Thursday, 21 May 2015

Luxurious dhal

This is a gloriously luxurious dhal, so a bit more effort than most, so I go into a bit of a disquisition on dhal and lentils first, and then a random tangent of family folklore, and then get back onto the subject of how to make it, but you shouldn't think all dhals are this as involved as this one, but it is, of course, thoroughly worth it.

Dhal is really just lentils and whatever spicy tasty things you mix through, at any consistency from soup-like to a stiff mash, and there are probably as many varieties of dhal as there are cooks. Depending on what you're adding, you can cook the lentils with the spices, or mix them through at the end. The generous kedgeree is based on a basic dhal recipe, which I also used for this dhal soup, which cooks the lentils with the spices. Or you can just boil up the lentils, and then stir through something like green masala paste. Most dhals take lots of time and no time at all: you need to think about it in advance, to do things like overnight-soaking and long boil-times, but your actual involvement can be counted in minutes.

And you can pootle about experimenting with different kinds of lentils and whether they're whole or split. The ones I've met are chana dhal (split chickpeas, looks like yellow split peas), moong dhal (green when they're whole, smaller and yellow when they're split), masoor (the familiar red lentils, when they're split, and taupe when they're whole), and most recently, urid, which are splendidly black and exceptionally nutritious. I struggled to find them in the supermarket, but they were beaming on the shelves at my spice shop, and this especially luxurious dhal is usually reserved for them. They're quite intense, so I found all the extra flavours here were great to balance them out. But sometimes I'll use whole moong dhal instead, mostly if I want the colour combo of green and red, as I did here.

Tangent: I was making this for my godfather, aka The Godfather, who is my mother's youngest brother, and as she's the second oldest of six and he's the youngest, he ends up being about equidistant in age between my and my mum, so I've always had the cool young godfather. At the start of her career, my mum was an art teacher (she's an artist). She left teaching when I was about five, and from then on taught some classes from home and worked primarily as an artist. Meanwhile my godfather went off to his obligatory military service (this being South Africa), and was working in the kitchens for the barracks (him being quite the cook). He got annoyed about the servers just slopping the food onto plates and took them to task. "Listen, guys - presentation is very important!"
"Oh, jeez," said one, "You sound just like my art teacher... She was always saying that!"

So: presentation is very important! I'm not brilliant at it, for dishing up food; Will teaches me all manner of tricks for plating up, though he can still serve far more beautifully than I can, but when I have both the Mother and the Godfather round for a meal, I do think rather hard about the colour combos of the food.

Anyway, tangent over, you should make this with urid dhal sometimes and moong dhal other times and do whatever you fancy in between, because a black dhal is very striking and a green-and-red-and-purple combo is very colourful and also you're allowed to adapt things at whim and in accordance with the contents of the cupboard.

This is an exceptionally luxurious dhal, so it's rather more involved than most dhals, but as usual, it makes masses and one good session will stock you up for many meals to come, in accordance with the holy principles of the curry cascade.

As usual, think about it beforehand: the night before, or that morning, empty your 500g of desired lentils in a bowl, fill it with cold water, and leave them to soak.

Measuring out the lentils (with the makings of aloo gaijar in the background)...

... and leaving them to soak.


The glorious array of ingredients! 500g lentils (whole green moong, already cooked here but I'll get to that), 7 tablespoons ghee, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, 5 cloves garlic, 3.5 inches ginger, 1 onion, 2 tablespoons garam masala, 20 cherry tomatoes, 2 tablespoons tomato purée, 1 tin of red kidney beans (it's optional), 1 bunch fresh coriander leaves (about 3 tablespoons, chopped), 2 tablespoons mint leaves, 3 tablespoons basil leaves, and...

1.25 litres fragrant stock. This is super-quick and easy, and takes 20 minutes to simmer - here's the recipe.

First things first: get the lentils on to simmer. That takes about 45 minutes, so it leaves you plenty of time for the other prep.

Drain the lentils of their soaking water. (I tip out the water into a sieve, which catches any stray lentils. A colander usually has holes that are too big.)

Pop them in a large pot, with the stock, and bring to the boil, then turn down to simmer. (So the surface is just breaking with bubbles.)

Onwards to the peely choppy prep!

 You may recognise the two onions on the left from the balti madras. It's their turn to be ignored. Look at the onion on the right. It's that onion's chance to shine.

Chop it nice and fine, using the chef's onion-chopping trick.

Behold the garlic. Again, you may recognise the front ones. Ignore them. The ones at the back, by the basil leaf, have the spotlight now.

Aren't they beautiful? Here's the chef trick for peeling garlic, taught me by The Godfather.

Crushed garlic... That's ginger in the background, not a swollen distorted finger! Ginger ready to be...

peeled, first, then chopped. I find it easiest to chop off the base and top and then cut down the sides with a sharp knife. If you have your own method, do as however pleases you.

I slice it thinly, and then it all needs to be chopped small. If you don't have a mezzaluna (a double-handed curved blade), then a large curved knife is perfect. Hold the front down, and rock the blade rapidly up and down, back and forth, across the ginger. When you get it doing really fast, you look like a ninja chef. The little knife there is also handy for scraping off the bits of ginger that cling to the blade.

The garlic and ginger are a go!

A bundle of coriander, washed and drying. This is mostly leaves, as I chopped off the stems for something else which doesn't mind using a lot of stems - probably sag paneer or jalfrezi.

 And basil leaves, tossed carelessly about the coriander. I was 19 the first time I tasted basil intensely, in a basil pesto, at a restaurant in Stellenbosch, with the university debating society, and was guilessly mesmerised by the insane flavour blasting my mouth. I couldn't get enough of it - and then suddenly I could, it was all too much and too strong - and two years later I discovered tarragon, similarly. But that first experience of the peculiar intensity of basil is always tied up with that evening, the skin-crawlingly awkward conversation I was having, the feel of a hot summer's night like chiffon across your skin, eating outdoors at night, and an Alanis Morisette song.

 Here's the mezzaluna! A few back-and-forths with that, and the basil and coriander are beautifully roughly chopped, and we're back in Oxford, cooking a dhal.

Heat the ghee (or oil, but have I really not convinced you to buy ghee yet? Buy ghee). 7 tablespoons may seem an extravagant amount, but remember that you're making absolutely masses of dhal here. 

Coriander and cumin, our old faithfuls, a teaspoon of each at the ready.

As soon as the ghee's melted on a good medium-heat, throw in the coriander and cumin, stir for about half a minute, and then...

 ...add the ginger and garlic, and stir like crazy to break up the clumps, and within half a minute...

throw in the onion, and stir!

If nothing else convinces you to buy ghee, this glorious bubbling should.

This lots gets about 5 minutes to fry on a more medium heat now,  which gives me time to do what I'd forgotten, which is chop the cherry tomatoes in half. But only half of them.

Chopping them in half allows their flavour to mingle with the rest of the dish, but they collapse faster. Whole tomatoes in the dhal are beautiful. So half and half, half get halved, is my way forward now.

The onions have had their time, so that's a generous spoonful of garam masala about to be sprinkled into that bubbling glory. Stir it in, and...

Add the cherry tomatoes, for a quick stir round and heat.

A good squeeze of tomato puree, official quantities are one tablespoon, feel free to approximate.

The kidney beans are optional, but cheap healthy nutritious things that bulk out a dish are always a win, and adding a touch of purple to the dish is a double win. Mind you, lentils are so cheap that even Basics kidney beans might bring the overall price up? I'm always baffled by the British view of lentils as being somehow "middle-class", when I grew up with them as being a supercheap staple food, if anything sneered at as being cheap! Anyway, sod all that, the taste is what counts.

Rinse the kidney beans well, though. That juice they end up sitting in is a bit overwhelming. (That's spinach for sag paneer, hanging up to dry there.)

Stir in the kidney beans, so everything can heat through, and...

Add in the coriander and basil leaves. The mix is now completely ready, and awaits only the cooked lentils. Hopefully those will have soaked up all their liquid, but if they haven't, pour out some of the excess - if you want to - I never want to, it seems wasteful, it all depends on how liquid you want your dhal to be.

Tip the mix into the cooked (drained?) lentils, and stir it in.

Beautiful, So beautiful! The moong beans don't end up very green when cooked, though perhaps slightly warmer coloured than in this photo.

I told you it makes a lot, didn't I? It makes a lot. Here's potting it all up into containers, plus the serving for tonight in a bowl. (Let it cool before you put lids on or put it in the freezer, mind.)

Much luxurious dhal, all potted, marked up (masking tape & a sharpie), ready for the freezer.

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