Simple, Sustaining South Asian Dal

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Some foods are so comforting and nourishing, they feel like home in a bowl.  This simple lentil dish is one of those foods for me.  Various people in my life have made various versions.  They all boil down to this one — simple and fail-proof.  Recently, I was talking with a patient about good alternatives to a breakfast based on bread or cereal that didn’t have to include animal protein.  We weren’t making much headway until I remembered how much I loved eating dal every morning, while living in Pakistan.  Last week we made this recipe together on a hot plate in the clinic kitchen.  She did a terrific job learning to dice, grate, chop and measure … and went home with a fantastic pot of the most beautiful dal — golden yellow, studded with the dark purple of kidney beans and flashes of green spinach and cilantro.

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If you can’t travel at the moment … bring the world to you with a new recipe from far away … smell the spices and daydream…

This week is spring break from school, and I had grand plans to get out of the city and connect with old friends and wide-open spaces.  But the reality of a big exam the following week is keeping me here to study.  I’m a bit deflated to be honest.  I’ll be making some dal tonight to cheer myself up.  It’s great study food, and it takes me back to the days when my dear friend and former housemate would often have a big pot of this waiting for me after a long day at work in a busy Santa Fe clinic.  It always tasted like the very best thing in the world.

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The word, Dal, just means legumes, particularly lentils — or a dish cooked with them. 

I like to use tiny red lentils for this recipe because they cook so fast, practically melting into a puree by themselves.  But you can use other kinds … experiment!  (Hint: soaking any type of bean overnight improves digestibility and shortens cooking time.)

Red Lentil Dal:

  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 9 cups water or broth
  • olive or coconut oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 2-3 inch chunk fresh ginger root
  • 3-6 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 4 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 jalapeno pepper (optional)
  • 2 carrots
  • 5-10 oz. baby spinach
  • 15 oz. can kidney or garbanzo beans
  • salt to taste
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro or mint
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The savory combination of tomatoes, onion, ginger & garlic form the foundation for this gently warming, belly-filling dish.

Put a few tablespoons olive or coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Add chopped onion, garlic and grated ginger (also chopped carrots or jalapeno if you’re using).  Saute over medium heat until onions are soft and translucent.  Then add cumin and stir for a minute until it releases its wonderful fragrance! Meanwhile, rinse lentils a few times.  Then add to pot with 9 cups water, broth, or a mix.  Bring to a boil, and then turn down the heat and simmer, covered until the lentils are falling apart — about a half hour, give or take.  Check and stir periodically.  Add a bit more liquid if needed.  At the end, turn off the heat, and add spinach, cilantro and drained kidney or garbanzo beans.  Squeeze in the juice of a lemon.  Cover the pot and let sit for ten minutes or so to let the greens wilt.  Taste for salt and spices.  I love to serve this with wedges of lemon, more chopped cilantro and a plop of yogurt.

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Warming comfort in a bowl.  Try it for breakfast … you just might get hooked!
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