Thursday, February 14, 2008

Medicine food: dal

On a typical night, I spend more than two hours cooking and cleaning up from dinner. The fastest meal I can prepare from scratch, as timed last night, takes me an hour and fifteen minutes to put on the table. I don't know what to think about recipes that claim to put dinner on the table in thirty minutes. Do they count the time it takes to set out tools and ingredients, or wash and chop fresh vegetables? Is it how long a professional chef takes to prepare the meal? I never take the prep times seriously. I know it takes me a longer time than advertised to get it done. I prefer to concentrate on doing it well, and slowly enough to enjoy it, rather than rushing to a deadline.

This dal dish is a regular on my weekly meal plan: we typically eat it once or twice a month, all year round. It's fast, easy, flavorful, made from ingredients that keep well, and so ideal to make the day or two before shopping day. It's also vegan and gluten-free, though not Atkin's-friendly, in case any of that is important to you.

The word dal is applied to split peas or lentils as well as to a porridge-like dish made from them. For this dish, I use the tiny, salmon-colored lentils known as masoor dal or red lentils. They cook very quickly and like all lentils, don't need pre-soaking. Kevin calls this dal "medicine food," because the lemon, cayenne, and garlic are especially welcome as a tonic in the winter or when one of us is sick. You can steam any kind of vegetable you like with this. I especially like dal with pod vegetables, or a mixture of cabbage and carrots.

Dal with Rice and Steamed Vegetables

Serves 6

heads of garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
About 1 lb. of skinned, cored, and seeded tomatoes, whole canned (not diced) or fresh. A large summer tomato, or four Roma tomatoes, weighs about one pound.
2 cups red lentils
1/4 tsp or less cayenne pepper (optional)
tsp salt
2 T lemon juice, or the juice of lemons
4 cups water

2 cups brown rice
cups water

About 4 cups of chopped vegetables for steaming

Peel the garlic and press it into a cold Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Add the oil and place the Dutch oven on the stovetop over a medium flame. Stir the garlic frequently to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot, until it just begins to change color to a very pale tan.

Add the tomatoes to the garlic. Use a wooden spoon to chop the tomatoes into the garlic and oil mixture so they will cook together into a sauce, about 10 minutes. Don't worry if the sauce is not very smooth. If you were lazy and didn't skin your tomatoes, you can pluck the skins out of the sauce at this point.

Add the lentils and cayenne to the pot, then after a minute, add the water. From this point, it will take 45 minutes to cook the lentils until they're tender.

In a saucepan with a tight lid, put the water for the rice on a high flame to boil.

Chop the vegetables for steaming, and put them in a steamer with some water.

When the rice water boils, add the rice, then lower the heat to the lowest flame possible. Keep the lid on and do not stir the rice. Cook for 45 minutes, then turn off the heat and let stand at least five minutes.

When the dal comes to a boil, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and stir occasionally.

Fifteen or twenty minutes before the dal and rice are scheduled to be done, start the vegetable steamer. After the steaming water comes to a boil, let the vegetables steam for 5-10 minutes, depending on how crisp you like your steamed vegetables.

Taste the lentils to ensure they are tender and cooked through to their centers. When they are, turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and salt, stir, and taste. You may add more salt or lemon juice as needed.

Serve the dal in generous spoonfuls over the rice and vegetables.
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