March 29, 2010


Or dhal.

Or dahl.

Or umpti.

It's got many different names and spellings.

This soupy lentil dish is a staple of Indian meals and a favorite in our house. We tend to like it thicker and more porridge-like than it is usually served, but that is the beauty of dal. Want it thinner? Add more water. Want it thicker? Boil it down. Dal can please anyone.

Dal is also the first thing I tell cooks new to Indian food to make, because it's simple and practically fool-proof. I make mine in the pressure cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?) because it cuts way down on cooking time, but any old pot will do.

There are almost as many ways to flavor dal as there are households in India, but my everyday one is pretty simple. Throw the dal, salt, some onion, some tomato, some garlic, some ginger, some chili, and some spices in a pot, add water, and cook till tender. Then add in some butter and simmer for another few minutes. I've never had a problem with adding salt at the beginning of the cooking process, but if you're one of those people who steadfastly believes that beans and dals will never soften if salt is added to the cooking pot, add it at the end. I don't mind.

Pictured above are three common types of dals. One you can get in almost any supermarket; the other two will probably require a trip to an Indian grocery store. 

Let's discuss them, shall we?

Masoor Dal
These are split red lentils and should be available in most grocery stores. They cook very fast (in around a half hour) and turn brownish-yellow when cooked. A great first choice.

Moong Dal
These are split and hulled moong beans and a popular north Indian dal. I buy these in an Indian grocery store. Like masoor dal, moong dal cooks quickly and turns yellow when cooked. While I do keep and make moong dal, it's not my favorite and in my opinion not worth specially seeking out, as I think the more widely available masoor dal is similar and tastes better.

Toor Dal
My hands-down favorite. Toor dal has an earthier flavor than the other two and lends itself well to assertive seasonings like asofoetida and curry leaves. Now that I have my pressure cooker (Have I mentioned how much I love my pressure cooker?), I mainly make this dal, but in the dark days I like to call B.P.C. (Before Pressure Cooker) I made masoor dal more often because toor dal takes a very, very long time to cook. That—and the fact that it turns more brown than yellow when it cooks—are its biggest drawbacks. It can help to soak the toor dal before cooking, but count on a few hours of simmering time with this one.

Besides these three, there are many other kinds of dal. Some, like urad dal and chana dal, I mainly use for flavoring. (They turn toasted and nutty when cooked in oil.) Other dal dishes are made from whole beans like garbanzos, red kidneys, or black-eyed peas.

What else can I tell you about dal? As I said, the possibilities are endless. Throw in more chilis or some ground red chili pepper if you want it hotter. Add tomatillos or green tomatoes and some brown sugar for a sweet and sour dal. Add coconut milk or shredded coconut. Fry up some spices in a hot pan and add it to the dal after it's cooked. (This is called a tarka.) My mother makes a wonderful dal with caramelized onions and ghee, or clarified butter. You can add any vegetable you want—carrots, daikon radish, squash, green beans—to make it a more well-rounded dish. Also, if you are out of a spice, don't worry. Skip it or try substituting some other spice. Since dal is cheap, it's worth playing around with it to see what you like. 

If you want to experiment, just remember that a little goes a long way. A cup of dry dal will make enough to feed four people as part of a meal.

Basic Dal
1 cup (or a little more) dal
I onion, diced
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 inch knob of ginger
2 garlic cloves (ginger and garlic can also be chopped if you aren't lazy busy like me)
1 whole fresh green chili pepper, with a slit cut in it
4 curry leaves or 1 bay leaf (optional--but hey, it's all optional)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric

To Finish:
1-2 tbsps butter
chopped cilantro

Rinse dal, and then put it, together with salt, onion, tomatoes, chili, ginger, garlic, and spices in a pot. Rest your finger lightly on top of the dal and add enough water to reach your second knuckle.
Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then turn heat down and simmer, stirring every once in a while, until dal is done and whole thing turns soupy. If you like the consistency, add butter and cilantro and simmer for 5-10 more minutes. Otherwise, add water or boil down until it's the thickness you want and then add butter and cilantro.

Dal thickens as it stands, so if you're making it ahead, wait to adjust consistency and add butter etc. until closer to serving time.

There's a great blog with photos of how to make basic dal here. Finding obscure blogs like this one (or mine) are why I absolutely and totally love the internet.

Here's the finished dish, tho this is a terrible picture and I almost didn't post it because I was afraid it would scare you away from making dal.

But really, make it. 
It's easy.

March 19, 2010


If I could, I would do all my shopping at places like these.
(This particular one is a nut stall in northern Thailand.)

I love to shop for food. I joke with Mr. Coffee that he's lucky. Rather than satisfying my shopping jones with clothes or shoes, I do it with something we need to buy every week anyway—groceries.

This post came about because I was at Fairway today, and when I got to the checkout, my cart was fairly empty. Though I had chosen carefully because I was biking and had limited carrying capacity, that wasn't the only reason. I had also passed over tons of things that we need at home but that I just don't buy there. You see, specific things on my grocery list require specific stores. 

Because I live in New York, I get to shop in the way I love best, in what I suppose one could call the European way. I go to one shop for this and another shop for that and the outdoor market for something else, exactly the way I shopped when I lived in Rome. (I wonder if it's like an imprint, the way you learn to do something like shopping. I moved to Rome right after I got out of college, and it was the first time I had to truly shop and cook for myself, so the "European way" is the way I learned how to do it.)

Most people, including my own mother, think I'm a little nuts. I have one friend (you know who you are) who refuses to go into a food store of any kind with me—she claims I wander too much.

I understand. Most people hate food shopping and were raised on the suburban megastore model: go to one place and get everything you need for the week.

I don't do that.

Instead, I wander. I make little trips all week to different stores. For someone who works at home, sitting in front of a computer most of the time, it helps break up my day.

And it's fun.

In any given week, I might go to my halal butcher in Kensington to pick up some lamb for curry. But that butcher is only for lamb, mind you. If it's beef I want, I head to Staubitz, a different butcher, and if it's chicken, I go to Fairway, because they stock Murray's, which I like.

I like the nuts at Sahadi's, but the pita bread better at Damascus next door. I like my sandwich cold cuts from the local Met Food, and my produce from the farmer's market, or, in the winter, from a chinese store in Sunset Park. I like my dried beans, my spices, and my yogurt from Patel Bros. in Jackson Heights.

Food shopping soothes me. It's where I do my thinking and work out plots for books or come up with story ideas. Food stores and markets are places of endless possibility, which makes me feel that my mind is a place of endless possibility as well.

When the Soccer Monster was a toddler, we lived for the summer in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela. I was grieving over the death of a very close friend. Every morning, after I dropped the monster off at daycare (where he was traumatized by all the Spanish-speaking matrons, but that's a story for a parenting blog, not a food blog) I would go to the big market in Santiago and stroll around the stalls. At our apartment we had barely a stove and only two pots, and we ate most of our meals out, but I didn't care. I just needed to see the food, to think of all the possibilities there were out there for cooking and eating.

Food shopping—It's what lets me know I'm alive. 

March 16, 2010


Saturday was the worst weather I've encountered in a while, and, as luck would have it, it was also one of those days I had to spend running around town, taking the Soccer Monster to a middle school entrance exam and dropping the Vegetarian off at her cousins' for the day.

Digression: The middle school process for those New Yorkers living in what is known as a "choice" district is one of the most asinine processes ever encountered on Earth, and if a generation of middle-class New York City kids ends up in extended therapy over it, they should all feel free to send their therapy bills to Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg.

When I finally got home in the late afternoon, dripping and exhausted, I had to put the finishing touches on the stew I was bringing to a friend's stew-off that evening. (Was there ever a better night for eating stew? I don't think so.)

That's my entry shown above. Beef Bourguignon. I wanted to make curry, but there was some contention over whether a curry would be allowed. It was decided that curries should have their own contest. Then I considered the Moroccan lamb stew I cooked for Mr. Coffee's birthday, but I had made it so recently. I don't like making the same things too often.

In the end, I went with the motherlode of stews, French-style beef stew with red wine. I'm a purist at heart, I guess.

Or a wannabe purist, anyway. Like many times when I try to cook simple, classic dishes, I was extremely unhappy with the result. The problems started from the get-go when, due to my pathological inability to stick with a recipe, I decided to combine two that I found.

I started off by marinating the meat with the red wine and some aromatics. I would definitely keep this step, as the meat smelled amazing coming out of the marinade. But then things began to go wrong. I had to add too much flour to coat all the meat, probably because it was too wet from the marinade, even though I attempted to dry it off.

Then I tried cooking it in my pressure cooker, which wouldn't come up to pressure until I added way more liquid than I wanted to. (I think this was due to all the extra flour, which made the liquid too thick to create enough steam.)

The list of problems could go on ad nauseum, but suffice it to say that I almost considered not bringing the stew to the stew-off. However, arriving empty-handed seemed somehow more shameful than arriving with my terrible stew, so I bit the bullet and took it over.

And you know what? It didn't lose. It didn't win either, but it made a respectable showing.

There were only four stews at the contest, and IMHO, the other three were really delicious. Here's a rundown:

The winner: French-style Fish and Seafood Stew
This one looked the most unappetizing in the pot, but in your mouth the flavors popped. The broth was richly fishy in a good way with lots of body and redolent of fennel and Pernod. The seafood was tasty and not overcooked. The overwhelming favorite.

Mussel and Chorizo stew
This was the prettiest of the four stews and if we were going on looks alone, it would have been the clear winner. Mussels were cooked with chorizo, potatoes, carrots and corn in a broth tinged with cream. Like a hearty scrumptious mussel chowder.

The Other Beef Stew
This one was tasty, but honestly even better the next day when I had my doggie bag of it for dinner. This was more like what I had been after in my stew—a clean, bright, winey broth with tender meat and vegetables. 

I doubt I'll be making beef bourguignon again anytime soon. In the end, I was brought back to a realization I apparently have to keep making every few years: classic French cooking is not for me. I don't think I have the right DNA.

It's like when I was a teen and I tried wearing add-a-pearl necklaces and argyle sweaters. (Am I dating myself?) Preppy-blond-girl clothes on a swarthy HinJew? Not a good fit.

Next time I'll make something spicy that fits much better.

March 11, 2010

Lamb with Cumin

While I think nothing of getting out ten spices to make a curry, stir-frying has always kind of intimidated me. It's one of those things I think can't be done very well in most home kitchens, because the stoves just don't get hot enough. (My stove certainly doesn't get very hot. I'd kill for better flames.)

But I'm sure tons of people would disagree with me. These are the people who clean out their vegetable drawer by tossing all the odds and ends into a stir-fry. I'm all for tossing the odds and ends into something (my preference is vegetable soup) but I balk at a hodge-podge of murky stir-fried flavors. I like my stir-fries (and my Chinese food in general) more discreet, with one or two vegetables lending their stamp to a dish.

So I was excited to see a simple stir-fry recipe for Lamb with Cumin in the New York Times some weeks ago. I love lamb with cumin, and the dish looked doable, with not much prep work and not too many vegetables—in fact, technically only one: scallions.

Basically, the lamb gets velveted (coated in a cornstarch and egg white marinade to soften it) and then cooked with cumin, whole dried red chilis, and scallions.

The first time I made it, I didn't have scallions so I used leeks instead, and the dish came out great. The dried chilis take on a smoky flavor from the wok.

This time, I didn't have any dried red chilis left, so I used fresh green ones, the largish green ones that are sort of a cross between an Italian frying pepper and a serrano. (no idea what these are called).

The dish was good, but not as good. I missed the smokiness of the dried peppers. If I had a hotter stove and more fearless wok skills (or wok hai), I might have been able to give the fresh hot peppers a nice sort of blister and char, but alas, I am a stir-frying wimp.

The recipe is here for those of you who want to try it. Be sure to brown the meat well, otherwise it doesn't work. And for those of you who can't easily find lamb, beef works too. And if you use a relatively tender cut of beef, you can skip the velveting.

March 8, 2010

Apologies (And Some Poundcake)

Blogging is like a muscle. If you don't do it regularly, you lose the ability. I went away for ten days and since I've been back I can't remember to photograph anything I make.

The Chinese lamb with cumin I made for dinner one night? No picture.

The lamb with couscous and the flourless chocolate cake I made for Mr. Coffee's birthday? No pictures of those, either.

The meatball curry I threw together one Monday evening? Remembered only in the minds of some satisfied child diners.

So I"m making a promise to you, my readers, that for the next few months I will post twice a week, at least.  I figure that if I proclaim it here I'll be too ashamed not to follow through on it. My self-induced mental deadline will help me remember to pull my camera out.

With that, I'm leaving you with pictures of a dessert I made some months ago: Olive Oil Poundcake with Candied Kumquats.

The recipes came from here and here. The candied kumquats were delicious and dead easy—a great thing to do with this fruit.

The poundcake recipe is an Alice Medrich one and in general I find her recipes reliable and tasty. Plus, I love oil cakes because they are simple to make. (I hate creaming butter and sugar.) However, I didn't have the sherry it called for so swapped it out for apricot brandy, thinking that would go well with the kumquats, and then found the finished recipe too boozy. I don't love boozy cakes in general, except for rum cakes, so I might look for a recipe without booze or try swapping out most of the sherry for juice next time.

This dessert wasn't a big hit with those to whom it was served, but mainly because it got overshadowed by the other dessert I offered: chocolate toffee cookies. (More on those in another post. Chocolate is like the Cary Grant of desserts—so sexy and beloved that almost anything you put next to it will get overshadowed. I'm still looking for the Ingrid Bergman of desserts that can hold its own against chocolate.)

Like all poundcakes, it tasted better the next the day and even better the day after.