Indian food is awesome, but it can be intimidating for home cooks with all of its exotic spices, ingredients, and sauces. Also, there’s the perennial issue: will the kids eat it? Here I adapt a simple recipe for dal from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. My kids are warming up to it, and it’s the perfect dish to serve your vegan friends, or keep on hand for lunch as it will live in your fridge for days. Pair it with naan or any kind of brown rice, and kachumbar salad (recipe below).
For the dal itself, use any mixture of small red lentils, large brown lentils, and yellow split peas, equaling 2 cups. Avoid more than about 1/2 c of the brown lentils unless you want the dal more chunky. (Also, 2 c makes quite a lot–you might scale back to 1 or 1 1/2 c total, adjusting water.) Rinse and simmer the lentils in a large pot with 5-6 c of water and 1/2-1 t turmeric. The water amount is way inexact, and after the lentils start breaking down around 20-30 minutes out, stir and see whether you have a nice creamy mash, or whether it’s getting gluey and needs more liquid. The lentils continue to suck in liquid as they cool, so you have to add water liberally as needed. Be careful not to turn the thing into soup, though. When they’re done and a nice creamy consistency, stir in salt and pepper to taste.
Meantime, work on the fragrant topping. Saute 1 diced onion in oil for 5 minutes (coconut oil tastes great, or if you don’t mind the dairy, use ghee, but canola or olive also fine), then add 4 minced garlic cloves and about 1-2″ of minced fresh ginger. Saute another couple minutes, seasoning well with salt and pepper, 1 t cumin, 1 t curry, and 1/2 t garam masala. These amounts are approximate, always cook to your own taste! Now add 1 can of diced tomatoes with the liquid, stir well, and simmer, covered about 20 minutes till the flavors combine and some of the liquid evaporates.
I usually make the lentils and onion mixture in the morning and let them sit on the stove, resting all afternoon. I adjust water in the lentils and reheat both before serving. No one has ever been poisoned, and the flavors go crazy together after they’ve sat for so long.
To serve, prep the condiments, which are essential, in pretty little bowls: 1 c fresh chopped cilantro (or parsley, if you hate cilantro, which is a phenomenon that completely eludes me since it is the most delicious herb of all!), 1/2 c fresh chopped mint, 1/2 c plain yogurt. The kachumbar side salad is simply a mix of: diced cuke, diced tomato, about 1/2-1 c. minced parsley, salt and pepper, a hit of cumin if you want, and the juice of 1 lemon.
To serve… Put the dal in a pretty casserole dish and spoon the onion mixture in a row down the center (you might leave some on the side in another small bowl, it’s a lot). Sprinkle the top with a little cilantro and mint. Serve with the naan (Trader Joe’s brand is good) or rice, kachumbar salad, and condiments. The rice will taste best if you cook it with 1 t of toasted sesame oil, by the way. The other night I was serving a crowd and also put out a side of salmon roasted with a yogurt-curry glaze, or you could do an Indian-spiced grilled chicken breast. I will post good recipes for these another day.
Granted, this meal may not appeal to the average child, but start by serving a small heap of the lentils (without the topping) sprinkled with herbs, and the cuke salad. Usually they love it, but be persistent if they balk–dal is a staple for millions of children around the globe, so it can’t be that gross!