Kitchen Witch - The way of dal
Lunch for nine European executives is what my friend the office administrator needed in the blink of an eye last month. I got to scribbling, hashing out various menu possibilities, admittedly overthinking flavors and textures, and coming up empty. Exasperated, I shouted out to the universe, "OK, what does everybody, regardless of wallet size, love for lunch?" A little birdie immediately yelled, "Soup!" and I had to agree, everybody does love the simplicity and comfort of a steaming bowl of soup. But, I cried back, how could I make this soup feel special, a soup-plus if you will — something exotic and otherworldly — after all, I needed to feed a bunch of sophisticated world travelers.
I opened the cabinets and stared at the shelves for inspiration. Staring right back at me was a container of ordinary dried red lentils, begging to be my muse. All right, let's do this thing.
I'm a longtime fan of red lentils (aka masoor dal) not only because they cook in 30 minutes but because they are quick flavor-picker-uppers, readily infused with warming spices such as whole cinnamon, ginger and star anise. What hadn't occurred to me was that I could take this simple potage to a whole new level with just a few more minutes and a few more ingredients.
Once those coral-colored pulses have softened and mellowed into a shade of mustardy yellow, the flavor games can begin. In another skillet, you can fry up a savory mélange of cumin seeds, garlic, thinly sliced onions, cayenne and tomatoes, and then add it to your pot o' pulses, magically transforming the mix into a dal fit for a princess, a business toad – and everyone else at the lunch counter.
2 cups red lentils
1 1-inch hunk of peeled ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 whole garlic clove, peeled
Optional: 1 cinnamon stick, 1 star anise pod, 1 bay leaf
1-2 teaspoons coarse salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Pinch asafetida (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2-1 medium onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
6-12 baby tomatoes, halved
Place rinsed lentils in a heavy-bottomed pot and add enough water to cover, plus 1 inch (about 4 cups). Add ginger, turmeric and garlic, and any of the optional whole spices – all are good, but not necessary. I am partial to the star anise pod.
Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and cook lentils at a simmer. They will be done in about 30 minutes. Remove whole spices and season with salt, which should be added gradually and to taste.
In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat and add asafetida (if using), cooking for about 10 seconds, followed by cumin seeds (30 seconds), then garlic and onions. Cook over medium heat, allowing onions to brown at edges. Add cayenne and tomatoes, and season with salt to taste. Pour seasoned mixture into soup, stir and serve.
Makes at least 4 main-course servings.
Culinary questions? Contact Kim O'Donnel at email@example.com.