September’s featured grantee, Edu-Girls, Inc., is located in India, a vast country with so many distinct culinary regions. If I spent the rest of my life cooking only the foods of India, I’d still have a lot to learn about the foods of India. One thing I definitely know is that cooking and eating the flavorful vegan and vegetarian dishes of India have a positive impact on my taste buds, my food budget, and my health.
Another great thing is that even if you adopt the simplest techniques found in the culinary traditions of India, your cooking will improve significantly. The recipe I share this month for a red lentil dal incorporates a really important one: the step of toasting and grinding whole spices.
I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been since I started buying spices like cumin, coriander, cardamom, etc. in their whole-seed form at Indian and Asian markets. But for at least the past 15 years, my understanding of how to work with them has enhanced a lot about my overall cooking, no matter the cuisine. During the classes I occasionally teach, I do a “smell test” for students by having them compare store-bought ground cumin to cumin seeds that I’ve toasted and ground myself. I love the looks on their faces when they experience the game-changing difference!
An added bonus: it’s so much cheaper to buy bags of whole spices in an Indian market than to buy small jars of them from a place like Kroger or Publix. (Just store them in the freezer and use as needed.) The spice combinations commonly used in Indian dishes are also loaded with color and nutrition.
The technique is easy. It’s simply a matter of toasting the whole spice seeds in a dry skillet over medium high heat, cooling them down, and then grinding them in a coffee grinder you use only for this purpose. The only step that requires any real attention is to make sure the spices don’t scorch as they toast — which can happen quickly. It’s also important to make sure they’ve cooled completely before grinding.
It’s really fun to experiment with making my own chili powder or garam masala blends, plus other famous spice combinations like ras el hanout or Chinese five-spice or vadouvan. I hope you get the chance to make this month’s recipe for a simple warming and nutritious lentil dal — if only to give this spice technique a try. Have fun!
Yield: 3 quarts
Cooking tips/notes: Dal is a staple all over India. The word “dal” refers to both a large group of legumes and lentils (red, yellow, black, brown), as well as the dish that’s made with them. They’re often split, which significantly reduces their cooking time. Split yellow lentils would also work very well in this recipe.
4 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
4 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 large yellow onions, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 cloves garlic, peeled
½ small habañero pepper, seeded (use more if desired)
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
¼ cup grapeseed or other neutral-flavored oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 quarts vegetable stock
4 cups split red lentils, rinsed
1 (14-ounce) can of coconut milk
Juice of 1 lemon
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Add whole coriander and cumin seeds to a dry skillet and toast over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown and highly fragrant. Let cool. Grind toasted seeds in a spice grinder (or mortar and pestle) until fine. Place in a small bowl and mix in the ground turmeric. Set aside.
Place onion, garlic, habañero pepper, and ginger into the bowl of a food processor and process into a paste. Set aside.
Heat the grapeseed oil in a large, heavy pot. Add the onion paste mixture and sauté until very fragrant and the moisture has evaporated, approximately 10 minutes.
Add the ground spice mixture, tomato paste, and kosher salt to the pot and mix everything together well. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the vegetable stock and split red lentils. Bring to a simmer and cook until lentils are soft and falling apart, approximately 30 minutes.
Stir in coconut milk and lemon juice and remove from heat. Garnish each serving with chopped fresh cilantro.
Recipe and photo credit: Traci Barr