Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Welcome to the dahl house.

Dahl in pot
Soup bowls
Dahl detail
It's not that I tend to be late; it's that I like to take my time. The way I see it, so many aspects of our lives require hustle, when I can I prefer to dilly-dally. Putz, if you will. I do not look on this as wasteful, or unproductive. On the contrary, I think putzing is necessary in order to hear the voice inside, the only one, that in the end, really matters. And so, after a long holiday season and a rather abrupt move in the midst of a snow storm, I finally took some time, in the fleeting days of January, to take stock of the past year and set some goals for the coming one. Of course, most of these are private, although as they play out you're likely to hear whispers of them here. But a few of them -- the food-related ones -- I wanted to share.

This year, I want to be here more, because I like it here, and frankly, so few things are completely mine creatively. I want to continue to learn about food, but I also want to turn my attention away from what seems overly excessive, or overly indulgent, or overly privileged. Not that I don't like those things, but they're awfully well-represented. I want to think more about balance and education, and I want to write more about those things, but I also just want to write more in general. I have a more immediate goal, and that is to start cooking with spices. It probably sounds easier that it is, at least to me it does. I mostly work with salt and pepper and nutmeg and often red pepper and dry and fresh herbs. My spice cabinet is full of lots of other things, powders with "exotic" names like Nigerian cayenne, white pepper and turmeric. I've cooked with all of them, but often with mixed-results. So, spices.

A dish that's been in pretty steady rotation lately at my house is a simple dahl (also spelled daal, dal, or dhal). Dahl is a healthy and hearty soup, or stew, made from beans, peas or lentils. Maybe you've had a version of it at an Indian restaurant. When I have it's often yellow in color, and served at the beginning of the meal. Dahl is found in Bangladeshi, Indian, Nepali, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cuisines, and it is a good source of protein if, like me, you eat little or no meat. I found a basic recipe for masoor dahl, Indian dahl made with red lentils (masoor is a type of lentil), online. After several takes, all of which were delicious but varied slightly due to ingredients I had on hand, I found my preferred balance of spices. Dishes being well-spiced, or even spicy, is not enough. Here, balance and intention are key.

Dahl can be garnished in a number of ways and served with rice or bread, such as naan or roti. I finished mine with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a thick piece of sour herb bread (to mop up every last drop).

Simple spicy masoor dahl.

1 cup masoor (or red) lentils, rinsed and picked through
4 cups water, or stock
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (substitute 1/8 teaspoon dry ginger)
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, or substitute
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon fennel seed, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon tumeric
1/2 teaspoon Nigerian cayenne
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
7 black pepper corns, ground
2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)

In a small-sized skillet, dry toast cumin and fennel seeds over medium-high heat until the seeds grow slightly darker in color and become deliciously fragrant (3 to 4 minutes). Move seeds to a bowl to cool. Grind when cool to touch.

In a medium-sized stock pot, heat oil on high and sauté onion until it starts to brown (approximately 7 minutes). Add garlic and ginger, and sauté for 2-3 more minutes. Add lentils and water, and bring to a boil.

Once boiling, stir in spices, and reduce flame to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft.

Serves 2-4.

Note: Many recipes I read called for the lentils to be brought to a boil before the other ingredients were added. I chose to slightly brown the onion to give the soup a richer flavor (they don't call caramelized onions a vegetarian's bacon for nothing). Also, some dahl recipes call for the spices to be cooked in oil before being stirred into the cooked lentils at the end. I opted to reduce my soup with the spices. It just seemed easier, and it was.