Indian lentil stews (called dal) are among the heartiest and healthiest cheap food around. For a few dollars you can simmer up a big, fragrant pot that will nourish a crowd. For extra flavor splurge just a bit and stir in a handful of sautéed cherry tomatoes and seasonal greens. You may need to seek out toor dal (also known as split pigeon peas) in an Indian grocery store. It's worth the trip though, as these lentils develop a creamy consistency and mellow flavor that will have you hooked. While you're at the store pick up a package of curry leaves (freeze or dry the leftovers for another day) and black mustard seeds. You can substitute brown or red lentils, but adjust the cooking time, which will be much shorter (and forgo the soaking step). Soaking the dal for a couple of hours reduces the cooking time significantly.
Double or triple the recipe as needed, depending on the size of the crowd. —Ann S
For the dal:
toor dal (split pigeon peas) or other lentils
minced, peeled ginger root
salt, or to taste
For the spice topping, known as chaunk:
black mustard seeds
fresh curry leaves
dried hot, red chile pepper
large red onion, finely chopped
cherry tomatoes, halved
packed chopped greens, such as spinach, kale or chard leaves
Place the lentils in a large bowl. Rinse the lentils and drain, in 2 to 3 changes of water. Fill the bowl with water to a level 3 or 4 inches above the lentils. The lentils will expand as they soak, so don't skimp on the water. After 2 hours of soaking, drain off the water.
Place lentils in a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot with 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add the asafetida and turmeric. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes until the lentils are tender and slightly creamy, but still have some definition. Keep an eye on the pot during cooking, as yellow lentils tend to froth and boil up. If the mixture starts to boil over, reduce the heat a tad and skim off any foam. When lentils are completely cooked, stir in ginger root and salt to taste.
For the spice topping, warm the oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add mustard seeds and cook until they begin to pop. Add the curry leaves, cumin seeds and red pepper and cook until the leaves darken—about 15 seconds. Stir in the onion and sauté until soft and beginning to brown. Add tomatoes and cook until they soften. Press the tomatoes gently with a wooden spoon to release some juice and break them apart a bit. If you are using sturdy greens like kale, add them now and allow to cook for 3 to 5 minutes. If greens are more delicate like spinach, add the leaves during the very last minutes of cooking. Stir a ladle or two of the lentil mixture into the sauté pan to loosen up and capture any tasty bits of crusty flavor attached to the pan. Scrape the pan and mix everything together.
Add the topping to the soup pot containing the lentils and stir in. Warm the pot if the lentils have cooled substantially.
Serve the dal in bowls with rice or a warm flatbread, such as naan. And garnish with chopped cilantro.