Cooking lentils, for my friend Suzan! I have already written about the powers of the lentil on my “Getting Healthy” page, as a fat-free source of protein. However, getting to a place where I could incorporate this most traditional of Indian foods into my daily American lifestyle took a while! I don’t see too many of my friends cooking lentils on a weekly basis and I thought writing about what works for me may make it more accessible.
Now, I do rely on making traditional indian dal, which is quite flavorful and can be eaten like soup. It requires indian spices, but only a handful, and once you establish a stock, you don’t have to think about it anymore. These are: tumeric (halthi), cumin seeds (jeera), asofetida (heeng), cayenne pepper, and small green chili peppers (mirch). I have seen jalapenos substituted effectively for the latter. Salt is key. There are several lentils to choose from and for the most part, I am able to flavor them similarly. Most common for me is yellow split pigeon peas (toor dal), masoor dal both with skin (brown on the outside, disc shaped) and without (orange on the inside), and sometimes split yellow pea and dehusked mung bean (moong dal). There is also a French green lentil that I have cooked with this summer. There are many other types (Wikipedia can tell you). The easiest way to get started is to get started is get one-half pound of the orange washed masoor dal in at Whole Foods, in the bulk section.
Speaking of which, I love how cost-effective this food is. I just called Whole Foods. They sell this dal for $1.79 per pound! When you consider that typically, it only takes a half-cup to feed two peopel for a meal, this is a food that stretches your dollar. Also, water is the main ingredient required to cook lentils. This increases the volume considerably and comes from the tap. If you find you can handle a bigger quantity, you can purchase them in bags from an Indian grocery store (they sell 1 pound, 2 pound, etc.). As I got better at making dal and eating it a couple of times a week, I found myself going through more of it. But even getting a pound at Whole Foods in bulk can easily last 6-8 weeks in my two person household.
Now, cooking it. Note, most people are told to pre-wash their lentils before cooking it. Me…I don’t have time for things like this so I only tend to use those lentil types that don’t necessarily require it. (this is the philosophy of Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!). The ones I noted above fit that category. I also used to be told to make the dal in a pressure cooker. BIG MISTAKE for me. For whatever reason, this really held me back from making good dal for a long time. It was messy, hard to clean the pressure cooker afterwards, and I would have to keep cooking it for an undetermined amount of time afterwards to really make it come out. Yuck.
There are two techniques that have worked for me. My mom and sister told me get a $8.99 slow cooker from Walgreens. It has an OFF, HIGH, LOW and WARM setting. (Can you believe it?) It is small but does the job and then some for the two of us. I then place a half-cup to one cup of lentils, three times the water, a half-teaspoon salt and about one-quarter teaspoon of tumeric in the slow cooker, set it to low, and go out the door to work. I come back home to find the daal cooked. (I then transfer the dal to a small pot on the stove to flavor it.)
The funny thing is, after all that wrestling with a pressure cooker, you can actually cook some dals on the stove in about 30 minutes, depending on the type of dal and the portion. So no more day to day use of the pressure cooker for me and good riddance. Now, its strictly me against the heat (or should I say “with” the heat) without the added pressure (hah, another pun!). Here, one way to go is to duplicate the steps with the slow cooker except with a pot on the stove. That is, you still mix the lentils, with three times the water, and the tumeric and let it boil on the stove until the dal has cooked (is all soft). Now, I’m at the same point as if I had used the slow cooker and came home. I still have to flavor it which I do by using a butter warmer. In it, I heat up grapeseed oil with cumin seeds, asofetida, cayenne papper and cut-up green chili peppers. I heat over a low flame until the cumin seeds start to sizzle. Then I pour it into the dal and cook another 20 minutes until that flavor has made its way through the whole pot. This is the most basic way to make dal.
I just learned another way from my new face cook, Survir Sarvan. (More on him later) In his book, American Masala, he has a recipe for “Not So Dull Dal.” In it, he develops the flavor first–heating jeera, tumeric, jalapeno and even salt with onions in oil (he has other flavorings too which I’ll post when I get home)–then allows the lentils to roast in that heat for a few minutes (with a splash of water) and then adds the lentils with the water. It only takes about 35 minutes for it to cook after that but the flavors are nicely diffused through the entire pot and its DELICIOUS.
I bet my next step will be to cook the flavoring first, dump that mixture into the slow cooker, then add the lentils and water so that its slow cooked thoroughly by the time I come home. Slow cooking does seem to increase the flavor for most foods, and the slow cooker frees up that wait!
Cost effectiveness of Cooking:
Cost per serving (with oil, without spices): sixteen to eighteen cents a serving (?)(will update when I measure out).
From my cost per serving spreadsheet:
Masoor lentils: $0.22 per serving, including grapeseed oil and salt, but not indian spices.