Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Spiced Red Lentil Soup (Dhal)

"Where better to turn to for inspiring vegetarian food than India, where most of the world’s vegetarians live!"

Here we go again, another January, another month without meat. Long time readers of the blog might be able to remember that I decided to give up meat last January, partly in an attempt to strengthen my ever-tenuous grip on good health, but also to try and introduce more fish and vegetables into my diet. Not that I’m a huge carnivore in any case, but you know what they say, a change is as good as a tonic (or is that just me and the over 70s?). It was such a success that I have decided to repeat the feat this year.

Vegetarian cooking, especially the stuff you see on restaurant menus can be a little dull, restricted to butternut squash risotto or a goats’ cheese and red onion tart, but I am determined not to resort to either of these staples too often. Happily, VD had arranged for some friends to come over for lunch on Sunday, which presented me with the ideal opportunity to flex my (now protein starved) vegetarian muscles and cook something so tasty they wouldn’t be left wondering:
“where’s the beef?”
So far, so good, but what actually should I feed them? It turned out that I had the answer, in the form of Kaushy Patel’s cookbook Prashad - Indian Vegetarian Cooking, staring me right in the face. Where better to turn to for inspiring vegetarian food than India, where most of the world’s vegetarians live! Not only that, I have tasted Kaushy’s cooking first hand and it is excellent.

Prashad is an Indian restaurant in Bradford run by Kaushy and her family. Through a friend of mine, who has excellent literary connections (and strangely very little taste – his highest form of gustatory praise is call something “succulent”), I was lucky enough to go along to launch of this, her first cookbook, a couple of months ago.

I’ve been to a couple of book launches and they can be somewhat lacklustre affairs; however, this was anything but, as it took the form of a six course feast cooked by the Patels for us lucky guests. I won’t regale you with everything we ate, but if you are anywhere near Bradford I’d book a table asap and order the fenugreek and banana bhajis and aubergine satay.

So, with Kaushy as my vegetarian muse and a cookbook full of recipes, I just had to decide what to cook. Lengthy deliberations and bi-partite negotiations with VD resulted in a menu of aubergine and potato curry; cinnamon spiced chickpea curry; dhal; and cumin-infused rice.

There’s no doubt that the food at Prashad is pretty good, but the recipes I used feel like they need a bit of refining for the domestic cook. That isn’t to say they don’t work, but you need to exercise a bit of your own judgement rather than slavishly follow the instructions step-by-step.

For example, I am going to give you my own amended version of the dhal soup recipe from the book, which proved to be the surprise hit on Sunday. Her recipe said to cook the lentils in three litres of water, which would have been far too much for 200g of lentils and one tin of tomatoes. I halved the amount and still had concerns!

However, don’t let that put you off as it turned out to be absolutely delicious. Richly spiced; warming; virtuously frugal; far greater than the sum of its parts; and disgracefully good for you. Just the thing you need for a midweek supper in January, which is why I have just polished off the leftovers.

Spiced red lentil soup (dhal)

200g red lentils
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
50g soft brown sugar
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tsp salt

  1. Kick off by rinsing the lentils in a sieve under running water. Keep rinsing until the water starts to run clear, then put the lentils into a bowl, cover with warm water and leave to soak for 20 minutes.
  2. Now turn your attention to the spice mix. Dry fry the cumin and mustard seeds in a pan until the mustard seeds start to pop, taking care not to let them burn. Then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar, before adding the ginger, chilli, sugar, turmeric and salt, and giving this all a good bash. You should aim to end up with a thick, brown, aromatic sludge. 
  3. When the lentils have finished soaking, drain off the water, put them in a large saucepan, pour over 1.5 litres of water from a freshly boiled kettle and bring back to the boil. 
  4. When it has boiled, skim the froth from the surface, turn down the heat and simmer slowly for 25 minutes. 
  5. When the time has elapsed, add the tin of tomatoes, bring back to the boil and simmer again for another ten minutes.
  6. Take the soup off the heat and use a hand blender (if you don’t have one use a normal blender) to puree it to a smooth consistency and then return to the heat.
  7. If you taste the soup now it will be bland in the extreme and you will curse my name to the skies; however, do not despair. Add the spice mix to the soup, which will transform it almost immediately, going from dull John Major to Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan in one swirl of the spoon.
  8. Continue to cook the soup for another 5-10 minutes over a low heat and then turn off the heat, cover and leave it to stand for at least 20 minutes, which allows the flavours to develop. If you can, make it the day before you want to serve it and chill in the fridge overnight as it tastes even better, as tonight’s dinner proved!

Kaushy Patel’s cookbook, Prashad, is available from all the usual sources.

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