Getting my daily dal

One of the reasons I love Indian restaurants is that I can always find a legume dish called dal.

dal food 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
dal food 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
One of the reasons I love Indian restaurants is that I can count on always finding a legume dish called dal, even on the most basic of menus. Dal is the Hindi word for legumes, explains Julie Sahni in Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, and also denotes a category of legume dishes that "comprise the staple of vegetarian diets." I have found that dal has a sauce-like consistency; sometimes it's a puree, and sometimes it's whole beans in a medium-thick sauce. At my favorite Indian restaurant in Los Angeles there is a different dal every day of the week. It might be red lentils cooked to a creamy consistency, yellow split peas flavored with fresh green coriander or tiny black lentils cooked with large red beans. At other Indian eateries I have tasted other dal variations, including lentils cooked with chopped squash or with spinach. Bhojohori, a restaurant chain in Calcutta, India, features five kinds of dal on the menu, including a "dal of the day." Sahni prefers dal made from hulled legumes, for which the skin is removed and the legume is split in the process. They "cook in a very short time and are easier to digest. Since they have no skin to hold them together, they fall apart during cooking and produce marvelous, velvety purees." Israel's red lentils are an example of hulled lentils. Instead of combining the lentils and rice in one pot, as in the famous Middle Eastern mejadra, for dal the legumes and rice are served separately, so that you can add the dal to your rice at the pace you like. My favorite way to eat dal is to spoon part of it over my rice, eat a little and then add some more so that the fragrant Basmati rice, cooked so that each grain is separate, keeps its lovely, light texture throughout the meal. The pleasure I get from eating richly flavored lentil "sauce" over rice is only part of the reason why I appreciate having dal on the menu. I know that the meal will be nutritious because lentils and other legumes have plenty of protein and fiber. Stroll through an Indian market, and the variety of dals is evident - legumes ranging in color from white to green to red to black, some tiny and some large, some in the classic lentil "lens" shape and others in straight or curved bean shapes. They are easy to cook as they can simmer unattended until they are very tender. To enhance the flavor of the lentils, Sahni notes that dal is laced with tadka, a "spice-perfumed butter." She makes it by sautéing onions or other aromatic vegetables with spices in butter or oil, then adds it to the cooked legume shortly before it is served. A similar Egyptian technique called taklia calls for sautéing garlic and ground coriander in oil and adding it to beans or greens. For her basic legume cooking method for making a dish of dal, Sahni simmers them in water with a pinch of turmeric. Sometimes she adds spinach and notes that cooking legumes with greens is common in India. To make dal with onion butter, she adds onions fried with garlic, ginger and whole cloves in clarified butter or vegetable oil, then seasons the lentils with Indian mixed spice (garam masala) and cracked black peppercorns. Her yellow mung bean dal gets a finishing touch of whole cumin seeds fried in oil with ginger and chopped hot chilies. She even has a dal flavored with sauteed green mango slices. Lentils are a good legume choice for summertime, as they do not require long cooking. Indeed, red lentils become tender in 10 to 20 minutes. For really hot days, I like to turn lentils and cooked rice into a nontraditional cool salad. RED LENTILS AND SQUASH WITH SPICED SAUTEED ONIONS Indian clarified butter, or ghee, is similar to Yemenite samneh, but many Indian cooks now opt for vegetable oil for sautéing their seasonings instead. You can buy the Indian spice blend called garam masala at spice shops. Serve this dish with rice or good quality flat bread such as Iraqi pita. 11⁄2 cups red lentils 1⁄4 tsp. turmeric 5 cups water 2 pale-green squashes (kishu), diced small 2 to 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil or clarified butter 1 large onion, chopped 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 tsp. minced ginger (optional) 1 or 2 fresh hot peppers, chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper 1⁄2 tsp. garam masala (Indian mixed spice) (optional) hot red pepper to taste (optional) Spread lentils on a plate in batches. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones; rinse lentils thoroughly and drain them. Put lentils in a saucepan with turmeric and 41⁄2 cups water. Bring to a boil, watching pot so foam doesn't boil over; skim foam. Partially cover and simmer over low heat for 7 minutes, adding more water if soup becomes too thick. Add squash, salt and pepper and simmer for 10 more minutes or until lentils are very tender. Heat oil in a skillet, add onion and sauté over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until light golden. Add garlic, ginger and hot peppers and saute for 2 or 3 more minutes. Add to the cooked lentils. Season to taste with salt, pepper, garam masala and hot red pepper. Makes 4 servings. LENTIL AND RICE SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND GREEN ONIONS You can make this savory main-course salad from leftover cooked lentils. Green or brown lentils are preferable to red ones for salads but even if the lentils have cooked to a puree, you can still turn them into a salad by mixing them lightly with rice and vegetables, which will give the salad texture. If you like, serve the salad on a bed of greens. 1 cup lentils 1 whole clove 1 small onion 1⁄2 small carrot 1 bay leaf 1⁄4 tsp. turmeric 3 cups water salt and freshly ground pepper 4 small ripe tomatoes, diced 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander or parsley 1 cup cooked white or brown rice 2 to 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1⁄2 cup chopped red or green onions 1 small sweet red or yellow pepper, diced (optional) 1 tsp. lemon juice Sort lentils, discarding any broken ones and any stones. Rinse lentils and drain. Put lentils in heavy saucepan. Stick clove into onion and add to pan. Add carrot, bay leaf, turmeric and water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 25 to 35 minutes or until tender. Discard bay leaf; remove onion and carrot and reserve for other uses. Season lentils with salt and pepper. Drain lentils, transfer to a bowl and let cool. Reserve 1⁄4 cup diced tomato and a little chopped coriander for sprinkling. Mix lentils lightly with cooked rice. Add olive oil, red or green onions, sweet pepper, remaining coriander, remaining tomatoes and lemon juice and toss gently to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve lentils sprinkled with reserved tomato dice and coriander. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.