There was a time in my life when I hoarded Indian cookbooks. I'd sit cross-legged in the aisles of some bookstore, salivating over the huge doses of turmeric, cinnamon and cumin. The pictures of the clay tandoori ovens, women in beautiful sari's seated around giant piles of spices at open air markets; the yellows, the oranges, the reds. You see, it was out of desperation that I ended up in those books - there isn't an Indian restaurant anywhere near my town.
Well, supposedly there is one. I'm skeptical though since the sign at the edge of the road points to no where and I don't intend to drive in circles all around town trying to track down a good bowl of dal, especially not when I can stop being such a sissy about screwing the recipe up and make it at home.
The favorite Indian restaurant is seventy miles away, which works out because it's only two miles from Justin's house, well no, I guess that only works out for Justin, doesn't it? But it's so worth it - the blistered naan they bring out as soon as you sit down; the mulligatawny soup the color of a golden bullion cube and tart with lemon; the curry poured over everything and all the basmati rice your heart could ever ask for to sop it all up.
The first time I ever ate there was just silly - I ate so much I nearly tipped out of the booth, the air was so thick with spice I didn't think I could get a full breath of air, and by the time we walked outside to the icy air, I felt drunk with flavor, tipsy from all the spices and feeling entirely too happy for someone who had just eaten that much.
I ran scared for a long time when it came to Indian food - the flavors seemed too complex to be able to replicate on my own without epic disaster. But one thing you should know about Indian food - it is not difficult so much as time consuming. When you're working with lentils and beans and other tough guys that require a lot of soaking before you can really get started, you have to be patient. That being said, it's not the best idea to start an ambitious Indian dinner at 5 p.m. when you are already hungry because between you and me, you're not going to eat until at least 9.
But this recipe is manageable, an especially good starter for beginners in the realm of Indian cooking. It's meatless (a fact that Justin is still complaining about) but filling, robust with scent and spice but not in heat, and with a scoop of basmati rice underneath and heaping spoonfuls of cooling cucumber raita poured over the top, it's the perfect one-bowl meal to curl up with in your favorite sweatshirt and naughty pooch and eat until you're stuffed.
Unless you are lucky enough to live in a household of fellow Indian food lovers, this might be something you'll want to cook when you're home alone. The spices are very aromatic, and you'll likely be lingering about the kitchen for hours in between soaking and sniffing, and you don't want your Dad complaining about how much it makes the kitchen reek when you're trying to enjoy, mmkay?
Everyday Yellow Dal
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
1 cup yellow split peas, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
1 large tomato cut into 8 wedges
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
5 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, finely ground
3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
Drain the dal (split peas) and place in a large saucepan. Add the tomato and 3 cups of water and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until peas are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Pick out any tomato skins and whisk dal to emulsify it. Keep warm over very low heat.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the cumin seeds, covering the pan with a lid or splatter screen. After the seeds have stopped sputtering, add the onion and saute over medium heat. About 3 minutes later, add the garlic and saute until most of the onion has turned dark brown, about 5 minutes altogether. Add the coriander, turmeric and cayenne, stir and pour mixture over the dal. Add the cilantro, butter and salt to the dal and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve hot.
1/2 cup chopped English (seedless) cucumber
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix together, spoon over dal. Yum.