to feed four or five people), the total amount of these seeds is about three tablespoons, maybe a bit more depending on how much you like that sort of thing. Fenugreek is pretty important in my opinion, because it really goes well with the taste of the legumes themselves.

So I heat those up in my dry little skillet until they just start to give off some smoke, tossing them around a couple times. Get them off the heat quickly, and then grind them up in a spice grinder or a mortar & pestle (a pain). Set them aside.

In your cooking pot (a big saucepan with a lid), warm up some oil or ghee or a mix of oil and butter; about 3 tablespoons (or more if you like rich dal). When it’s kind-of hot, toss in some brown mustard seeds (maybe a teaspoon). Don’t do it yet however because you need to read the next paragraph.

The “aromatics” are a mix of onion, carrot, garlic, peppers, and (optionally) celery. I don’t know if celery is traditional in India but it’s part of the classic mirepoix so I use it sometimes. Don’t use too much garlic; in fact you can use asafoetida instead if you like. Believe me I love garlic but it just doesn’t balance well in this dish if you use too much. As to peppers, you can use a couple of serranos or jalapenos, or you can add dried cayenne to the dish; it’s not super important. You don’t have to make it spicy at all of course. Whatever you choose, chop it all up in a food processor into little bitty pieces but not a paste.

Now you’ve got a food processor full of dal mirepoix and a hot pan with hot fat and you’ve just tossed in the mustard seeds. Those guys will pop and splatter pretty quickly. Let them roast in the fat for 10 or 15 seconds, then add in the aromatics. Stir those around to let them soften up, like five minutes or so depending on your stove and pan etc.

For a family-sized pot of dal, you’ll want about 1.5 to 2 cups of dried beans. (I should admit that I always make way too much of this stuff but it freezes OK.) Once your aromatics are soft, you can drain your soaked beans and add them to the pot, stirring. An important ingredient to add now also is tomato. You can go with a small (14-16 oz) can of diced tomatoes, or you can add three or so fresh diced tomatoes. They make a big difference, really.

The spices have been waiting patiently in the spice grinder or somewhere. What I like to do is grind them up as finely as I can in the grinder (I have a $10 Proctor-Silex coffee grinder I got at HEB), and then sift them through a fine steel seive. Some of those seeds have crunchy husks that won’t ever soften up in the pot, and they’re unpleasant. Sifting the spices works pretty well – just shake them over the pot and you’ll collect some not-very-fine ground spices in the seive, and the fine powdery stuff will drop through. You can re-grind that if you like but usually I’m sick of dealing with them by this point.

OK now you just need to add some liquid to the pot and let it go. I generally use plain water but you could use vegetable stock I guess. Split beans will take about 30 to 40 minutes to get nicely done, while chickpeas will take considerably longer. Make sure the liquid level stays up. If you like, towards the end of cooking you can add a can of coconut milk (authentic? no clue, but it makes it rich).

Finally the finish. I have gotten really fond of adding spinach to stuff like this – it’s easy and you get a pretty finished product that’s that much better for you. Just slice up some washed spinach into little slivers and dump it in the pot about 5 minutes before you’re ready to serve it. Stir it around and the spinach will cook immediately.

Check for salt and serve with brown rice, or white rice, or anything you want.

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