Back in culinary school I took an elective in Indian cooking. One of the dishes we made along the way was dal makhani, a stew made of urad dal (also known as Indian black lentils or black gram), kidney beans, ginger, garlic, garam masala, tomato and plenty of butter and cream. (There’s something quite satisfying about being able to unwrap a whole stick of butter and just drop it into a pot of stew.) The recipe was simple, rich and easy to make in bulk. Definitely a keeper.
Starting from that basic recipe, I’ve made variation upon variation over the years until I have more of a guideline than really a recipe at this point. I’ve tried more and less garlic, ginger and spices. Final preference: a lot of garlic, a good bit of ginger and just a bit of garam masala. I’ve tried tomato paste, tomato sauce, pureed canned tomatoes and no tomato at all. I think I have a slight preference for tomato paste, but any of them work, just remember to use more sauce or pureed tomatoes than paste, and you might need to adjust the amount of water a bit too.
And I’ve tried different beans and lentils. The urad dal and kidney beans from the original recipe need to be soaked overnight before it’s cooked, but most other kinds of lentils don’t require a soak. My first preference is to use several kinds of lentils together to provide a range of textures. I like a mix of red masoor dal (which disintegrate almost completely), normal brown lentils and urad dal. I usually leave out the kidney beans these days, just because it’s great without them and it’s one less ingredient to keep around. And as often as not, I make dal with just normal brown lentils, because I always have them around and they don’t require a soak (meaning no planning ahead.) If you experiment with different kinds of lentils, you may need more or less water and more or less cooking time. Just check how they’re doing periodically and adjust. This recipe isn’t at all fussy.
This might not be the most authentic dal in the world, but it’s quite good and quick enough for a weeknight dinner. It also scales up beautifully to feed a crowd.
Dal is just as good (if not better) the second day, so be sure to make more than you plan to eat.
1 Tbsp butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
about 1″ fresh ginger, minced
1 tsp garam masala or a mix of your favorite spices (optional)
1 1/2 cups brown lentils, rinsed and drained
3 1/2 cups water
1 tsp – 1 Tbsp salt (depending on your tastes)
1 tsp cayenne (optional)
1/2 stick butter (4 Tbsp)
3 oz tomato paste (half a small can)
1/4 cup half and half or cream
In a medium pan, melt the butter, then cook the garlic and ginger over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the garam masala and cook an additional minute or so. Add the lentils, water and salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cook, covered, until tender, but still with a bit of tooth to them, about 35 minutes. If the water runs low, add a bit more.
Stir in the cayenne, butter and tomato paste. Bring back to a simmer and cook, covered, 10 minutes more.
Turn off the heat and stir in the half and half. Taste and add more salt or cayenne as desired.
Serve the dal over rice or with naan or roti.
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