Once, when I was a teenager, my mother told me I could request any homemade dish for my birthday celebration. When I said I wanted daal (lentils), she laughed. “But that takes only 20 minutes and it’s not even complicated. Are you sure?” My response: Don’t mess with a girl’s comfort food.
Twenty years later, I can still sit with a hot plate of rice drowning in daal and think the world is just fine, thank you. Daal may not seem like much, but it’s what my jazz musician-husband would call a standard: everybody on the subcontinent includes a version of daal in their diet. As a new mother, I was excited to introduce my twin girls, then 8 months, to this dish. I had watched my mother make daal hundreds of times, but finally took fastidious notes for my own personal library. Not only was it personally significant for me, as a mother, to pass on this food tradition, but it really is a healthy source of protein.
So when I served daal over brown rice the first time to my girls, I was certain my Mother-of-the-Year award was well in hand.
Maya took one bite, whipped her head around the other way, pointed her nose in the air, and indicated she was all done by throwing up her hands. Ella just spit it out. I think I cried.
Several hours at the kitchen stove later, I have tweaked my mother’s recipe into a delicious, even-easier method of cooking daal. The secret? I make the thardka (the spiced oil garnish that gives daal its South Asian flavor) first and let the daal cook in it. Traditionally, the thardka is made by sautéing onions, tomatoes, and a host of spices like fennel leaves and asafoetida in a vat of oil and adding it to the lentils at the end. My method reduces the amount of oil and spices to accommodate the developing digestive systems of your little ones without sacrificing flavor — and ensures you dirty only one dish. You can change your kids’ diapers, wash their hands, and get the table set all while the dish is cooking itself. A working mother’s dream.
So here it is. I hope you enjoy it as much as my kids, husband and I do. My mother gave it a resounding review the other day when she told my kids, “Your mother must really love you because this tastes delicious.”
Bless your heart, Mom, I learned from the best.
Daal That Cooks Itself
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 onion, finely diced
1 small tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cups water + water for soaking lentils
1/2 cup pink lentils
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ginger powder or fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Measure out the lentils and quickly clean them by pulling out any darkened ones. Then soak them in the measuring cup with some water while you start the recipe. The water should barely cover the top.
In a saucepan with a lid, heat the oil on medium-low heat. While this is warming up, measure out the garlic and finely chop the onion. Add the garlic first to ensure the oil is heated; when it starts to sizzle, add the onions. You want to sauté the onions for at least 5 minutes, so they are not only translucent, but brown; the darker the better. Adjust the heat lower if the oil is popping too much. I use the “4” setting.
Then add the tomato and the cumin seeds. Sauté another 2 to 5 minutes, until barely any liquid from the tomato is left.
Drain and add the lentils. Using the same measuring cup, add the 2 cups of water. Stir, then add the spices. Stir again. Now raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. When the entire surface of the dish has started to boil, lower the heat to low/simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes. You should not need to stir it often — maybe once or twice. Mainly you want to make sure it is not sticking to the pan, so adjust your heat accordingly. I use the “2” setting. Most importantly, leave it alone. The lentils will turn yellow.
At 10 minutes, you want to mash the lentils while they are still cooking. Remove the lid, take a wooden spoon, and, starting from the middle, mash the lentils into the side of the pan. One complete pass around the saucepan should do it; do another pass if you prefer. Then stir, replace the cover, and cook another 5 minutes. If you prefer a thicker consistency, continue cooking. Dinner is done.
This dish is also a great way to get rid of some leftovers. Add leftover veggies or chicken after you’ve mashed the lentils to give it a different look. Or pour it over veggies and/or chicken like a sauce. I serve it with brown rice.
Let me know how it goes by leaving a comment. I hope this becomes a favorite in your house, too!