Masoor dal: picked over and washed, ready to be cooked. Unfortunately, the salmon-coral color does not survive the cooking process. The lentils dull down to a faded yellow color which is easily perked up by the addition of turmeric or other food-based coloring agents.
Or in English, Red Lentils with Greens.
Last night, we had Indian food to go with Zak’s bread, and it was a stunning success. The lightly cardamom-scented bread went fabulously with our menu: Chicken Vindaloo with Mangoes, Red Lentil Dal with Greens, Keema Sookh (Dry cooked minced lamb with green beans) and Cucumber and Mint Raita.
In addition to being the first official dinner thing with the friends, last night was also the first time I cooked in the downstairs kitchen, because this is the first time since we moved in that the countertops are installed, the gas is on and everything is hooked up.
The good news is the dinner got cooked and I didn’t even pull out one hair while doing it. The bad news is that the kitchen was designed badly, the particle board cabinets cannot safely hold most of my dishes and cookware without threatening to come out of the wall or break, the gas stove might have 3 BTU’s to its name (Okay, I am exaggerating. Maybe it has 12…) and there is inadequate lighting.
The good news is that we are completely redoing the entire thing, except for the Sub Zero refrigerator.
The bad news is that we are completely redoing the entire thing, and it will be forever before I can cook downstairs comfortably.
In this case, the good news outweighs the bad, so I will simply hang tight and cook upstairs on my electric stove that actually gets hotter than the gas stove.
Anyway, as the folks were coming over and it was Indian food night, I decided to cook some more of my back stock of beans; I feel that most Indian meals are incomplete without a dal dish of some sort. My last bean night was last Saturday (yeah, it took me a while to blog about it), so it had roughly been a week since my last foray into leguminous cookery, so it seemed reasonable.
So, I dragged myself down to the basement to look at my stock of Indian dals. I had a lot, but I decided on masoor dal, or red lentils for several reasons. They are quick-cooking, they don’t require soaking, they have a lovely, light flavor of their own and they cook up into a wonderful puree without needing my assistance or interference.
Up they came, and into the kitchen they went, where I sifted through them, picking out bits of lentil hull (massoor dal are small brown lentils that have been skinned to reveal the coral colored insides), straw, rock and other assorted debris. Then, I put them in a colander and rinsed them, and dropped them into a pot, covered them with water, and revved up the fire.
I grated a thumb-sized hunk of ginger into the pot using my microplane, and then ground up some fresh garam masala from fennel seeds, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, bay leaves and black pepper. I added a medium-sized pinch of the garam masala, and then a generous pinch of asafoetida to the pot, stirred and let the lentils alone while I started slicing a mountain of onions.
Ferula asafoetida, or in Hindi, hing, is a resinous spice that is used often in Indian bean cookery. It has a lot of uncomplimentary names, including “devil’s dung,” or “stinkasant,” which derive in part from its ugly appearance: in its unground form, it looks like nothing more than a clod of dirt. Mostly, the unflattering names refer to its scent; it smells powerfully of garlic that is somewhat past its prime, though it also has a somewhat medicinal tang lingering in it.
A member of the family Apiaceae, which also contains parsley, dill, coriander, carrot, cumin, anise and celery, the resin of asafoetida is obtained by bleeding the thick, milky juice present in the stems of the plant. It dries into a dark mass which is then either sold as is, or is ground and then packed into air-tight containers.
I always buy mine ground, since the one time I ground up asafoetida, I got some on my hands and smelled less than grand for the rest of the day.
While it may not smell good to a lot of people (I generally don’t mind it, myself) safoetida serves several functions in Indian cuisine. One, it is used in place of onion and garlic by very religiously observant Brahman; the two alliums are thought to ignite “the baser passions” and are thus avoided in cookery. Secondly, it is believed to help reduce the flatulence-causing potential of dried legumes.
Since I am not one to fear the ignition of baser passions, it is for its secondary properties that I use asafoetida; that, and the flavor it imparts to the lentils and beans it is cooked with. It gives an elusive fragrance and flavor that my palate identifies as essential “Indian,” and so I like adding a small amount of it to any dal I make.
At any rate, after the addition of the asafoetida, the lentils are left to cook on medium heat, uncovered, until they are mostly done. The only thing that I do in the meantime to them, is I skim the foam that bubbles up to the top, and add salt halfway through the cooking process.
In the meantime, I go forward on preparing the greens and the tarka.
What is a tarka, you ask?
A tarka is a method of flavoring Indian dishes that involves heating vegetable oil (mustard oil is popular) or ghee (clarified butter that has been prepared in a way that gives it a nutty flavor) in a pan and cooking flavoring elements in it until everything is browned and sizzling. Then, the entire panful of hot fat and other goodies is poured into the dish and stirred, right before serving. The fragrance and flavor this imparts to a dish, particularly to dal, which can be somewhat bland otherwise, is amazing.
The tarka I prepared was based upon ghee with well-browned onions, with chile peppers, garlic and ramp bulbs. To that I added whole mustard and cumin seeds, and I finished it with about four cups of greens: roughly chopped spinach and ramp greens cut in a thin chiffonade.
When I use such a highly fragrant and flavorful tarka, I always underseason my dal to some extent, which is why I used such a minimum of seasonings in cooking the lentils. This process of minimal seasoning early in cooking and then using a strong tarka results in very fresh, vibrant flavors that burst in the mouth like a symphonic sensory overload. Everything mingles beautifully, and it is all deceptively simple to do.
Think about it. You cook some lentils, which you basically ignore, and then you brown some onions, garlic, chiles and spices in a good amount of hot fat and then when that is done, you add some greens, let them wilt and scrape it all into your lentils.
And it is done.
It is simple enough to make me feel like a lazy cook, or perhaps a magician every time I do it. It seems to be some sort of trickery or sleight of hand that produces so much flavor in a humble lentil dish.
The addition of greens was this week’s innovation: I used spinach and the last of the ramp greens, because that is what I had around. Kale (especially lacinato kale) would have been good, as would mustard greens or collards. Plain spinach alone would have been too mild; it was the ramps that really punched up the flavor. I liked the contrast in color and texture that it made with the lentil puree and I really liked the garlicky fragrance that the ramp greens imparted to the dish.
I’d make it again, except I used up all the masoor dal in the house, and I am not yet allowed to buy more beans. It will have to wait again until next ramp season, I guess. By next spring, I might be able to purchase some more legumes with impunity.
Let’s hope so, anyway.
The finished dal. After adding the tarka with the greens, turn the heat down to low or remove from the heat to preserve the fresh color and flavor of the greens. Chicken vindaloo with mangoes is in the wok in the background.
Saag Masoor Dal
1 pound red lentils, picked over, rinsed and drained
1 1/2″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 teaspoon ground garam masala (you can buy this pre-mixed and ground if you like)
1 big pinch ground asafoetida/hing
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1/2 tablespoon ground sweet paprika (optional)
salt to taste
water as needed
3 tablespoons ghee
1 large onion, peeled and sliced paper-thin
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced paper-thin
1-3 fresh chiles, washed and sliced thinly on the diagonal (seeded if you like)
12 fresh ramp bulbs, washed, trimmed and sliced paper thin (optional–if no ramps available, use more garlic, or perhaps a single leek)
1 tablespoon whole mustard seeds
1 tablespoon whole cumin
3/4 pound fresh spinach or other greens, washed, dried and roughly chopped
2 cups fresh ramp greens, washed, dried and cut into a 1/4 inch chiffonade
After picking over, washing and draining lentils, put them in a pot with enough water to cover by 1 inch, along with the ginger, garam masala and asafoetida and bring to a boil on high heat. Turn down heat to medium, and simmer uncovered. Skim foam from the top of the lentils until it stops bubbling up, and when they are halfway cooked, add salt to taste. Add water as necessary until lentils completely soften and begin to break down.
Allow lentils to completely break down into a slightly lumpy puree; some of the lentils break down faster than others. This is good: it gives the dal more textural interest than a perfect puree would.
At this point, the lentils are a kind of pale, faded shade of yellow. To perk up the color, stir in the turmeric and if you wish, some paprika. This is a common practice in Indian cookery to give foods a more appetizing color.
To prepare the tarka, in a heavy skillet, melt ghee. Add onions, and a sprinkle of salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the onions are a dark golden color. At that point, add the chiles, garlic and ramp bulbs, and keep cooking (don’t stop stirring) until the onions are a medium reddish brown, the chiles are browning on the edges and the garlic and ramps have turned golden. Add spices at this point, still stirring, and continue cooking until they become fragrant and the mustard seeds have started to pop. At this point, add all of the greens and stir to coat with the ghee, allowing them to wilt a bit.
As soon as the greens wilt, add them to the hot dal, and stir everthing together. Taste and correct for salt.
This dal is particularly good when served with yogurt or a raita, and of course, bread.
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