This August, I’ll be coming up on the 1-year benchmark for posting regularly on this blog. I actually started the blog a year earlier, in 2010, but it took awhile to find my rhythm and figure out what I actually wanted this space to be. It took another three months or so to figure out what good photos and lighting could do for food shots. Remember the tomato cobbler? It’s probably one of the best dishes I’ve made in the past year, but back in September, I was still surmounting the steep learning curve of DSLR and coming to grips with the fact that Photoshop can’t transform harsh 70-watt overhead lighting into soft natural light. Now, all of my shots are done in natural day light with some thought to food styling and composition. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve made some good progress.
And then something like this red lentil dal comes along which absolutely resists having a good photograph taken. From any angle, it still looks like what it is: Red lentils cooked to bursting with some wiggly red onions and asparagus. The photos don’t help brag about the flavor, how the red lentils cook down to what turns out to be an excellent sauce for the asparagus and onions and how the Indian spice blend infuses the onions to perfection.
So without the help of photos, how can I convince you that you absolutely must make this recipe? That in the course of a few weeks, this dish has made many appearances on our dinner table, and it’s been a delight each time?
How about this: Once you buy the few spices needed which may not already be in your spice rack, this is one the absolute cheapest dinners you can cobble together, and you can do it again and again without needing to hit the grocery store each time.
Here’s how it breaks down: whole mustard seed, turmeric, fennel seeds, and ground coriander come together to form the spice mixture for the onions. If you don’t already stock these in your pantry, it might cost a bit up front to assemble all the ingredients, but the spices will last a long while. Likewise, a one-pound bag of red lentils will get you through many dishes. After that, it’s just buying a red onion, asparagus, and potato to complete the meal.
Even the asparagus can be played with. I can see moving on to green beans once asparagus season ends or using cauliflower instead. (Imagine cauliflower dyed the bright yellow of tumeric… that might be worth a good photo). There’s any number of vegetables that will play well with the red lentil/red onion base.
So on to the potatoes… this meal, as I’ve presented it here, is a very Midwestern take on some traditional Indian flavors. The first time I made this, I layered the dal mixture (dal = a red lentil dish) over a bed of brown rice. The second time around, I used some of my perfectly oven-roasted potatoes. I totally thought the potatoes were the winner, but David thought the rice was better. This really can be made with either, or whichever you have on hand.
It’s so worth it – I promise!
Red Lentil Dal with Asparagus & Potatoes
Minimally adapted from Food & Wine magazine
1/2 pound small/baby gold or yellow potatoes
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 serrano chile, halved lengthwise (I also removed the seeds)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 pound asparagus, washed
2 Tablespoons fresh lime juice.
1. For the potatoes: Heat the oven to 350-degrees. Cut each baby potato in half, then cut each half into thirds, making evenly sized pieces. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and cover with a generous layer of olive oil (about 2 Tablespoons), salt, and pepper. Toss with your hands to ensure all the potatoes are evenly coated. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, using a spatula to unstick the potatoes from the bottom of the pan every 10 minutes. After the potatoes are fully cooked, set aside or keep warm in the oven (turned off or down to 200-degrees).
2. For the lentils: In a medium saucepan, combine the lentils with about a quart of water and bring to a boil. Using a spoon, skim off any foam that rises to the top of the pot, then add 1/8 teaspoon turmeric. Simmer over medium-low heat until the lentils break down, about 20 minutes (they will break down a lot — almost none will retain their shape, which surprised me at first, but it’s how you want them to turn out). Drain any excess water from the lentils using a colander with very small holes or a wire/mesh sieve.
3. For the asparagus/spice mixture: While the potatoes and lentils are cooking, heat the oil in a large skillet or pot (I used my Le Creuset Dutch oven here). When the oil is starting to get hot, add the mustard seeds and cook over moderate heat until they start to pop, about 1 minute. Add the fennel seeds, coriander, chile and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon of turmeric and stir until fragrant, only about 30 seconds. Add the garlic and onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 8 minutes.
4. Remove the ends of the asparagus and cut the spears into thirds (roughly 1-2 inch pieces). Add the asparagus to the skillet with the spice mixture and cook about 3 minutes. Add the lentils and lime juice and heat through. Season with salt.
5. Spoon the potatoes onto a plate and top them with the dal/asparagus mixture. Season with salt and pepper as needed, and garnish with lime wedges.