When I think of quick, easy, inexpensive, flavorful weeknight meal, I always think of dal. Dal is an Indian dish of legumes cooked with spices. My pantry is always stocked with channa dal, which I like because it holds its shape a bit more than red lentils yet it still cooks quickly. Like most of my recipes, it is also a fridge-cleaner. If you have any bits of vegetables leftover you can toss them in at the end to add some texture to the dish. Most of the time spent with this dish is inactive, so you can choose to make some rice to go with it or toast some naan. Check out this wonderful exploration into the world of dal. The key to flavor in this dish is the cooking of the seeds in the oil before the dal goes in. Popping the mustard seeds is something every Indian cook does. It flavors and perfumes the oil. I once heard the great cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey speak and she mentioned doing this with cinnamon sticks as well. Now I start off almost every Indian dish that calls for cinnamon this way. You get the effect of the cinnamon without it being cloying. It is a beautiful thing to watch the cinnamon unfurling in the oil, and when I'm cooking for clients, this is always the moment they wander into the kitchen wondering what smells amazing.
Makes 10 cups
Note: if using red lentils instead of channa dal, you may need less water. Start with 6 cups and add more if necessary. If adding vegetables, chop into small pieces and add during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
1 tablespoon neutral oil such as canola, or coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
6 whole green cardamom pods, crushed lightly so they open
1 whole cinnamon stick
2 cups channa dal, rinsed
1 Tbs curry powder
9 cups water
1/2 cup coconut milk (optional)
1. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot, such as an enameled cast iron or stainless steel, on medium heat and add oil. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds, cardamom pods, and cinnamon stick. Be very careful as the mustard seeds will sizzle and pop right out of the pot. Try to cover the pot with an oil screen or momentarily hold a lid over the pot. Let seeds pop for about 10 seconds.
2. Add the dal, curry powder, and water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure it is not sticking to the bottom of the pot, or until dal is soft. You may need to add more water if dal too thick. It should be a porridge consistency. Stir in coconut milk and vegetables if using, and season with salt to taste.