The first dal I wanted to try was "val dal," which are apparently skinned and split lablab beans. Helpful, I know. I had never seen it before, and I was intrigued because the beans are bigger than most beans that are split but looked like they would cook more quickly than whole beans. I decided to go rogue on the val dal and just make something up entirely. I always feel nervous about coming up with my own spice ratios for Indian-type dishes because I'm worried I'll do it wrong. But I decided that was kind of silly, so I just went for it. I used "Balti" curry powder from Penzey's, which is not as fragrant as a lot of curry powders and I think works well with root vegetables, along with whole mustard, fennel, and cumin seeds. I might not have used quite enough spice overall, but I thought the ratio worked well.
Another experiment I did was comparing cooking times of a bean I had never made, beets, and potatoes. I didn't think they would all magically have the same cooking time, but I put them in at the same time because I didn't know which ones would be done sooner. It turned out that the potatoes basically melted into the sauce by the time the beets and dal were ready. Now I know.
Oh, one more thing: The Indian cookbook I have calls for mustard oil for most of the dishes. I had never seen it in a store, so I've always used generic vegetable oil instead, but I found it in the grocery store last night and decided to use it today. As I returned the oil to the pantry, I noticed that it is labeled "for external use only." I didn't want to either poison us or waste perfectly good food, so I looked up "mustard oil external use only" on google, and it turns out that some people think it's not safe due to high levels of some kind of fatty acid. Apparently it's been a big controversy. I'm in the "it doesn't seem to have killed the Indians yet" camp, so I left the dal cooking.
The end result was pretty good. I think I will spice and salt it more heavily next time, but it was nice to experiment a little, and I really liked the beets in with the beans. I think it would be great with kale or mustard greens, and I would probably ease back a little on the mustard oil because it's more pungent than I thought it was based on smell. On the whole, though, it was a pretty successful experiment.
The second bean I played with was "urad dal," which is split black lentils. I made a pretty simple dish with the dal, tomatoes, kale, and just some ginger, turmeric, cumin, and coriander to spice it. I couldn't quite decide whether I wanted it to be soupy or dry, so it's somewhere in between. Once again, I probably could have spiced it a little more heavily. I have trouble knowing what the ratio should be of water/beans to spice when I'm cooking without a recipe. Jon loved this one. It was good comfort food for a chilly night.
Val dal with beets and potatoes
2 tbsp mustard oil
2 tsp balti seasoning or curry powder
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
1/2 tsp whole fennel seeds
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 large beet, cut into small cubes
1 medium potato, cut into small cubes
1 cup val dal or other bean
3 cups water
Heat the mustard oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the seasonings and stir to coat with oil. Add the onion and ginger and cook for a few minutes. Add the beet, potato, dal, and water. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until beets and beans are done to your liking. You may have to add more water during the simmering process.
We served this with curry powder basmati rice. It's very simple: melt 1 tbsp butter in a small saucepan. Add 1/2 tsp curry powder, stir to distribute, and then add 1 cup of rice and stir to coat with butter and curry powder. Add 2 cups water and 3/4 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook covered until rice is done.
Urad dal with tomatoes and kale
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 tbsp minced ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 can whole tomatoes, including juice
1 cup urad dal
2 cups water
Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes. Add spices and saute for about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and juices, dal, and water. Raise heat to bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer, stirring and breaking up tomatoes occasionally, until dal is cooked to your liking, 30-40 minutes. You may want to add more water while it cooks. I don't think I actually measured, so the amount in the recipe is just an estimate.
This is one of our other treasures, that yummy breat-freshening stuff you sometimes get at Indian restaurants. It has candy-coated fennel seeds and other stuff in it. Yum!