February 28, 2013

Yellow Lentil Dal with Preserved Lemon

Comfort food by candlelight.
If we were to conduct an official count, this humble dal would probably take the top spot among our dinner table's frequent fliers. The fundamental recipe consists of yellow lentils, aromatics (often onion, garlic, ginger, and green chile), dried spices, and ghee (or coconut oil). I make a variation on it at least once a week, using different spice combinations, more or less chile depending on our tastes that day, and with the addition of whichever leafy greens or herbs happen to be in the fridge. I don't think I've made exactly the same recipe twice.

This dal has become one of my weeknight favorites because the lentils cook quickly (in about 30 minutes) and don't need to be soaked ahead of time; the rest of the ingredients are almost always in our fridge or pantry. If I'm missing an ingredient or two, a 5-minute stop at our local grocery on my walk home from the subway is all it takes to round things out.

Many recipes for dal recommend cooking the onion and spices along with the lentils. Easy, for sure, but this tends to dilute their flavors, and the end product can be dull. So, even though it requires using (and later cleaning ;) an additional pan, I prefer to make a tarka, in which the spices and aromatics are cooked separately in hot fat, building tons of flavor and aroma, and then added to the cooked dal just before serving.

While the lentils simmer, I heat ghee in my heavy cast-iron pan and toast the spices until they begin to crackle and pop. In goes some sliced onion and other aromatics (and sometimes tomato, too), and I cook the mixture down until everything is soft and caramelized. The toasting of the spices and browning of the onion, garlic, ginger, and chile intensifies their flavors and releases them into the oil; when this concentrated mixture is added to the dal, the mild lentils are infused with tons of rich and complex flavors.

I buy what's labeled 'petite golden lentils' at Citarella, a specialty market with several locations around nyc. Their pulses and grains are top-notch, a bit pricey but always super-fresh. These particular lentils resemble tiny mung beans that have been split and had their green skins removed (and maybe that's what they are?), and I haven't seen yellow lentils exactly like them elsewhere. The larger split yellow peas sold in the bulk aisle of most natural food stores would also work just fine here, as would split, hulled mung beans or red lentils (all cook in about 30 minutes, give or take).

Dal is flexible by nature; there are as many variations as there are cooks. There's no need to follow this, or any other, recipe exactly. Change up the type of lentils, spices, aromatics, greens, herbs, etc, to create your own signature dish. Anything goes. On this particular evening, after adding the tarka to the cooked dal, I stirred in a couple of handfuls of baby spinach, allowing the leaves to wilt for a minute or two, and then squeezed in lots of lime juice. Over each bowl I sprinkled bits of minced preserved lemon peel, which added the perfect salty, citrusy pop to complement the earthiness of the lentils and heat of the chile. If you don't have preserved lemon on hand, grate some lemon or lime zest over each serving.

Yellow Lentil Dal with Preserved Lemon
Serves 4

You can vary the amount of lentil cooking water depending on how thick or soupy you'd like your dal. Four cups of water to 1 cup lentils yields a thicker consistency (good for serving over a grain); I add an additional half-cup of water if I'm going to serve the dal as a soup.  Serve your dal alone or over rice, alongside a salad or not. Some toasted naan or pita would be a tasty accompaniment, too.

1 cup split yellow lentils, red lentils, or split mung beans, sorted and rinsed
3 tablespoons ghee or virgin coconut oil
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 small tomato, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 to 1 jalapeno, minced (depending on your preferred spice level)
2 cups baby spinach leaves (lacinato kale or roughly chopped cilantro are also good)
juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons chopped preserved lemon peel
sea salt

Lentils: Bring 4 to 4.5 cups water to a boil in a medium pot (4 cups for thicker dal, 4.5 cups for a soupier consistency). Stir in lentils, 1 tablespoon ghee, turmeric, and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until lentils have dissolved and mixture has thickened, about 30 minutes. If the mixture is thicker than you like, add a few tablespoons of water; if too thin, simmer an additional 5 to 10 minutes to evaporate excess liquid.

Tarka: While lentils are simmering, heat remaining 2 tablespoons ghee in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add cumin and mustard seeds, stirring for a minute or two until they begin to pop. Add onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until onion is soft and browned, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

Add tomato, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno to skillet. Cook until tomato breaks down and mixture thickens, stirring occasionally to pick up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 10 minutes.

When dal has finished cooking, add the onion mixture to the pot and stir to combine. Stir in the spinach, allowing the leaves to wilt. Season with lime juice and sea salt to taste. Reheat over a low flame, if needed, before serving.

Serve hot, finishing each portion with a sprinkling of preserved lemon peel.

February 21, 2013

Ottolenghi-Inspired Spiced Mung Beans with Caramelized Onion + Roasted Kabocha


Wednesday night special. Mung beans with caramelized onion and lots of spice, tender wedges of kabocha squash, pan-roasted grape tomatoes: a meal like this is pretty much food nirvana for me. As I bathed in the light of my oh-so-sophisticated creation, Mr Yogi strolled into the kitchen and at a glance proclaimed my beloved to be A Hippie Salad.
Fine, call my salad a hippie; I'm okay with that. I recognize that mung beans are an iconic hippie relic of the 1970s. They're still delicious. Maybe I'm a hippie, or a hippie wanna-be. Maybe I wear a chakra necklace, slather on coconut oil as a moisturizer, and (twice) attempted to convert over to the no-poo shampoo method (didn't work for me, though; subtract three hippie points). I'm in the process of owning my unique brand of crazy these days, hippie tendencies, mung beans, and all.

I usually cook with whole mung beans from the bulk bins (bonus hippie points, that one!), soaking them for a few hours before cooking. Recently, though, I discovered these slightly sprouted and dried green mung beans at Fairway and decided to give them a try. As with most grains and legumes, sprouting increases nutrient availability and speeds cooking time, making these guys ideal for a weeknight dinner with no advance planning required. Boiling the beans for 5 minutes, then turning off the heat and letting them sit for 8 minutes or so, yields a nutty, fresh-tasting bean with a pleasantly snappy bite.
Researching mung bean preparations online, I landed upon an Ottolenghi recipe for carrot-mung bean salad published in The Guardian. Super-simple, spiced with cumin, fennel, and caraway seeds, and blessed by Sir Yotam himself, it was the one. I nixed the carrots, opting instead to serve the beans over wedges of bright-orange kabocha squash, and adding caramelized onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno to the mix along with lusciously shriveled orbs of sweet-tart, pan-seared grape tomatoes for a bright finish.
Crazy for kabocha! With dense, sweet flesh, and beautiful green skin that is thin and tender, so it doesn't need to be peeled, this squash gets two thumbs up for easy weeknight dinner prep. 

Plated and ready to e.a.t. In the interest of keepin' it real...an of-the-moment iphone pic snapped before devouring this at 10 pm on a Wednesday night. Workweek dinner, nyc style.
(Other pics taken the next morning, with the great benefit of natural light :)

Spiced Mung Beans with Caramelized Onion + Roasted Kabocha
Serves 4

2-pound kabocha squash, stem and base trimmed, halved lengthwise, and seeds removed; halves cut into 1-inch wedges (can substitute buttercup or acorn squash)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced (about 1.5 cups)
1 garlic clove, minced
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 jalapeno, minced (including seeds)
1 cup sprouted and dried mung beans (or whole dried mung beans, soaked in water for 6 to 8 hours and drained)
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes (or to taste)
zest and juice of 1 lemon (I used a Meyer lemon)
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro (plus a few leaves for garnish)
2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
2 cups baby greens (spinach, arugula, etc)
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts or sunflower seeds, to garnish (optional)
olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 400F.

Kabocha: In a large bowl combine kabocha squash, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon sea salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Toss to coat the squash. Transfer squash to a baking sheet, arranging the wedges in a single layer. Cook until tender and lightly browned around the edges, about 40 minutes, turning pieces halfway through.

Mung beans: Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add 2 teaspoons salt and mung beans. Boil for 5 minutes, turn off heat and let sit for about 8 minutes, covered, until the beans are tender but retain some bite. (If using whole, soaked mung beans, you may need to cook the beans longer. Test as you go.) Drain excess water and set beans aside.

Caramelized onions: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add cumin, caraway, and fennel seeds, stirring for a few minutes until they start to pop. Add onion and a pinch of salt; cook until the onion softens and turns a deep brown color, 12 to 15 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and jalapeno, and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer mixture to a bowl.

Pan-roasted tomatoes: After cooking onion mixture, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the same skillet and cook the tomatoes, with a pinch of salt, over medium-high heat until they burst and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Putting it together: While the tomatoes cook, add the mung beans to the onion mixture. Add chile flakes, lemon zest and juice, and cilantro, tossing gently to combine. Season with salt and black pepper, to taste.

To serve: arrange 3 or 4 kabocha wedges on each plate; place a small handful of greens in the center. Place a large scoop (about 1/2 cup) of the mung bean mixture atop the greens. Garnish with roasted tomatoes, toasted nuts or seeds, cilantro leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm.