A Simple Homey, Coconut-y Red Lentil Dal

January  2, 2014

Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.

Today: Nicholas resolves to feed his children too much dal.

Daal from Food52 

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Last year I resolved to feed my children too many eggs

Dear Reader: I did not fail. And not just that: I also fed my children too much cereal. 

My ability to meet extremely modest New Year’s resolutions is unmatched. Part of the reason you drink so much on New Year’s Eve is that you’re trying to forget everything you didn’t do. (Well, and everything you did.) It’s painful to resolve to do new things in such close proximity to the things you didn’t do. It’d be much better if we built in a month interval. Personally, I make all my meaningful New Year’s Resolutions on Lincoln’s Birthday.

This year I’d planned to resolve to feed my children too much cereal but -- in an unanticipated burst of productivity -- I’d already done that. So I hereby resolve to feed my children too much dal.

Daal from Food52

In the very first Dinner vs. Child column -- now a collectible item -- I wrote about dal. Specifically, I wrote about lentils and about chana dal with golden raisins, which you should go make now. Serving dal to small humans may sound ambitious but it is not: many dals are surprisingly child-friendly, if you turn down the heat, and if your children refuse to eat it, I will finish their bowl. 

But I also wrote about beans more generally. I was not kind. You may want to send the children to another room:

There are few more discouraging words in the culinary vocabulary than beans. I do not say this proudly. I know I am supposed to prize beans as the soul of proper peasant cooking; I know beans, with some help, supply a good quantity of the world’s protein. Beans are honest, unfancy, forthright. If your car needs fixing, the beans will help you. Will the sun-dried tomatoes help you? They will not.

Not liking beans is like not liking your really nice next door neighbor just because he happens to be boring. It feels like a moral failing.

This is an old story: naïve, angry, desperate to make his way in the world, a young man writes an incendiary column about beans, and then, once he has lived longer and met more beans, repents. It’s the theme of most of the great Russian novels.

Daal from Food5

I disliked beans because they were fickle and wildly variable, and because they’d ruined countless dinners by sitting idly in their pot and refusing to cook. These are still problems. But a slow cooker solves them.

We bought a slow cooker the way most people buy slow cookers: late at night, half on impulse, after trying search queries like LIFE EASIER LESS COMPLICATED HOW. The keywords that lead people to slow cookers are the saddest keywords in the world.

The slow cooker did not solve every problem in our lives, which it turns out is not covered under the warranty. For some people, getting a slow cooker is like getting a dog: it suddenly constricts all other subjects of conversation. You like dessert too? Do you know you can make dessert in the slow cooker?

Daal from Food52

I do not want to make dessert in the slow cooker. I do not want to make lasagna in the slow cooker. (If you make lasagna in a slow cooker, I would suggest investing in an oven.) But a slow cooker is a superlative cooker of beans -- it offers low, tender, patient heat, which is more than I can do. It is not a glass flask buried in the cinders of a Tuscan fireplace, but our fireplace isn’t Tuscan either. Given time, it produces superbly creamy beans with zero oversight. And it makes the most stubborn beans yield.

The wonderful dal below does not require a slow cooker: it uses masoor dal, or red lentils, which are not slow or stubborn. But I found the recipe in The Indian Slow Cooker and I first made it that way; both methods are below. It’s the perfect dal for January -- rich, homey, coconut-y -- and a sturdy foundation for a simple supper; it also freezes without incident.

The offer to finish the bowls of your children still stands.

 Daal from Food52

A Simple Homey, Coconut-y Red Lentil Dal

Makes 11 cups

3 cups red lentils (masoor dal)
1 medium yellow or red onion, roughly chopped
1 cup tomatoes, canned or fresh, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
1/2 medium red or yellow onion, finely chopped
15 to 20 fresh or frozen curry leaves (optional but worth seeking out)
1 14-ounce can coconut milk 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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I'm the author of a book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World. My website is nicholasday.net; I tweet over at @nicksday. And if you need any good playdoh recipes, just ask.


Angela February 22, 2015
Really delicious recipe. Thanks!
Emily January 9, 2015
This turned out great, though I changed the recipe a bit to bring up the flavor/spice. I cooked 2 cups lentils with 3 1/2 cups water and a full can of petite diced tomatoes and their juice for 15 minutes or so. In a separate pan I heated 2 tbsp ghee till hot, then added all the spices (and heaping teaspoons at that), plus a small piece of diced ginger. Once the fry was done (30 seconds or so) I added the diced onion and curry leaves. Cooked for 5 minutes on medium high, then added with salt to lentils. Next the coconut milk went in. Simmered for 10 or so and done! Super flavorful. Two thumbs up from my south Asian fiancé as well. And 2 year old boy. A rare full win!
bistrobistro February 4, 2014
This was absolutely delicious and my husband asked me to make it again it (he's not a fan of lentils or curry). I ended up making it with yellow lentils because I only had it on hand and it was amazing! My little boy gobbled it up as well!!
Bee671 February 3, 2014
Just made this yesterday for lunch for my husband and our 8-month-old. We all loved it! It was our first "family meal" eating the same thing - so much fun! Thank you for the delicious recipe!
Emily January 23, 2014
This was absolutely delicious. The only thing I did differently was to slow-cook and brown all the thinly-sliced onion first.
Carole K. January 13, 2014
This is crazy delicious. I added a sweet potato (because I had one to use up) to the lentils while they were cooking. Even my husband who claims to HATE lentils liked this.
rmullins January 9, 2014
OMG! The prose is excellent, I almost fell out of my chair laughing so hard! Totally doing this, this year! Thanks Nicholas!
Gret January 4, 2014
I had some left over chicken pieces, that I warmed in oven.
Sofia January 4, 2014
Love dal. Love how quickly you can have dinner on the table. What do you eat on the side?
_lotus January 3, 2014
I looked at this while shoving spoonfuls of red lentil curry in my mouth that I'd made last night. YAY new recipe to try!
Carey H. January 3, 2014
I would have loved this article even without the recipe! Your writing style is delightful and I can't wait to try the recipe. :)
Elycooks January 2, 2014
Don't like coconut milk, or cream. Could I leave out? Or is that the whole point?
Nicholas D. January 2, 2014
Ah. In that case, I'd just sit this recipe out.
Veggielover January 2, 2014
I walked into an Indian bulk foods store about a week ago and it's shelves were full of all kinds of lentils, beans etc. So many options! I made the same resolution...more Dal. Going to try your recipe. Love your post! Happy New Year!
Gret January 2, 2014
I too am trying this, but wondering: Can it be refrigerated & how would you reheat it? Like the lime addition.
Nicholas D. January 2, 2014
Yep -- it holds well in the fridge. I just gently reheat it on the stove, but the microwave would work too.
FoodieDawn January 2, 2014
The writing in this post is fantastic. It makes me want to meet more beans. And then eat them. However: Not a fan of coconut milk. Is there a worthy substitute? Broth?
Nicholas D. January 2, 2014
You can totally try it without the coconut milk. But honestly, I think you'd be better just skipping this one. (Make the chana dal above! I link to it in the post.)
Vstarr71 January 2, 2014
Yum! Making this tonight:)))
carswell January 2, 2014
I've been making a version of this for years - slightly lighter in the caloric department due to less coconut milk - but no less tasty. My recipe calls for the addition of the juice of a lime for brightness.

I've always thought that with the addition of a little broth it would make a great soup.
ChefJune January 2, 2014
Dear Nicholas: Please come by Chez Julia. I promise to make beans exciting for you. Really! :) [Oh, and btw, this coconutty dal is appealing to adults as well.
Nicholas D. January 2, 2014
Will do!
culture_connoisseur January 2, 2014
This looks fantastic! Will try this at the weekend.