Hilarie’s Favorite: Butternut Dal

This is one of those recipes that was a moment’s inspiration. It came about because Hilarie had scored a big load of fresh, locally grown butternut squash at the restaurant, and wanted me to make a dinner special using them.

Now, we had already had butternut squash soup, which I had made a week and a half before, and yeah, it is good, especially with Indian spices and yogurt and some shredded raw Granny Smith apples on top as a garnish, but I wanted to do something different. And yeah, I could come up with another variation on stuffed squash, since every time we make it, people gobble it up as if it is their last chance to eat a meal before the Second Coming and they really want to go on a full stomach.

But I wanted to do something different.

Emboldened by the tasty success of the Pumpkin Masoor Dal, I determined to make a dal with the squash. And while I -knew- that apples and squash go together famously–please note the presence of the Granny Smith Apples as a garnish to the aforementioned soup–I didn’t want to repeat my caramelized onion and apple topping that I did for the pumpkin dal. That would be no fun, you see.

So, I thought to myself–what would be similarly good, seasonal and yet sufficiently different to make this dal stand out? After all, pumpkin and winter squash are pretty similar fruits–they are in the same family–and they have flavors and textures that are analogous.

Then, I got it. I would once again not only use caramelized onions in the dal as part of the tarka that flavors it, but I would use them as a garnish as well, and instead of apples, I would use dried cranberries and sliced almonds. The cranberries, like the squash are seasonal native American fruits that just scream “autumn” to cooks and eaters across the country, and the almonds, in addition to tasting great and adding great texture, are used as garnishes and ingredients in many northern Indian curries, so there is culinary cultural precedent.

That is what I like–a true fusion dish–one that is true to both cuisines that make up its pedigree. It respects both the ingredients and techniques of the cuisines that are being brought together, and this brings character and soul to the dish. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t fancy, but it is new, different and yes–delicious.

Now, for all that this dal is similar to the pumpkin masoor dal, it is quite different, because the way I put it together is different. It has a less rustic texture because I blend the lentils and roasted squash flesh together into a velvety golden puree -before- I add the tarka. This means that while the main body of the dal is perfectly smooth and unctuous, there are also bits of caramelized onion, garlic, ginger and whole spices distributed throughout the dish to give the diner a little surprise in every bite.

It is also different in that I use a 1:1 ratio of squash to lentils by volume, which is rather tricky to eyeball, but for the sake of writing the recipe down, I give exact measurements. The pumpkin dal uses more lentils than pumpkin, so the resulting flavor is earthier and less sweet, and it has a definite leguminous taste and texture. I think I like the approach with the butternut recipe better, and it certainly has a more interesting texture and definitely a richer flavor, especially if you do like Hilarie asked me to, and use butter instead of oil and make it vegetarian rather than vegan. (That is not to say a vegan version is bad–it isn’t–it is, in fact, quite good, but I agree with Hil–the butter takes this humble dish over the top.)

But while the dal itself is heaven on a spoon, the topping is a choir of angels for the tastebuds. No, really. The deeply caramelized onions are sweet and soft, while the cranberries are chewy and tangy. They balance each other perfectly, and are a great foil for the toasty, crisp, rich almonds. A sprinkle of mild chili flakes and salt completes the flavor profile and rounds it all out.

But this isn’t just about taste–Butternut Dal is good for you.Served with rice, this dish offers a complete protein, a huge amount of vitamin A from the squash, vitamin C from the cranberries as well as the antibiotic properties inherent to onions, ginger, garlic and chilies. In addition, the turmeric used to boost the color of the dal turns out to be good for your brain, as it seems to help ward of dementia and other age-related brain disorders.

Besides, it is comforting. It is like a warm, lingering hug, or a cuddly soft cat curled up on your lap. Eating it is like slipping on your favorite fuzzy sweater or sinking into a steamy, fragrant bath on a cold night. It is sweet, soft and just–well, it just reminds you of home, Mom and all the good things of life.

For all that it is humble, and made from common ingredients, Hilarie tells me that this dal is her favorite of all the dishes I cook at her restaurant.

I think it is because it has the power to warm her from the inside out and it relaxes her and makes her smile.

And what more can one ask for in a vegetarian dish than that–simple magic.

Butternut Dal

1 large or two small butternut squashes (you should get about 3 cups of puree once roasted and mashed)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 1/2 cups red lentils (masoor dal)
1 teaspoon turmeric
4 tablespoons butter (optional)
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Aleppo or other mild chili flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
1″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons mustard seeds
4 tablespoons butter or canola oil
2 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo or other mild chili flakes
1/2 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup sliced almonds


Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds and stringy bits from the cavity of the squash. Line a baking sheet with foil and rub it with the one tablespoon of canola oil. Put the squash halves on the sheet cut side down. Dip your hands in the oil on the sheet and rub it on the outside rind of the squash. Place squash in oven and roast until a fork can pierce all the way through the rind and the flesh.

Remove from oven when done and allow to cool in the pan until it is cool to the touch.

While the butternut squash is roasting, place the lentils in a pot and cover with enough water to rise above the top of the lentils by 1/2 inch. Add the turmeric and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat and simmer, stirring as needed until the lentils are fully cooked and fall apart.

The lentils should cook down to a fairly thick, rustic puree–if they are soft but still watery, pour the contents of the pot into a fine mesh strainer and allow the excess water drain away. If it is a thick puree, take it from the heat.

While the lentils cook and the squash roasts, cook the tarka. Heat the three tablespoons of canola oil, and add the first measure of onions. Sprinkle with salt, and cook, stirring, until the onions are golden. Add the chili flakes, and cook stirring until the onions are golden brown, a medium color. Add the garlic, ginger and whole spices and cook, stirring until the onions are dark reddish brown and the spices are toasted. Remove from heat.

Scoop the flesh from the squash, and add it to the pot. If you wish, add the butter, and using an immersion blender, blend the contents of the pot into a velvety smooth puree.

Stir the tarka into the puree and taste. Add salt to taste.

Heat the remaining oil or butter in a deep, heavy bottomed skillet. Add the onions, sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring until the onions are golden. Add the cranberries, chili flakes and almonds and cook, stirring, until the onions are deep reddish brown, the cranberries are slightly caramelized and the almonds are toasted.

Serve the dal with rice and topped with a generous dollop of the caramelized onion, cranberry and almond mixture.


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  1. If I had to list only one thing which I’ve learned from this blog which has impacted my cooking in a majorly positive way, then it would be that I learned to fully-brown onions. Ever since then, I’ve been shocked by the number of Western recipes that I’ve read which include the line “saute until the onions are translucent, but not browned”. Why not? Because that would add too much flavor and thus be incorrect? Veal en blanquette seems to be the dish which epitomizes of that kind of (bad) thinking.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to trying this dish. My partner doesn’t like “Indian food” and I’m looking to find something from that continent, or inspired by it, that he won’t find to be bland.

    Comment by Jim — November 17, 2008 #

  2. How funny! I have a massive amount of squash at hand (hubbard, dead jack-o-lantern, red kuri), and invented essentially this same thing last night. Only mine had lots of cilantro, and no cranberries or garlic.

    But very very similar otherwise, and I just finished the last of it off with rice and green beans for dinner.

    Comment by Diane — November 17, 2008 #

  3. You know, Jim–I am with you. Ever since I learned to brown onions the Indian way–and I learned it cooking for a pair of clients who were from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and from reading several Indian cookbooks, I have browned onions for all of my recipes the Indian way.

    And guess what? All of my recipes taste BETTER!

    In fact, my husband, who said he hated onions when I first met him now eats them and likes them, and is astonished to know how many onions I put in my food. Because they don’t taste like what I consider to be undercooked onions.

    The sulfur compounds don’t break down as completely in undercooked onions, so they do have that bitter taste that doesn’t have to be in onions.

    As to why Western recipes do not utilize browned onions as regularly–I suspect part of it in US cooking comes from the Victorian liking for pale-colored, relatively bland foods. And that came from a lot of the delicate sauces of classical French cooking, although I think that American cooks at the turn of the last century committed many sins by coating everything in sight with insipidly flavored bechamel sauces in ways that would have made a French cook or chef shudder.

    But I am with you–I even brown my onions in Chinese dishes and it makes them all so delicious.

    And it make sausage gravy and biscuits better–it makes any kind of gravy better, in fact, to have browned onions as a base.

    Comment by Barbara — November 18, 2008 #

  4. oooh… though reading about butternut squash dal is not as good as eating butternut squash dal (sorta like porn is not nearly as good as sex) I find that reading about it is better than nothing!
    And like Jim and of course you, I can’t stand the waste of perfectly good flavor that occurs when onions are less than waaaay browned. mmmm… I can almost, but unfortunately not quite, smell them now…

    Comment by Hilarie — November 18, 2008 #

  5. That is the most beautiful garnish! Usually I think of garnish as the cook’s afterthought. But this one looks as equally loved as the dal itself, full of textures and intensity of flavor. The dish itself looks incredibly heartwarming.

    Comment by JustNancy — November 19, 2008 #

  6. Well, i have to say that some dishes are better for gentle sauteing of the onions, for me at any rate. The contrast of crunchy onions and beef in Szechuan beef, for example. Or on a hamburger (I like BOTH, but what do I know?)

    Most US food is far more influenced by French cooking than traditionally downgraded english cooery, esp Victorians, who were notorious for leeeching all flavor from dishes. And the english traditionally ate onions raw, like apples. (Still do, in fact.)

    Onions are great, onions are cool, let’s eat more onions, someone fill in the 4th line, please, my mind went blank!)

    We’re eating the dal ands quash tomorrow.

    Comment by The Bad Yogi — November 19, 2008 #

  7. FYI,
    I took this great class over the weekend that you guys might be interested in.
    Here is the link:


    Comment by leona — November 24, 2008 #

  8. wow…that looks amazing…i am going to have to try it…thanks!

    Comment by Kim — November 25, 2008 #

  9. Turmeric is also good for the digestion, which is why it is so often paired with lentils. Lovely stuff.

    Comment by Christy — November 26, 2008 #

  10. Onions are great, onions are cool–
    let’s eat more onions, my allium fools!

    Comment by Mary Ann Dimand — November 30, 2008 #

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