Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Simple Dal

Having Alexis as a partner broadens my horizons in all sorts of ways. I read mostly poetry and Canadian literature. He makes sure I've got some fantasy and speculative fiction thrown in there. I listen to mostly indie and classical music. He plugs his earbuds into my ears and shakes me up—literally, 'cause I can't help but dance—with Alabama country circa 1935 and 70's funk. I buy and cook mostly from French, Italian, and classic American and Canadian cookbooks. He's got a collection of vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and international cookbooks that mean we're going to have a cookbook library to die for when we start combining households.

One of the things that I like the best is that Alexis doesn't collect these alt-diet cookbooks because he is vegetarian or vegan. The man loves his meat. He has them because he wants to be an inclusive cook who can feed all comers, veggie or otherwise, and that's a principle that I've been trying more and more to emulate. If one of the big reasons I cook is so that I can feed people I care about and make them feel good both physically and mentally, I want to be able to include as many people as possible in that group. It also means that I'm cooking more creatively and more healthfully. A girl can't live on duck fat alone.

This recipe out of Alexis's collection is a perfect example of food that lends itself to feeding large and mixed groups of eaters with ecstatic results: sunshiny curried red lentils cooked in coconut milk, threaded with tangles of spinach and tomato, studded with bites of eggplant, and fragrant with the scent and warmth of cumin, curry, and turmeric. I don't know how authentically Indian this is, but I'm more about invoking the spirit of dal than replicating it exactly. A bowl of this, with either some brown basmati rice or a piece of fluffy naan, makes me feel both cosily coddled and nourished. My resident carnivores don't even bemoan the lack of meat, and with this much heartiness and knockout flavour, why would you? It's inexpensive, vegan, one-pot, and super easy to boot.

Sunshiny Curried Lentils

Note: I played it pretty fast and loose when adapting this recipe, so some of the measurements—like 8 handfuls of red lentils—might seem a bit strange. Feel free to play around with the spices, in terms of both the kinds and quantities. You could also add some garam masala or cayenne, and increase or decrease quantities of the turmeric, cumin, and curry as you like. I use lots of turmeric as it is reportedly very good for preventing ovarian and uterine cancers in combination with black pepper and olive oil. You can also turn this into a delicious soup by cooking it in a stockpot and adding about 8 cups of liquid in addition to the coconut milk; either water or vegetable stock are fine. 

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1 cm dice
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons of ginger, minced (Note: I prefer to grate peeled fresh ginger on my Microplane grater)
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons mild or hot curry powder, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
1 can Italian plum tomatoes
1 can light coconut milk
8 handfuls red lentils
1 bunch fresh spinach, washed well and roughly torn
Roughly chopped cilantro and/or Greek yogurt (optional)

Instructions:

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large nonstick frying pan or wok. Add the onions and eggplant and saute until the onions are tender and the eggplant is golden in spots, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic, ginger, spices, salt, and pepper and saute until fragrant, about a minute.

Either snip the tomatoes into smaller chunks in the can using kitchen scissors, or do what I do and squish them in your hands as you add them to the pan, along with their juices. Add the coconut milk and a tomato-can full of water, being sure to swish out all of the tomatoey juices before you add it to the pan. Add the lentils, stir, and reduce the heat to a low simmer.

Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and the lentils are tender. If it gets too thick, or starts to stick to the pan, thin with some water. Just before you're ready to serve, stir in the spinach to wilt and warm. Taste to check for seasonings, and add more salt, pepper, or curry powder as you like. Serve over steamed brown basmati rice, or with naan or whole-wheat chapatis, topped with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of cilantro. Serves at least 8. 

Adapted from Fresh at Home: Everyday Vegetarian Cooking by Ruth Tal Brown and Jennifer Huston (Penguin Canada, 2004).

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