This is not an authentic Indian recipe.
This is an authentic Barbara recipe.
I came up with the idea of using pureed pumpkin in masoor dal while I was making vegan stuffed acorn squashes with rice, almonds, golden raisins and Punjabi spices last weekend at Restaurant Salaam as a dinner special.
The smell of the roasted squash melded beautifully with the spices, especially the caramelized onions, garlic and ginger, and it reminded me of a soup that was served at Zak’s sister’s wedding. It was a cream of roasted butternut squash soup garnished with finely diced Granny Smith apples, and seasoned with caramelized onions.
It made me wonder what a dal wo uld taste like made similarly.
Then, later, when I was home and cleaning up the dishes from dinner, I looked over at the pumpkin Zak had bought for Kat sitting on the counter and I thought, “I bet pumpkin would work just as nicely as squash and would have the benefit of seeming even more seasonal and autumnal than squash.”
Pumpkin just sounds more appetizing than squash. Squash–well the word just makes you think of what you do with bugs, not food. Don’t get me wrong, I love squash and eat them all the damned time, but the name just isn’t really appealing.
Besides, I reasoned that for those who don’t want to bother with roasting a squash and mashing it up just to make dal could use canned solid-pack pumpkin, which, in my opinion, tastes just fine.
Now, the truth is, you could get a pumpkin, bring it home, and roast it and puree it all by yourself to make this dal, and if you want to do that, more power to you. Good luck finding a good eating pumpkin–I will warn you that most of the ones in the supermarkets are grown to be used as jack-o-lanterns and decorations, not for eating, and so while they are pretty to look at, don’t have much in the way of flavor. You would do better to buy one from a farmer at a farmer’s market where you can ask them if this is an eating pumpkin or a pie pumpkin, or if it is one grown just for Halloween.
If you do go that route, good on you, God bless you and here’s how you cook your pumpkin: cook it just like you would an acorn squash. Cut it in half (be careful with this step), and scrape out the innards–all the seeds and strings must go. Heat your oven up to about four hundred degrees F., and then oil the inside and outside of the pumpkin with canola or sunflower oil, and lay it hollow-side down on an oiled baking sheet, and bake it until you can insert the tip of a sharp knife through the skin into the flesh. How long will it take? I have no idea, because I don’t know how big your pumpkin happens to be. You just have to keep checking on it.
Or, you can just open up a can or two of pumpkin and make sure you like this dish well enough to go through all the trouble of cutting, gutting and roasting your own pumpkin for it.
Anyway, this dal is very thick and has a lot of body. You can thin it out once it is cooked by adding water, vegetable stock, or apple cider, or you can be non-vegan and add chicken stock. Or, you can do as I did and leave it pretty thick and not worry overmuch about it.
You want to have about equal parts pumpkin puree to cooked masoor dal to mix together as the base of the dal. If you use a fourteen ounce can of pumpkin, then you want about two cups of cooked red lentils.
After you mix them together, you season the puree with some salt and a tiny amount of sugar, and then you make your tarka, which is browned onions, garlic, ginger and spices in plenty of canola oil. (Or, if you don’t care if it is vegan, you could use butter or ghee.) This mixture is stirred into the dal right before serving.
Then, for the final flavor burst, I caramelize more onions, along with thinly sliced tart apples, and top the dal with this mixture, and serve it with steamed basmati rice.
The results were amazing–good enough to send me in search of a fresh pumpkin for the next time I make the dal. The pumpkin-dal puree is velvety and savory with just a hint of sweetness from the honey, but not enough to make it cloying, and the flavors of the tarka are deliciously earthy. The topping of caramelized onions and apples adds a final touch of tangy-sweet-spiciness to the dal, completing its flavor profile. The only other addition I would make to this dal would be to add roasted pumpkin seeds (yet another reason to use a fresh pumpkin next time) to give the dal an element of crunch.
This is a very rich, satisfying dish, very filling and extremely nutritious. Pumpkin is low in calories, and high in beta carotene, and thus vitamin A, and has fairly high amounts of Iron, folate, potassium, calcium and dietary fiber. The lentils are packed with protein (which becomes a complete protein with the addition of rice to the meal), and also contain fiber, while the onions, garlic and ginger are filled with antioxidants and natural compounds which have antibiotic properties and anti-cancer properties.
But don’t eat it because it is vegan and good for you.
Don’t eat it because it is a successful autumnal fusion of Native American foodstuffs with Indian spices and cooking techniques.
Eat it because it tastes really, really good.
1 1/2 cups of uncooked red lentils (masoor dal)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon garam masala or curry powder (I prefer garam masala)
1 14 ounce can of solid-pack pumpkin
salt to taste
1 teaspoon raw or brown sugar
water, vegetable broth, or apple cider (as needed and if desired)
3 tablespoons canola oil, butter or ghee
3 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin seeds
Ingredients for the Topping:
2 tablespoons canola oil, butter or ghee
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups peeled thinly sliced tart apples
1 teaspoon raw or brown sugar
pinch of ground cloves
1 tablespoon mild chili flakes like Kirmizi or Aleppo pepper
sriracha sauce, mild chili flakes and cilantro leaves for garnish
Sift through the lentils with your fingers to remove any twigs, stones or other bits if unnecessary inedible matter, then rinse them well. Put them into a pot, cover with water 3/4 of an inch above the lentils, add turmeric and garam masala or curry powder. Bring to a boil, turn down heat to medium low and cook, stirring as needed, until the lentils cook down to a puree–this takes around thirty minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in the pumpkin until well combined. Taste for salt, add as much as is necessary and stir in teaspoon of sugar. (If you are not vegan, you can use honey instead.) If you think that the dal will be too thick, return it to the stove on low heat and thin it with a little bit of water, vegetable broth or apple cider until it is the consistency you like, though keep in mind it is supposed to have a good bit of body to it.
Set aside and keep warm. (At the restaurant, we keep it in a steam table; at home, you can use a warming oven, a regular oven set on its lowest heat setting or a crock pot to keep it warm. If you keep it on a low burner on your stovetop, keep an eye on it and stir now and again to keep it from burning. Or put a flame-tamer under the pot.)
At this point, if you have two good-sized saute pans, you can make the tarka and the topping at the same time, or you can do them one at a time. I like doing them both at once, though, because it is faster and more fun. Or, you could cook the topping while the lentils are boiling, and then set it aside and keep it warm, and then cook the tarka after the lentils are done. However you want to do it is fine with me.
At any rate, in order to cook the tarka, bring the 3 tablespoons of canola oil to heat in a heavy-bottomed saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions, and cook, stirring, until they are deep gold in color. At this point, add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until the onions are deep reddish brown and everything is quite fragrant. Then, add the mustard seeds and coriander seeds and cook, stirring, until the cumin seeds turn brown and the mustard seeds pop–it should take about a minute and a half or two minutes.
Stir the tarka into the dal, and put a lid on it to capture the fragrance of the steam.
To make the topping, heat the canola oil in a heavy-bottomed wide saute pan, and add the onions.. Sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring, until the onions are golden. Add the apples, sprinkle with the sugar, add a pinch of cloves and cook, stirring, until the onions and apples are golden brown. Add the chili flakes, and cook for two more minutes, until the red coloring from the chili flakes tints the apple/onion mixture.
To serve, put on plate alongside steamed basmati rice. Top both with a mound of apple-onion mixture, add a dot of sriracha sauce in the center of the topping, and sprinkle mild chili flakes over all. Add whole cilantro leaves as garnish.
Note: I suspect that one could do several variations on this dish that would be tasty. One could go vegetarian rather than vegan and use honey instead of sugar and butter or ghee instead of canola oil. One could use a combination of caramelized and raw apples as garnish. One could add pumpkin seeds as a garnish in addition to the caramelized onions and garlic. One could use a winter squash instead of pumpkin. One could add a puree of roasted sweet red peppers to the dal and pumpkin puree.
One could even add bacon, but I suspect that would be sacrilegious.
It would certainly be sacrilicious, as my brother-in-law would say.
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