Here is the humblest of North Indians meals, a dinner of dal palak (lentils with spinach), delicately spiced cauliflower, and brown basmati rice. Modest ingredients are brightened up with slow cooking and a few peppy spices and flavors. It’s the kind of simple, wholesome food I like best.
Dal is the Hindi word for both lentils and the lentil (or chickpeas, mung bean, green/yellow pea) stew that is a staple of North Indian cuisine. The dal I ate growing up always included scallions, and often included carrot. I’ve used chives here because I like its garlicky bite, especially with watery green spinach. If you use a bit of carrot, its little touch of sweetness will contrast nicely against the strong hearty dal/lentils.
1 cup of urad dal/lentils (looks similar to mung beans), rinsed and picked over
6 cups of water
1 tsp powdered tumeric
1 inch piece of ginger, grated
1 – 2 garlic cloves (depends on how large clove/s are), grated
1 tomato, peeled (see note) and chopped
1 – 2 green chilis (see note), finely minced
1/2 tsp salt
Optional – 1 carrot, chopped into 1/4 inch coins
1/2 lb spinach, well-washed and coarsely chopped
1 – 2 tbsp clarified butter (ghee) [or oil for vegan]
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp chopped chive (or scallion)
More salt to taste, a few tablespoons of cilantro if you like
In a large pot, combine water and dal/lentils. Bring to a boil, simmer for 10 minutes. Remove any of the white foam that rises to the top.
Add in the tumeric, grated ginger and garlic, chopped tomato, chili, and 1/2 tsp salt (and carrot if using). Simmer (low boil) for 30 minutes.
Add the spinach. Simmer for 15 – 45 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
While the mixture simmers away, heat small pan on medium-high heat. Add cumin, toast for 1 – 2 minutes, or until the cumin becomes slightly darkened and fragrant. Add the clarified butter, and wait for it grow nutty and fragrant. Remove from heat, and add chopped chives. Breathe deeply.
When the dal/lentils mixture is done, add the clarified butter-cumin mixture and stir to incorporate.
Add salt. If using cilantro, chop and sprinkle it on – its traditional although I find cilantro to be soapy and avoid it.
* In winter, I use tomatoes I’ve frozen in summer. This is why I avoid winter tomatoes.
If you plunge a frozen tomato into warm water, you can easily slip the skin right off
** If you don’t like spice/heat, remove the white membrane and seeds of the chili(s)
Slow-roasting winter cauliflower brings out its tender sweetness. Nutmeg and delicate saffron flavor and enhance that sweet mellowness without overwhelming it. Almonds add a bit of protein and crunch.
Sometimes I top this cauliflower with a tablespoon of nutty parmesan and have it with an herby wild rice, or throw in a bit of creamy brie-style cheese and serve it with a side of simple risotto. Other times, I puree it with caramelized onion, homemade vegetable broth and a splash of cream and turn it into soup.
Roasted, Saffroned Cauliflower
1 medium-sized head of cauliflower (just under one pound)
1/4 tsp saffron + 2 -3 extra strands
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
Pinch of garam masala (less than 1/4 tsp)
1/2 tsp long pepper (use black if you cannot find)
2 tbsp butter/clarified butter/oil
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 375°F. Wash cauliflower and separate into florets. Slice the larger florets, stems first, into 2 -3 flatten sections. The pieces should be just over an inch wide, maximum, and just under 1/2 inch wide. Place the cauliflower in a baking pan in a pan that is large enough to hold all the cauliflower in a single layer.
In a small pan over medium-low heat, toast the saffron until darkened. It should only take a minute or so. As soon as it darkens, add the butter/oil and other spices and salt. Pour over cauliflower and stir to combine. Place in hot oven and roast for 45 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven carefully, and sprinkle slivered almond on top of the cauliflower. Place back in oven, turn up the heat to 400°F, and roast for another 20 to 30 minutes. Remove when cauliflower in well-browned on the bottom, and allow to cool before consuming.
Tea pairing: chai, or something brisk and black (an assam, or a smoky Yunnan).