Unless you live in a rabbit hole, it is hard to escape the continuous chatter of the upcoming presidential election. Promises spew from the mouths of the candidates and as good citizens we listen, wanting to choose someone whose values and goals for our country are most closely aligned with ours. When I speak with people or read their comments on social media one thing strikes me as a universal need, HOPE. The opposite of hope is despair so we cling to the vision of a future that will have a positive impact on us all. It was this line of thinking that brought forth the memory of my first winter as a Wisconsinite. Relocating after 30 years in Northern California, the brutal cold and abundance of snow were a shock to my system, leaving me wondering what have I done. It is a different kind of existence and although it can cause “seasonal affective disorder,” I observed that more often than not, it seemed to spark hope. In conversation people would joyfully talk about the recently delivered seed catalogues and their garden plans. The dread of early darkness in the days leading to the solstice was quickly replaced with comments rejoicing in the incremental increase of daylight. Those who love the snow and cold (they do exist, I promise) were full of tales of fresh powder and ice fishing adventures. I didn’t understand how so many people could stay positive in the face of the longest and seemingly endless season of the year. What I came to discover was what those positive thinkers had in common was HOPE. They all held onto hope, knowing spring’s rebirth would soon arrive to delight us all. Although I have never fallen in love with the wind, cold or snow, I now embrace the season knowing it has become my favorite time to hang in the kitchen and play with food. Unlike the warmer months, having the stove or oven on is actually welcomed.
Recently, my kitchen amusement has evolved into an effort to duplicate the soup or dal served at my favorite Indian bistro. If not familiar, dal (aka: dhal, daal or dhall) is a Hindi word for any of the almost 60 varieties of dried pulses including peas, beans and lentils. A dish made with any of these is also referred to as dal which can be spicy or mild depending on how you choose to spice it. The most common dals found on menus are channa dal (made with yellow split peas) and massor dal (orange lentils) so for my recipe I decided to use these two and paired them with their green cousin, split mung dal. This is simply whimsy on my part as they all turn yellow after they are cooked but after some failed experiments, I wanted to know if the trio added anything to the taste. It may have but not in any significant way so orange lentils would most likely be my choice for the future as they cook quickly.
Here is how it went down in my kitchen.
INDIAN SPICED DAL Serves 4-6
Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis
1/3 C each yellow (Chana dal), red (Masoor dal) & green (split Mung dal) lentils (or 1c of one of the above)
5 c chicken or vegetable stock (water could be used)
½ medium yellow onion, finely diced
½ t sea salt
1/8 t ground turmeric or 1t fresh, grated
¼ t chili powder (preferably Indian) or cayenne
½ t ground cumin
½ t ground coriander seeds
½ t ginger root, finely chopped or grated
1 can cannellini beans (14oz), drained and rinsed
1 T ghee or mustard oil (or any neutral cooking oil)
1 t black mustard seeds
½ dried hot red pepper(cut this open and discard the seeds, break or chop to small pieces)
2 oz. fresh lemon juice (more or less, to taste)
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped
Plain yogurt for garnish, if desired.
- Sort and wash lentils until water runs clear. Drain.
- Place lentils, stock, onion, salt, turmeric, cayenne (or chili powder), cumin, coriander and ginger in a slow cooker. Cook for 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low or until lentils are very soft. If mixture is too thick, thin it with water or more stock.
- Add the drained and rinses beans for the last 15 minutes or so of cooking.
- Meanwhile, a small skillet or saucepan with a lid, place the ghee or mustard oil, mustard seeds, and chopped dried red pepper. Cover and put on medium low heat. As pan heats up the seeds will pop and spatter. Shake the pan intermittently to avoid burning. When the spattering stops, take off the heat and wait several minutes before removing the lid. Be careful not to inhale the hot fumes from this pan as they may sting and burn your eyes.
- Add this mixture to your dal and stir in.
- Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Ladle into individual soup bowls. Garnish with a dollop of yogurt, if desired.
Note: The amount of heat is controlled by adjusting the amount of chili powder or cayenne whichever you choose to use. Adding finely chopped jalapeno will bump up the heat as well.
I chose to use a slow cooker but this could easily be made on the stove top. Simply put the first 9 ingredients in a heavy bottom soup pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to slow simmer and cook for 30 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Add the beans, cook another 10 minutes. finish as above.
The thickness of the soup is determined by the ratio of dried lentils or beans to the liquid. I was striving for a more brothy texture so I used a 1:5 ratio. This is a matter of personal preference. If available, fresh turmeric and ginger (pictured above) add a vibrant flavor but dried is ok as well. The splash of lemon gives just a bit of acidity and really wakes up the other ingredients. Meyer lemons are now in season so if you can find them they are sweeter than the standard and are a nice touch. The real key to success making this flavorful and economical dish is to not skimp on the seasonings and spices. Indian spices or Masala are vibrant and said to be the “heartbeat” of Indian kitchen. Just like any ethnic cuisine you may choose to learn, it is all about the spice palate. Once that is learned it opens the door to many recipes.
Whether you are basking in the sun or putting on the mittens, comfort foods are always a welcome meal. This recipe comforted me and gave me hope that I would again survive the frigid temps and live to see the lilacs bloom. Regardless of what is brewing or stewing in your kitchen, keep spreading the love, one dish at a time and never give up hope for a better tomorrow. I think my next kitchen adventure may just take me to Japan. Until next time, may you be safe, warm and comforted. Jeanne