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
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.