Tuesday, January 12, 2010

the mark bittman minimalist club: fire burn and cauldron bubble

It's the dead of winter. D-E-A-D dead. Put a fork in it, dead. Dead as a doornail. And while I'm tossing around old adages: It's colder than a witch's tit, and I'm moving slower than molasses in January. I am molasses in January, basically.

It's not pretty. I'm not pretty. Frumpy, yes; pretty, no. And have I mentioned that I've been subsisting mainly on a diet of toast? Peanut butter toast, salty buttered toast for variety, toast spread with avocado when I can drag myself to the store. Which is rare.

So it was the yachtsman who ventured out into the frigid darkness and bought the ingredients for Spiced Red Lentil Dal (one of five dal recipes featured in Mark Bittman's Minimalist column last week) while I sat on the couch, the heat set at 72, wondering what the point is. The point of, you know, life.

But when the yachtsman returned with the red lentils and mustard seeds,

the sweet-smelling cloves and arthritic finger of ginger, I mustered. And mustarded. I got off the couch and measured and chopped and minced and sautéed and stirred. For the first time since before the holidays, a pot of gruel bubbled on the stove.

My comments on the results appear after the recipe.

Spiced Red Lentil Dal
from the New York Times

2 tablespoons peanut oil [I used olive oil.]
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup dried red lentils, washed and picked over [I've never washed or picked over red lentils in my life, and I didn't start here.]
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons cold butter (optional) [Not optional.]
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Put oil in a skillet over medium high heat; when it is hot, add onion and cook until soft [In the Minimalist video of Mark Bittman cooking this recipe, he browns the onions, so I did, too; soon we will be wed.], about 10 minutes; set aside.

2. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients except the salt, butter and cilantro in a saucepan.

Add water to cover by about 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper and keep cooking to desired tenderness. Lentils should be saucy but not soupy.

3. Remove cloves from pan and add reserved sautéed onion. Stir in butter if you are using it. Taste and adjust seasoning, then garnish with cilantro and serve.

I'm hoping Mark Bittman won't break up with me when I say this, but honesty is the foundation of all relationships, even one-sided cyber relationships. And maybe it's just the witch's tit talking, but I didn't love this dal. Oh, I've eaten it four times in the past two days, but this recipe needs a little help.

When I tasted the dal as it cooked, the mustard was overpowering, though this was mitigated somewhat when I added salt at the end and stirred in the butter (the butter also added a much needed richness). Next time I'll start with 2 teaspoons of mustard seed instead of a full tablespoon, and I might add less pepper, too. The cilantro garnish added a fresh note, and next time (meaning tomorrow when I eat this for the fifth time) I'll squeeze a bit of lemon juice in just before I serve it (to myself). But I still think something's missing. A little turmeric and cumin? Some tomato paste? Chopped canned tomatoes? Or better yet, fire-roasted tomatoes?

There is something about this recipe that feels fundamentally gruel-ish (I think dal must be the Hindi word for gruel), and if spiced correctly it would be the perfect dead-of-winter dish.

Pretty, no; frumpy, yes.

So when I can convince the yachtsman to return to the grocery store and buy me some more supplies, I'll try making this again; when I do, and if I can improve it, I'll post my modifications here. If you get to it before I do, post your thoughts in the comments. Bitches.


  1. The Minimalist has slipped off his pedestal a little with this one, by skipping too many steps. Great dal may be inherently simple but it comes with long and gentle cooking of the onions and spices that ultimately flavor the lentils with a lovely complexity. Next time you make it add all those spices you mentioned and cook them slowly with the onions for 30- 40 minutes or even longer. It will be delicious.

  2. Oooooooooooh! I like it. That sounds like perfect antidote to the blahness of this dish. I think I will try making that version of this gruel either tomorrow night or this weekend. I will report back!

  3. Ditto to the French Lentil and Cashew Dal from the same Bitten/NYT posting. Though I did skip the butter, I used peanut oil and added some potatoes, it too was bland and blah. I did cook the onions significantly longer than called for (called for 5-ish and I cooked for 15 or so) but I think the added time will make all the diff. Like you Oh-Mighty-Gruel-Mistress, I still ate it three times (and forced the leftovers on my staff). Also like you I refused to pick over anything.

    Alas, it didn't live up to my expectations but, with Biddie's recommendations, it sounds like a cure is in sight.

  4. just totally find this whole b**g a complete pleasure to read. go! more.

  5. Forget Mark B and please post the perfect recipe for red lentil soup that you recently shared with me. Delicious!!!!

  6. I am an Indian and Dal is my native food. I Have lived in America too and there they call dal, dal (in Indian restaurants etc.) (not even Indian lentil soup or Indian gruel etc.). But I don't know what word would come to mind in an Englishman or an American etc. when they see/eat dal for the first time. BTW, The popular dals eaten in India are:
    Red Gram (= Pigeon pea) (In Hindi = toor/Tuvar Daal or arhar daal or sambhar daal),
    Black Gram (In Hindi =Urad Daal),
    Green Gram (In Hindi =Moong Daal) and
    red or black lentil (In Hindi =masoor dal),
    And more but these are not cereals/pulses e.g. kidney beans (In Hindi = Rajma), Bengal gram = Chickpea/garbanzo beans (In Hindi = Kabuli Chana), Black Gram (In Hindi = Kala Chana), other beans (e.g. Moth Beans, Soya beans, etc.)