Soups and stews are my favorite dishes during the cold-weather months. Now that the weather has turned chilly and much of the past few weeks have been marked by rain, I am ready to jump into my repertoire of soups and stews. I love meals of chicken soup or beef stew, but I also enjoy vegetarian dishes that are just as filling, nutritious, and comforting. Something with a bit of heat and spice is right up there with the best of soups and stews. That dish for me is Indian dal, a cross between a soup and stew.
Made of legumes (specifically lentils, split peas, or chickpeas), dal is simply put a very earthy dish, often served as part of a thali, a selection of different dishes that can include poultry or meats, vegetables, chutney, raita, and breads. But even when served with rice and/or the flatbread chapati, dal can make a complete meal. The Indian spice blend, garam masala brings warmth and deep flavor and a combination of turmeric and paprika creates a glowing orange color. When you desire something comforting and thoroughly warming, this favorite Indian comfort food is the dish to make.
For this recipe, I use traditional red lentils, which just like split peas, are removed and split from their outer brown skins, leaving you with just the brightly colored legumes. Cooking with red lentils is more advantageous than using regular lentils still in their brown outer skins. Red lentils cook up in just 20 minutes compared to 40 or more minutes for brown lentils. When preparing to make this dish, be sure to wash the lentils thoroughly to remove their residue. Doing so will result in a lot less scum-skimming from the surface of the simmering stew.
Serve the stew right away or the next day, when it's even even better. It will be thicker and seemingly richer because the lentils have had a chance to absorb more of the cooking liquid. Enjoy the dal piping hot with the chapati. This chapati recipe uses a half-and-half combination of whole-wheat and white flours. It includes nigella seeds, which have a smoky onion flavor. The seeds come from a beautiful white flower, Nigella sativa, native to southwest Asia. Many of the herbs and spices used in both recipes can be found in Indian and Middle Eastern markets or even online. Try this Indian lentil dal in place of your usual comfort food, and you might find yourself adding it to your winter repertoire.
Red Lentil Dal
Note: Make sure to pick over the lentils for stones. Wash them well in many changes of water until the liquid is near clear. Strain into a sieve.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium to large yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tablespoon grated ginger (about 1/2-inch piece)
1 tablespoon garam masala, recipe follows
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon paprika
2 medium to large tomatoes, seeded and chopped, juices reserved
2 pounds red lentils (2-1/4 cups)
6 cups water or vegetable broth
6 curry leaves, fresh or dried
1 serrano chile pepper (optional)
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
chopped cilantro, for garnish
chapatis (recipe follows), for serving
Warm a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger; saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add spices and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and their juices. Scrape up any residue in the pot. Add lentils and water; bring to a boil. Add curry leaves. Cut a slit into the chile and add. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook until lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove curry leaves and chile before serving. Garnish with cilantro and serve with chapatis. Yield: 6 servings.
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 stick cinnamon (about 3-inch piece)
1/2 whole nutmeg
Warm a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add all the ingredeints and toast (do not burn) until fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes. Allow to cool. Transfer to a spice grinder and process until a fine powder forms. Store in a jar with a tight-fitting lid until ready to use. Yield: 2 tablespoons.
Nigella Seed Chapatis
Note: Nigella seed is also known as black caraway seed, black onion seed, or kalonji. If you can't find it, substitute with cumin seed or poppy seed.
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons nigella seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for brushing
1 cup lukewarm water
In a large bowl combine the flours, salt, and nigella seeds. Make a well and add oil and almost all of the water. Stir with your hands to combine, adding remaining water until a sticky but not wet paste forms. Remove to a well-floured board and knead until a smooth dough forms. Shape into a ball, dust with flour, and wrap in plastic. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Divide dough evenly into 8 balls. Place balls on a tray and cover with plastic while working. One at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll each ball of dough into a tortilla-thin flat disc. Cover with plastic.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Brush skillet lightly with vegetable oil. Place a chapati into the skillet. Once it starts to darken and puff a little, flip it over using tongs. Once cooked, the chapati should have dark spots on both sides. Repeat until all the chapatis are cooked. Yield: 8 large chapatis.