a dal-liance

I have a dalliance with lentils, or dal as they are called in Hindi—a dalliance, if you will. (Oof! Terrible pun.) I love them. I grew up with stewed green lentils over rice, often with chopped up hotdogs, as one of my mother’s cheap go-to meals to feed a lot of people. But I always found it savory and comforting, and certainly filling. When I was losing a lot of weight a few years ago (those were the days) I ate canned lentils over steamed or sautéed kale and spinach because it was high in fiber and low in everything else. Recently I’ve begun to unearth the delights of Indian cooking traditions, and among them are the many, many ways to make dal.

I cannot pretend that this is anything like the authentic, traditional dish that inspired it…but it’s damn good and I’m going to make it again and again.

This is my riff on dal makhani (or makhni), a traditional Punjabi dish made of special black lentils (note, they are sometimes called “beluga” lentils, though I can’t think why; the word “beluga” comes from a Russian word that means white, and these are distinctly black, although the interior is white when they are cut open—maybe that’s why), kidney beans, butter, and cream. I found the recipe via Pinterest (ever my bottomless wellspring of foodie ideas) on a Vegan blog and adapted it to what I had on hand one night when I was more than half in the bag. Last night, I made it again with a few more alterations.

I melted half a stick of butter and threw in four garlic cloves, half an onion, a whole yellow bell pepper, and a jalapeño to soak it all up. When they were a little softened I added about two tablespoons of garlic powder and twice that much of garam masala (maybe more—I had to keep adding it to get the flavor I wanted as the lentils simmered), and a little salt and pepper. I toasted a huge dollop of tomato paste in that fragrant admixture, then poured in close to three cups of water and more than two cups of red lentils. (I’ve never seen black anywhere, and I had green and pardina on hand but a good foodie friend of mine had advised me to use red.) I let the lentils bathe until they were plump and soft and added most of a can of coconut milk (not traditional at all) and the kidney beans. When everything had thickened satisfactorily, I departed entirely from the recipe and added lime juice, cilantro, and lots of baby spinach leaves for something green. (Gulzar tells me this makes it saag makhani, which is fine by me!)

We ate it over quinoa, in strict adherence to our no-grains no-dairy diet, with lots of cilantro piled on top; it was comforting, warming, delightfully balanced in its flavors and textures. The last time I made this I ate most of it on the couch with an old-fashioned, and then more for [*cough cough* hungover] breakfast the next day. But today I’ll be satisfied to munch it for lunch, and grateful for the cooks and traditions that came before me and continue to teach me.

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