|Comfort food by candlelight.|
If we were to conduct an official count, this humble dal would probably take the top spot among our dinner table’s frequent fliers. The fundamental recipe consists of yellow lentils, aromatics (often onion, garlic, ginger, and green chile), dried spices, and ghee (or coconut oil). I make a variation on it at least once a week, using different spice combinations, more or less chile depending on our tastes that day, and with the addition of whichever leafy greens or herbs happen to be in the fridge. I don’t think I’ve made exactly the same recipe twice.
This dal has become one of my weeknight favorites because the lentils cook quickly (in about 30 minutes) and don’t need to be soaked ahead of time; the rest of the ingredients are almost always in our fridge or pantry. If I’m missing an ingredient or two, a 5-minute stop at our local grocery on my walk home from the subway is all it takes to round things out.
Many recipes for dal recommend cooking the onion and spices along with the lentils. Easy, for sure, but this tends to dilute their flavors, and the end product can be dull. So, even though it requires using (and later cleaning 😉 an additional pan, I prefer to make a tarka, in which the spices and aromatics are cooked separately in hot fat, building tons of flavor and aroma, and then added to the cooked dal just before serving.
While the lentils simmer, I heat ghee in my heavy cast-iron pan and toast the spices until they begin to crackle and pop. In goes some sliced onion and other aromatics (and sometimes tomato, too), and I cook the mixture down until everything is soft and caramelized. The toasting of the spices and browning of the onion, garlic, ginger, and chile intensifies their flavors and releases them into the oil; when this concentrated mixture is added to the dal, the mild lentils are infused with tons of rich and complex flavors.
I buy what’s labeled ‘petite golden lentils’ at Citarella, a specialty market with several locations around nyc. Their pulses and grains are top-notch, a bit pricey but always super-fresh. These particular lentils resemble tiny mung beans that have been split and had their green skins removed (and maybe that’s what they are?), and I haven’t seen yellow lentils exactly like them elsewhere. The larger split yellow peas sold in the bulk aisle of most natural food stores would also work just fine here, as would split, hulled mung beans or red lentils (all cook in about 30 minutes, give or take).
Dal is flexible by nature; there are as many variations as there are cooks. There’s no need to follow this, or any other, recipe exactly. Change up the type of lentils, spices, aromatics, greens, herbs, etc, to create your own signature dish. Anything goes. On this particular evening, after adding the tarka to the cooked dal, I stirred in a couple of handfuls of baby spinach, allowing the leaves to wilt for a minute or two, and then squeezed in lots of lime juice. Over each bowl I sprinkled bits of minced preserved lemon peel, which added the perfect salty, citrusy pop to complement the earthiness of the lentils and heat of the chile. If you don’t have preserved lemon on hand, grate some lemon or lime zest over each serving.
Yellow Lentil Dal with Preserved Lemon
You can vary the amount of lentil cooking water depending on how thick or soupy you’d like your dal. Four cups of water to 1 cup lentils yields a thicker consistency (good for serving over a grain); I add an additional half-cup of water if I’m going to serve the dal as a soup. Serve your dal alone or over rice, alongside a salad or not. Some toasted naan or pita would be a tasty accompaniment, too.
1 cup split yellow lentils, red lentils, or split mung beans, sorted and rinsed
3 tablespoons ghee or virgin coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 small tomato, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 to 1 jalapeno, minced (depending on your preferred spice level)
2 cups baby spinach leaves (lacinato kale or roughly chopped cilantro are also good)
juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons chopped preserved lemon peel
Lentils: Bring 4 to 4.5 cups water to a boil in a medium pot (4 cups for thicker dal, 4.5 cups for a soupier consistency). Stir in lentils, 1 tablespoon ghee, turmeric, and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until lentils have dissolved and mixture has thickened, about 30 minutes. If the mixture is thicker than you like, add a few tablespoons of water; if too thin, simmer an additional 5 to 10 minutes to evaporate excess liquid.
Tarka: While lentils are simmering, heat remaining 2 tablespoons ghee in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add cumin and mustard seeds, stirring for a minute or two until they begin to pop. Add onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until onion is soft and browned, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
Add tomato, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno to skillet. Cook until tomato breaks down and mixture thickens, stirring occasionally to pick up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes.
When dal has finished cooking, add the onion mixture to the pot and stir to combine. Stir in the spinach, allowing the leaves to wilt. Season with lime juice and sea salt to taste. Reheat over a low flame, if needed, before serving.
Serve hot, finishing each portion with a sprinkling of preserved lemon peel.