I have a few new and new-to-me cookbooks I’m aching to cook from as soon as the weather cools and spending the weekend in the kitchen, on projects, appeals to me again. One is called Food of Life and is filled with recipes for Persian/Iranian cooking. Pages with kebabs and tahdigs and pomegranate stews are bookmarked with my pink stickies. There’s a Cook’s Illustrated DIY cookbook that’s forced me to formulate plans to brew apple butter, onion jam, and duck confit. Meanwhile, there is a slew of Pok Pok dishes I still need to try. I’m hoping to make many of these all-day kitchen extravaganzas.
With big goals like that, it’s welcome, in the meantime, to experiment with a dish that has fewer steps and ingredients: dal. It’s easy to start making dal, the Indian lentil soup in which the lentils dissipate into a thick broth as they cook. I know less about mastery of the dish, how to put my own spin on it, to know exactly how to soften the onions without letting them brown, or how hard a simmer the soup should cook at.
But I like foods and activities like these, where starting is easy, even though winning the championship is hard. For dal, all you need are any kind of lentil or split bean, plus water and onions.
Right now, there’s a container of very plain mung bean dal in the fridge. Yesterday, I heated it up and ladled it over quinoa, then finished with a tadka, a sizzle of cumin, coriander, fennel, and mustard seeds, and just-golden minced garlic. And a spoonful of plain yogurt. Tomorrow, we might supplement a light dinner with small bowls to start. By the weekend, if the fridge is empty, I know we’ll be happy for any dal that remains.
And so I think I’m going to keep dal in there all winter–a simple staple amidst big cooking projects. By spring, maybe I’ll even be a master.
- 2 cups mung beans
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- Coconut oil
- Minced garlic
- Pinch each of: whole cumin, fennel, mustard, and/or coriander seeds
- Yogurt (optional)
- Soak the mung beans in plenty of water and 2 teaspoons of salt for 2 hours (if you have time; if not, skip this step). Drain the beans well.
- Place the coconut oil in a stockpot with a lid and set over medium heat. Add the onion and 1 teaspoon salt, and as soon as it begins to sizzle, cover the pot and turn to medium-low. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent. Don't let them brown.
- Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium-high, and add the cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the beans and 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Then, lower the heat so the dal just barely simmers. Cook for about 40 minutes, until the dal is thick and the texture is consistent--you'll see the shapes of the beans, but just barely. If you're making the dal ahead, cool, then transfer to the fridge. You might need a little water when you reheat.
- Put the garlic in one small bowl, and combine all the seeds you're using in in another one. Everything's going to happen really fast from here on out, so be ready! Grab a frying pan, and a lid that will rest on top even if it doesn't fit perfectly.
- Set the frying pan on high heat for about 5 minutes, until very hot. While the pan is heating, ladle your soup into a bowl and keep it by the stove. Add enough coconut oil to generously film the bottom. Then, add the seeds to the frying pan and immediately cover the pan. Cook, shaking the pan, for about 30 seconds, until the seeds stop popping. Uncover, add the garlic, and remove the pan from the heat, continuing to stir, just until the garlic is golden--this could be as quick as 10 seconds. Immediately pour all of the tadka over the portion of soup. Top with yogurt, if you'd like.