Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Aarti Cooks: "Blessed are the Meek" Dal

Last week's recipe was an exercise in extravagance. At least, as much extravagance as we're allowed at the moment: steak, onion-date compote, parsnip chips and of course a glass of wine. What better way to toast the essence of our role on earth: love!

This week, I yo-yo'd down to earth, seeking a culinary-cuddle from one of the most humble ingredients in any Indian kitchen: dal (lentils). Indians love their dal. Especially the vegetarian ones. These tough little nuggets don't look like they're very helpful: brittle, long-cooking, bland. But, if cooked right, they are a vegetarian's dream. Beneath that tough exterior lies a satisfying bite, a healthy source of protein, fiber and surpisingly, calcium. That's especially helpful to me since I am keeping away from dairy at the moment, but I'm still concerned about my bones shattering if I break it down too hard on the dance floor.

There's another thing to love about dal.

It's cheap. CHEAP people! If you're trying to cut down how much you're spending on food, buy dal, and eat it once a week. I bought a bag that will provide 3 separates meals, each of which will serve the two of us for a couple of days... for $3.

I invite you on my journey to discover new ways to cook dal, thus upping our calcium intake, and lowering our grocery bill. Shall we begin? Yes, lets.

There are tons of dals: yellow, orange, green, chubby ones, petite ones... lentils, they're just like us!

Each of those dals can be cooked in a hundred different ways. Just make sure that you pick over them, to grab any stones or yucky looking ones, before you cook them.

I usually have a few different kinds buried in my cabinets, but when I pulled them out to take a photo of them, they looked so pretty above my stove (next to a photo of my mum!) that I think I'm going to leave them there from now on:

From near to far, I have: green split peas, toor dal, kala channa (black chickpeas) and yellow moong dal.

So, let our journey begin with the humblest of the humble, the most unassuming of the bunch: ye olde green split pea.

I've never had split pea soup. I remember having a nightmare about it though, when I was little. In my dream, everyone was at our house (D148, Sequeiras!) and we were playing with some other kids whilst the adults sat around sipping on Johnny Walker (ha!). Suddenly, this putrid smell pinched my nostrils together. "Ewwwww!" I thought, but followed the trail anyway, as Marmaduke might follow the scent of a cat... and I came upon a big tureen of green split pea soup on the dinner table, the texture of diarrhea with a smell to match. It was a horrible dream. Haunted me forever.

Ever since then, it has taken every ounce of my strength to re-embrace the split pea. This was the one dish that helped me get there.

Serve it over rice, and you have that classic rice-and-beans combo that apparently, creates a perfect protein: all the amino acids strains that you find in meat, lined up in a nice row. While white basmati is traditional, I prefer both the taste and nutrition of brown basmati rice. So. Good.

I'd like to dispel one myth in the legend of the lentil though: beans and lentils DO NOT contain a lot of protein. A 1/2 cup serving of lentils contains 9g of protein, whilst a chicken breast contains 30. But something is better than nothing, and if you're not Gina Carano, it probably doesn't matter.

Beyond the physical satisfaction of eating dal, there's also a philosophical, almost metaphysical satisfaction too that always brings a smile to my face when I make dal. Personally, I feel connected to my homeland; I can almost feel invisible roots sprouting from my tummy to my mum's tummy. But there's even more.

There's something magical about eating a food so humble and yet so beloved as dal, a food eaten by India's elite and poor alike... savored by both vegetarians and carnivores, that in its dry form, keeps forever, waiting patiently, meekly in your cupboard for that day you run to it with a smile on your face saying, "There you are! How could I overlook you for so long! I can't wait to eat you!". The meek shall indeed, inherit the earth! Or at least, my tummy!

This preparation of dal takes the least amount of time (about 35 minutes total). It also requires that bagaar technique I may have mentioned in the past where once the main part of the dish is cooked, you finish it off with a tablespoon of mustard seed and curry leaf-infused oil. Oh and don't forgo the lime! It's really important!


Altogether, this dish packs a whallop of flavor: nutty, sweet, smoky, fresh and pungent, joining hands to wrap me up in that culinary cuddle that reminds me not only of home but of the joy of taking the unassuming pauper, gussying her up and standing back in awe of the princess she really is.

"Blessed are the Meek" Dal: Green Split peas with Sweet Potato, Curry Leaves, Tomato and Lime.

You'll need this stuff: Oh and that lime form last week? We'll need that too.

1 cup dried green split peas, picked over for stones and washed
1 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
1 onion, sliced thin from pole to pole
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1" piece ginger, peeled, and minced finely
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced (not too small, or they'll fall apart)
2 - 3 medium tomatoes (I used 2.5, hence the vagueness here)
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp bafaat powder or paprika
1 tsp cumin powder
3 cups water
1 tsp kosher salt
Handful fresh cilantro/coriander leaves, chopped
Wedges of lime to finish off

Finishing touch/Bagaar
1 tbsp vegetable or peanut oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
Leaves from 1 sprig of curry leaf

1) Cover the split peas with water in a small bowl. Soak while you're doing the next few steps.

2) Heat oil in a 3 qt saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion once oil is shimmering.

3) After a minute or so, when onions are softening, add the garlic and ginger. Cook until light golden brown colour.

4) Add sweet potatoes, turn up the heat a touch and saute until a sweet browned onion smell wafts up your nose! The sweet potatoes can pick up a little colour too; that's yummy!

5) Sprinkle in the spices and cook, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds. Stirring keeps the spices from burning, which you don't want, but they do need about 30 seconds to "bloom".

6) Quickly add the tomatoes and stir. Allow the mixture to cook until the tomatoes turn mushy.

7) Drain the dal and add to the saucepan. Pour in the water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer, cover and cook 25-35 minutes, until split peas are very tender, fall apart. If you're making brown rice, you can get that going once the dal has started to simmer. They should finish around the same time.

8) Once cooked, add salt. Don't add salt to the dal before this point because it tends to elongate your cooking time!

9) Turn the heat off. In a small pan or skillet, add 1 tbsp of oil and heat over a medium-high flame.

10) Hold the lid of the small pan in one hand, and once the oil is shimmering and hot, add the mustard seeds. They should start to fizz and splutter. Immediately, throw the lid on.

11) Once the spluttering subsides, pick up the lid and throw the curry leaves, immediately throwing the lid back on. Once again, wait until the spluttering subsides.

12) It should smell ridonkulously good in your kitchen right now!

13) Pour the oil, seeds and leaves into the dal mixture, standing back a bit because it will splutter. Mix it through, fold chopped cilantro leaves into the pot and serve over rice, with a generous squeeze of lime!




Patte said...

That looks so satisfying. I would love it.

S said...

The pic of your beans and spices in jars is so pretty. will you come organize our spice/bean cabinet. and bring some jars. i've been saving some jars for paint, but i think i'll organize the beans instead....maybe i will.

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