Sunday 20 March 2016
Easy Brown Lentil Dahl
I was talking to my friend Karl who professed that he does not cook very often. His mom came for a visit from overseas last summer and while she was here he had taken her to St Lawrence Market. While there she coerced him into buying dried brown lentils. Ever since they have sat neglected on the very top shelf of his kitchen cupboard. At first his request for ideas turned into plans to get together and cook a full meal. My all-time favourite lentil dish is dahl soup and it became the obvious choice. Dahl is an Indian lentil soup with deliciously aromatic spices and heat. Since there are different types of lentils, there are different typed of dahl. This is an easy version of brown lentil dahl. If you're using canned lentils then you can skip the hydrating process. This version requires no pressure cooker, but you will need to soak the lentils overnight and expect about an hour for this soup to cook. That's just to ensure the lentils are adequately softened.
You can eat this soup as a broth with all the separate ingredients in it, or you can purée it for a smoother texture. This recipe makes a light, thin soup. If you would like a thicker, heartier soup, you can either prepare more lentils or add less liquid. If your soup is not thick enough, just allow it more time to reduce on the stove. If it's too thick, just add more water or stock. I like my dahl partially puréed so it's smooth but still kinda chunky.
Karl is the near polar opposite of me in terms of love for spiciness. We had to come to a compromise and use one red chili with all the seeds removed. How spicy you want your dahl to be is entirely up to you. Use whatever chilis you want or omit them completely.
Just an additional note before we get into it, there is an ingredient in this recipe that I think is making its debut on the blog. It is a spice called asafoetida ("ass-ah-fet-eh-dah"). In Hindi it's simply pronounced "hing". You may have to look for a specialty Indian store to find it or order some online. It's a dried, powdered spice that comes from a particular rhizome. Something important you might like to know about asafoetida is that it stinks. I have some that came in a plastic container. When I first bought it a year or so ago I kept in on my kitchen shelf. I didn't notice the smell until shortly thereafter. Even through the sealed bottle it filled my kitchen with a mysterious, funky smell. It took me a couple of days before I figured out what it was. You might be thinking, "Why would I want to go out of my way to get something that will make my home smell bad?". There's a simple solution. Store the asafoetida in an airtight container and keep it in the freezer. The cold does something to eliminate the smell and it stays in loose, powdered form even in sub-zero temperatures. As soon as it is cooked the bad smell vanishes completely and it gives an earthy, savoury flavour (similar to leeks) to your dishes. If you can find dried, ground leeks that is a nice alternative or in a pinch, you can omit it completely.
1 cup of dried brown lentils
1 white or yellow onion, diced
1 tomato, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 chili, seeded and chopped (or to taste)
1" piece of ginger, grated
7 cup of vegetable or chicken stock (though this is traditionally a vegetarian dish)
1 tbsp butter or ghee
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp asafoetida
2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
A small handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Yogurt or coconut milk (optional, for garnish)
Before you start cooking anything, you need to rehydrate your dried lentils. Typically you can soak them overnight, but if you're preparing this in the evening you could soak them early in the morning. In dried form, brown lentils look like this...
Cover them in plenty of cold water in a large bowl or container. Once rehydrated the lentils will swell and double in size. Make sure they have enough water that when they grow they will stay submerged. After 12 hours or so they will look like this....
Rinse the lentils (to remove any excess starch) and strain well before reserving to the side.
In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter or ghee. When the butter begins to sizzle, add the whole cumin seeds. This process is sometimes called "chaunk" or "tarka", where whole spices are fried in fat or oil at the beginning of a recipe. The essential oils in the spices infuse the butter and really permeate through the final dish. Fry the cumin seeds for about a minute until nutty, smoky and fragrant.
Add the diced onion with a little salt and pepper.
Slowly caramelize the onions. Done properly this process should take about 10 minutes or more. Take these onions well beyond translucent and brown them. Stirring less frequently will give the onions a chance to get a good sear. Just be careful not to burn them.
Then add the chopped tomato. Continue to fry until the tomato breaks down and becomes pulpy.
Then add the ginger, garlic and chili. Continue to fry for 2-3 minutes. Do not let the garlic burn.
Add the ground cumin, turmeric, garam masala and asafoetida. Stir well to incorporate thoroughly. Fry for about a minute. Then add the strained lentils and stir.
Add the stock, bay leaf and cardamom pods. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Allow the soup to cook, stirring occasionally for 30-45 minutes or until the lentils are nice and soft. Skim off any foam that may rise to the top and discard.
Once finished, turn off the heat and remove the bay leaf and cardamom pods. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. Then purée to your liking while the soup is still hot. I'm using an immersion blender here, but you can easily use a regular blender. If you use a regular blender, be sure not to fill the it more than halfway otherwise steam can displace and push the lid off your blender when you turn it on (scalding you and making a big mess in the process). You might have to blend in batches.
Finally, stir in some chopped fresh cilantro and serve immediately. If you like you can garnish with a little plain yogurt or coconut milk. It adds a nice contrasting colour and adds some creaminess.
There you have it! Dahl is a very popular Indian dish. It's full of flavour, very nutritious and not too complicated. You could easily make this a vegan soup by substituting the butter for oil. You can eat it as is or it goes really well with Indian bread like naan or chapati. Some people make a thick dahl and serve it over rice almost like a sauce or gravy.
I hope you liked this! It feels great to share another recipe. I know it's been a while since my last one. I appreciate everyone's patience and understanding. Much love and respect.