Julia Turshen describes dried spices as “sleeping in the cupboard,” needing a hit of hot oil to "wake up” and “make themselves known.” In her curried lentil dish from Small Victories, the spices—a mix of cumin seed, coriander, and turmeric—rouse from their slumber for a full 10 minutes, entering the pan in step one right along with the minced garlic, shallot, and ginger.
Many recipes call for “blooming” spices in oil, but few for quite this long. In a chili, braise, or other slow-cooked dish, a one- to two-minute blooming period may be fine. But in this dish, which comes together in 30 minutes, a longer period allows the spices to infuse the oil and meld into the aromatics before the liquids (a mix of equal parts coconut milk and water) enter the equation. In the end, the lentils taste vibrant, earthy, and deeply curried, with a texture resembling a thick soup or dal, the coconut milk lending body and a slight richness.
This simple method—the slow warming of spices plus a short simmer in liquid—could be used with any number of quick-cooking grains such as quinoa, bulgur, pearled farro, or wheat berries, as well as with cooked chickpeas or beans to create a comforting, satisfying stew-like dish. (Note: The amount of liquid will vary depending on the grain or legume being used.)
Make this dish when the cupboards feel bare—when you need to create, as Julia says, “something from nothing.” Its virtues could be summarized as healthful, cheap, and easy, but there are others worth highlighting:
- Many curries or curry-like dishes call for a daunting number of ingredients, but in this one, the seasonings are minimal: a few dried spices (coriander, turmeric, and cumin seeds) and a few aromatics (ginger, garlic, shallot or onion).
- Julia, expert recipe writer that she is, doesn’t simply say, “Salt to taste.” She specifies 2 teaspoons—so helpful!—then suggests seasoning to taste before serving. This was spot on.
- After you dump the can of coconut milk into the pot, you use the empty can to measure an equal amount of water. How nice not to have to reach for another measure?
- Julia offers two simple spin-offs, both of which sound appealing:
For a vegetable or chicken curry, substitute a pound of chopped vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, etc.) or cubed chicken for the lentils, then follow the recipe the same.
For a Thai-style curry, omit the cumin and add a minced chile along with the garlic and ginger. Add cilantro stems along with the coconut milk (but discard them before serving) and finish the dish with a splash of fish sauce. Serve with lime, cilantro leaves, and Sriracha.
The dish could be vegan if you leave out the yogurt. Naan is also really nice on the side here.
Re lentils: I like to use a mix of French green lentils and red split lentils. It's faster if you use solely the red split lentils, but I love the texture offered by the French green ones when they're part of the mix. It's completely delicious both ways, so use what you have. Do plan a little bit more ahead if you use the French green lentils — they may take as long as 45 minutes to cook if not longer. —Alexandra Stafford
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 55 minutes
- Serves 4
extra-virgin olive oil
minced peeled fresh ginger
garlic cloves, minced
shallot or small onion, minced
cumin seeds or ground cumin
(180 g) split red lentils or other (see notes above)
13.5-ounce (398-ml) can full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
Cooked basmati rice, plain yogurt, chopped fresh cilantro, and naan for serving
- In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the ginger, garlic, shallot (or onion), coriander, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are softened and the spices are very fragrant, about 10 minutes.
- Add the lentils, coconut milk, and 1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt (Note: if you are sensitive to salt or using table salt or even Morton's kosher salt, which is saltier than Diamond Crystal kosher salt, start with 1 teaspoon, then add more to taste—I use Diamond Crystal and so typically use 2, but use your judgement), then fill the empty coconut-milk can with water and add it to the saucepan. It will look like a lot of liquid, but the lentils will absorb it as they cook. Stir everything together, turn the heat to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat to low and let the lentils simmer, stirring now and then, until they’re completely soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. (Note: If you're using those French green lentils, you will need to cook this longer, 30 to 45 minutes. Just keep tasting to see when the lentils are cooked through. You may or may not need to add more water.)
- Serve the lentils hot over rice. Top each serving with a spoonful of yogurt and a sprinkle of cilantro. A side of naan is nice, too.