how do you take a good picture of dal?
well, for starters, you’ve put too much water in it, so it’s a little runnier than ideal for flattering photos. maybe you should just wait till you can make another more perfect batch.
and it’s a little dark outside, so your photos will probably turn out grainy.
you haven’t had the time or the money to invest in setting up a nice surface for photography, so you’ll probably have to just use that grey plastic table you got from the store that shall not be named.
your limited quantity of apartment windows are already occupied by furniture that has no where else to go, so you’ll probably just have to cram that plastic table up where the piano sits in front of the window that looks out onto the parking lot and hope you don’t fall off when you stand tippy-toed on a metal folding chair to go for that top-down shot.
maybe this all makes you wonder why anyone would want to see a picture of watery lentils, anyway.
but somewhere along the line, the question buckles under the weight of its own absurdity. it implodes and another question more brilliant, beautiful, and exploratory takes its place: how do you take an honest picture of dal?
the answer weaves itself with every scrap of love you give it.
dal embodies so much about my philosophy and love of food and cooking: it’s simple to make; it’s wholesome to eat; it’s inexpensive to prepare; and it’s damn delicious. anyone who has shared a significant amount of time or space with me in recent years has had some riff or another on this dal (bret and i even travel with jars to heat up and share when we play houseguest). this recipe for simmered red lentils is such a favorite of ours and i am so completely full of joy sharing it with you today.
the spices for this dal should be fairly easy to find: cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika (smoked, for a real treat). you can add fenugreek and cardamom if you can find them, but even without them you’ll have a perfectly robust, flavorful dal. i almost always prepare dal with red lentils (masoor dal) because i love the way they break down and thicken the dal as they simmer in the water, but you can make it with any split legumes you want. dial the heat up or down, add a little coconut milk toward the end of cooking, or sprinkle on some fresh cilantro with a squeeze of lime. consider this both a recipe and a guide; make it and make it your own.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil (or ghee or coconut oil)
- 1½ teaspoons cumin seeds (whole)
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds (whole)
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 3 large cloves garlic (minced or crushed in mortar and pestle)
- 1½ inch knob fresh ginger (peeled, then minced or crushed in mortar and pestle)
- 1½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon paprika (or smoked paprika)
- ground red pepper (or crushed red pepper flakes) to taste, optional
- 2 cups dry red lentils
- 4-6 cups water
- 1 14-ounce can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
- 1-2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- black pepper, to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
- Wash and rinse the red lentils. Once clean, let them soak in a large bowl with plenty of fresh water. You can start soaking while you cut and measure the rest of your ingredients, and that should allow enough time for the soak to do its thing. If you’re planning this meal ahead you can allow the lentils a good two hours to soak, and they’ll be even happier.
- Place a large pot over medium-high heat. Toss in the whole cumin seeds and mustard seeds and let toast until beautifully fragrant.
- Add the olive oil, then the onions. Saute about five minutes, stirring occasionally, until they begin to turn translucent. Add garlic and ginger paste, stir, and let cook for another minute until the biting, raw smell cooks away. Add the ground spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and red pepper, if using) to the pot and stir to coat.
- Drain and rinse the lentils and add them to the pot along with 6 cups of water. Stir, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let the dal simmer, partially or completely covered, for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, adding water if the mix looks thirsty.
- Once the lentils are soft and broken down from the long simmer, add the canned tomatoes and salt (adding the acidic tomatoes before the lentils are completely cooked can prevent them from softening). Let simmer another 10-15 minutes.
- Remove from heat and finish the dal by adding a glug of lemon juice, a few grinds black pepper or more salt as needed.
- Serve with fresh cilantro, a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, rice, naan, or anything else you'd like. Enjoy.
Add a ½ teaspoon fenugreek seed and a big pinch of ground cardamom for a darker, more complex flavor. In small amounts, fenugreek brings a subtle, dark sweetness that isn't like any other spice I know.
Lime juice (in place of the lemon) is good, too, especially with coconut oil in place of olive oil.
Fresh cilantro is especially good here, chopped and stirred in along with the tomatoes or sprinkled right onto each serving.
If you can find them, fresh serrano peppers are great in place of (or in addition to) the red pepper powder/flakes!