Now that it is officially fall, it is time for all things pumpkin, squash and many more vibrant, delicious root vegetables to come. We have been having our version of summer in September in Berkeley, however the forecast looks like it will return to our cooler temps soon.
I’ve noticed a shift in the light. The sun is a bit lower, bringing with it a golden hue to everything. As I walk around Berkeley, fallen leaves; golden, crunchy are flattened underneath our quick footsteps. Fall is my favorite time of year. It is the season that my little girl, Aleena, who turns five in November was born. Personally, it signifies a season of hope and renewal.
To launch the beginning of the fall season, I wanted to share one of my favorite foods, dal. Many of us know dal as lentils cooked down into a hearty stew. Sometimes lentils such as mung beans are soaked prior to cooking. Soaking aids with digestion and a quicker cooking time. Many people use a pressure cooker. Others prefer the stove top method. It is one of the most common dishes cooked and eaten in South Asian cuisine. Depending on where you are from, everyone has a deliciously unique way of cooking it.
Whole spices for South Asian cooking can be kept in a container called a masala dabba ( or spice tin). Typically you will find spices such as fennel, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and whole peppercorns. My mom gave me the below pictured, masala dabba, as a gift shortly after we renovated our kitchen. You can find one at your local indian shop or online through Amazon.
You can use ground spices here to save on time however, you will really notice the difference in flavor when toasting and grinding your own seeds. For the freshest flavor, toast only what you need for your recipe. Toast in a small dry pan until lightly golden, making sure not to burn the spices.
Next, crush the spices using a mortar pestle. There is something so satisfying about taking the time to crush your own spices, only relying on the power from your hands. “Every proper kitchen must have a masala dabba and now your kitchen will be blessed with spicy cooking”, my mom emphatically announced when our new kitchen was unveiled and finally complete.
A main component of cooking dal is tarka or (tadka). What is tarka? Tarka is a technique where whole spices are added to very hot oil until they pop and sizzle. This tempering of spices results in a release of essential oils, intense flavor and aroma.
To make tarka, make sure you use a high heat oil such as ghee or coconut oil( used in the below recipe). Tarka is drizzled on top, stirred and poured into dal, right before serving. In my opinion, tarka is what makes up the robust flavor of a very good dal. Do not skimp on this process. You will definitely taste the difference!
There are so many reasons for loving dal. It is full of protein, iron and B-vitamins. It is easy to make and full of flavor. It is allergy-friendly, free of the top 8 recognized allergens. It is a pantry staple. If you buy it in bulk, you won’t even have to go to the store to purchase any ingredients. Most of the ingredients listed below are things you may already have on hand such as; ginger, garlic and onion.
You can definitely switch up your dal by adding seasonal vegetables, such as butternut squash, carrots or eggplant. My recipe for butternut squash dal is not very traditional like the one I grew up eating. The dal of my childhood was very simple; an onion, water, spices, lentils and tarka. Classic cooking is always a favorite, however I believe modern twists keep things refreshing and new.
For this dal, I added butternut squash because we are beginning to see it at the market. I love the sweet flavor it imparts in this earthy dal. I used a combination of water and coconut milk because coconut milk adds a creamy component while keeping it dairy-free. Plus coconut and butternut squash are such a great flavor pairing, working together well here.
I’ve left out spicy peppers because my kids won’t eat anything spicy…at least not yet! We serve peppers on the side. But if you would like a little heat, add finely diced fresh or crushed red peppers to your desired preference.
Dal epitomizes simple yet delicious home cooking. It is forgiving in the sense that you really do not need to follow a recipe. You can add more or less vegetables and different spices. All you need to do is make sure you have enough water or liquid in your pot to soften the lentils. You can continue to add liquid, at any time, if your dal dries out. If you haven’t attempted yet, give it a try to see how it works for you. My kids love it. This is the one dish I can count on that they will eat and enjoy every time.
Better yet, it is inexpensive. When you need to feed a family of four , you can do so for less than $10.00 and have leftovers to freeze. Yes! You can freeze dal. Use freezer safe mason jars(the skinny kind) or storage bags and leave enough head space. Food will expand when frozen. Label and date your containers. Pull out when you are having a frantic day and serve over brown rice or with a side of naan. Or eat fresh and dollop with plain yogurt, raita, pumpkin seeds and/or coconut.
The true test was when my mom came over for dinner. I was a bit nervous serving her my non-traditional version of dal but she loved it so much so that she took the leftovers home. That was good enough for me.
Butternut Squash Dal
Top 8 Free
- 3 tablespoon coconut oil, unrefined plus additional for tarka
- 1 medium yellow onion, fine dice, about 1 cup
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- a pinch of pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed plus additional for tarka
- 2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 cups red lentils, rinsed( you can also use yellow or brown). This type of dal does not need to be previously soaked
- 2 small garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
- 4 cups water, plus additional if needed
- 1 cup coconut milk, canned
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or lemon
- 1 1/2 cups butternut squash, diced
- chopped cilantro
- coconut flakes
- fresh jalapeño peppers, fine dice
- tarka( optional-see below)
Heat a soup pot over high heat Add the oil and then the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir, turn the heat to low, and cover the pot. Check and stir after a few minutes, letting the moisture on the lid drip back into the pot to keep things steamy. Lower the heat if there is any browning, and recover. Cook until onion is tender about 10-15 minutes.
Stir in cumin, coriander, pepper and fennel, for about 1 minute. Add turmeric, garlic and ginger, stir for 30 seconds more. Add lentils with water and coconut milk. Raise heat to medium high and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer and cover pot, stirring occasionally for about 30-45 minutes or until the lentils and squash become one creamy pot of goodness. Add the squash about 10-15 minutes into the cooking time(about midway or a little before). Add more water if necessary. A few minutes before done, add salt, pepper, lemon or apple cider vinegar. Turn off heat.
The dal should be a nice stew like consistency. For a soupy consistency, add warm water.
Note- to reheat, add liquid. Dal will thicken( like soup) when refrigerated or frozen. You can also make a fresh tarka.
To make the tarka:
Tarka is optional but elevates the flavor of dal. Don’t prepare a tarka in advance. Make it only right before you are ready to serve because it is most potent when the spices are sizzling.
Heat a small saucepan, add a few tablespoons of ghee or coconut oil. Once it sizzles, add any whole spices that you used above (I used fennel). I also sometimes add garlic or mustard seeds. This takes a bit of practice because the trick is not to burn the spices/garlic mixture. If you burn it, just discard the spices from your pan, rinse the skillet and start over.
Let it sizzle for 30 seconds or until the seeds pop and smell delectable. Immediately spoon and stir the whole mixture into the dal.
Garnish with cilantro and toasted coconut flakes. Add a dollop of plain yogurt. Serve as a side or as a main dish with naan, chapatis or brown rice.