A dal should be admired for its simplicity and adored for it’s potential, in my opinion.
Not only is it an absolute breeze to make, but the dense little morsels of lentils absorb whatever flavours you throw at them, creating an eating experience that is as complex in flavour as it is wonderful to eat. I’ve been eating several variations of dal for some time now, but it is this deep, sweet yet earthy combination of tomatoes, coconut and spices that I find myself returning to most often.
Now I’ve gone full-hog for the recipe below, meaning I’ve recommended a rice dish and homemade za’atar naan breads on the side and crispy shallots on top. In the name of full disclosure, I personally don’t find this too much of a pain because the onions can be done way in advance, the dal and rice can be made and then can sit comfortably until your ready and you can make the naans last minute.
I understand this sounds like the pits of hell for some people.
In which case, I have to be honest, sometimes I just make the dal and eat it with a ready made piece of naan. No onions. Maybe some microwaveable rice if I can be bothered, but the dal is the hero here so if you only make one thing, I recommend that. Don’t lose your mind thinking you have to make every element here – just pick your favourite.
For the Turmeric & Cinnamon Rice…
I like to make this rice before the dal, as it will benefit from resting for the same amount of time it takes to make the dal, so they harmonise quite nicely that way. That’s crucial for me in the kitchen – not having too many things to deal with at once. I’m at peace knowing that the rice is already done and steaming away – not on a hob – so I can crack on with the dal. Multitasking is sometimes essential in the kitchen but if I can avoid it, I will.
For this rice, all you need to do is add 250g of basmati rice to a deep pot that comes with a lid. Add a pinch of salt, some saffron threads, a small pinch of turmeric and a small pinch of cinnamon. Pour in 500ml of hot water from the kettle and put the pan on a high heat. Once it comes to a bubble, put the lid on and put the heat on the lowest possible setting and leave, untouched, for 20 – 25 minutes. No peeking. Take the pan off the heat, fluff the rice up with a fork, place a tea towel over the top of the pan and put the lid back on. Leave this to stand while you get on with the dal.
I must mention, while I like to serve this dal alongside the rice, a lovely reader of mine, Sheena, offered her own serving suggestion for dal that I must recommend to you also. There is a recipe on my website for Curried Yogurt Chicken and Sheena used the same marinade for a batch of chicken wings instead and baked them to serve alongside this dal.
I took her advice and now can’t stop doing the same. Sheena, I salute you.
A quick note on equipment. A heavy based saucepan is so much better for the dal. Not that you couldn’t do it in a metal pan, it’s just that metal is thin which means the protection between naked heat and your pan of lentils is much thinner than that of say, cast iron. So if you are using a metal pan, just keep your heat lower than you’d expect and prepare to stir more often so that your lentils don’t stick and burn to the bottom of the pan.
For the Crispy Shallots
6 tbs vegetable oil
1 medium shallot
For the Dal
1 tbs shallot oil (see method)
2 cloves garlic
3 large tomatoes or a handful of smaller tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
200g dry red lentils
1 x can coconut milk
- For the shallots and their oil, in a large, wide frying pan warm the vegetable oil on a medium heat and while it warms, peel and finely slice the shallots into thin rings.
- Once the oil is hot, drop the shallots into the pan, salt them a little and stir into the oil. Cook the onions gently but still on a medium heat until you see them not only lose their colour but begin to brown.
- Place some kitchen paper on a large plate and once the shallots are beginning to crisp, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them on the paper lined plate to rest. They will crisp up further as they rest.
- Take the pan off the heat and carefully decant the remaining oil in the pan into a deep pot in which you will cook the rest of the dal.
- When you’re ready to cook the dal, put the pot of shallot oil on a medium heat. While the oil warms, chop the onion and garlic as fine as you can and add to the pot, stir in a little salt and cook them gently until they begin to soften.
- Chop the tomatoes into small chunks (or halve the smaller ones if using) and then stir into the pan. Cook for roughly 5 minutes or so, just to warm the tomatoes through.
- Add the paste and spices and stir into the pan, cooking for about 10 or 15 minutes so that the spices have time to heat up.
- Add the red lentils and stir them so that they get glossy, cooking them for about 5 minutes.
- Empty in the coconut milk and fill the now empty can up with water from the tap and add to the pan. Stir thoroughly and don’t panic, it will look like a soupy, grey sludge at this point. It will be vibrant soon, you’ll see.
- Bring the pan to a gentle simmer and cook for 25 minutes, just stirring every now and then to circulate everything around the pan until the lentils have absorbed the liquid and are soft and creamy.
- The dal can stand off the heat and covered while you make the naan breads, or simply enjoyed straight away topped with some freshly chopped coriander and a sprinkling of the crispy shallots.
For the Black Za’atar
1 tbs ground cumin
1 tbs black sesame seeds
1 tbs dried thyme
1 tbs ground coriander
1 tbs sumac
- Simply combine all of the above ingredients in a dry frying pan on a low to medium heat and toast until you can start to smell their fragrant aroma. This will take usually around 2 – 3 minutes but don’t leave it on the heat too long, we’re just warming (or tempering) them to activate their full flavour. Spoon the spice blend into amn airtight container until you’re ready to use.
For the Naan Breads
300g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
150g natural or coconut yogurt
2 tablespoons Black Za’atar (see above)
2 tablespoon vegetable oil (or shallot oil from above recipe if you have some remaining)
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, yogurt, spice blend and 1 tablespoon of the oil and using a spoon, bring together to create a firm but sticky dough.
- Lightly flour your countertop and tip the dough on to it and knead gently, 5 minutes max will do until the dough is tight and smooth.
- Break your dough into 8 fairly even pieces.
- Warm a wide, shallow frying pan on a medium heat and while it warms, using a rolling pin, roll your dough pieces into little ovals. I do this optimistically but not always succesfully, mine tend to take the shape of pita breads rather than traditional naan, but I try my best.
- Once pan is hot, fry the dough in the dry pan for 2 minutes a side until each side is golden and burnished in places.
- Brush the warm, charred naans with a little of the remaining shallot oil and sprinkle with more of the Black Za’atar spice blend.
- Serve with the dal or any other dish as you please.
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