Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dal Makhani (Creamy Lentils)

It's hard to believe how fast time passes.  It was just over three years ago, around Valentine's Day, that Doc and I got engaged.  We'd been kicking around the idea almost as long as we'd been dating (about four years at that point) and had finally decided to throw in the towel and settle down.  Our lives and differences in culture being what they were, this was an adventure for both of us -- not just in the idea of merging our very different views or lifestyles, but in telling our relatives.  I don't think anyone was shocked, exactly: we'd been living together for a few years and weren't springing anything on them suddenly, but it was still nerve-wracking for both of us since it was very much a first for both families.

We kept the secret to ourselves for about a month, until Doc's family came down for a visit over spring break: just a small party of his parents, grandfather, and four aunts & uncles on an eight hour road trip.  We had a sense that they'd be arriving around noon on Saturday, but then again maybe not.  They were going to eat lunch with us, or then again maybe on the road.  No, definitely on the road.  On second thought, though, they were only an hour away at this point so they'd drive straight through and have lunch with us after all.

Luckily, I anticipated that they might show up hungry (or at the very least that I should have something on the stove when the entourage arrived), so I put on some dal makhani, or creamy lentils.  It was one of the few Indian dishes I felt halfway confident about at the time, so I hoped it just might help seal the deal.

I think in the end everything turned out okay.  Nobody died of food poisoning or a broken heart that week, and that's pretty much the best outcome we could've hoped for with seven houseguests.

Concise recipe at the bottom, as always.

Dal Makhani (Creamy Lentils)

Total Time:  Around 1.5 - 2 hours, most of which is simmer time.  This is unfortunately a dish that takes some time to do, so think of it like a good chili: a day project that you can make in big batches to freeze later (or bring to a party).
Credits:  When I was first learning this recipe I relied heavily on Sanjay Thumma's Dal Bukhara video, though at the time I didn't realize there were measurements in the doobly doo and so found myself quite frustrated over instructions like "a little bit of turmeric" or "extra chili powder," because I had no sense of scale.  After half a dozen tries I ended up with a process that mirrored his but a set of measurements that were more or less guesswork.  It was only after I'd gotten my own groove that I discovered the intended measurements in the original recipe, so please feel free to use those instead.  I can't pretend to compare with a trained chef here.
Weirdest Spice:  Fenugreek leaves.  Unlike a lot of recipes, I'd say that for this one the fenugreek leaves really make the dish.  They're very aromatic and earthy, and until I add them the dish just doesn't smell right.  That said, I'd say if you're making this for the first time and are unsure if you want to spring for a weird spice just for one recipe, go ahead and make it without.  You'll also find some other recipes here (turkey currykhichuriegg curry) that use fenugreek, too, in case that helps you use it up once you've got some.

Traditionally this recipe is made with red kidney beans and black gram lentils ("urad dal"), though as often as not I just use the black turtle beans (frijoles negros) that are more commonly available in local supermarkets.  You've got two options here:  used canned or boil up some dried beans.  The dried option is cheaper and has less in the way of added salt/preservatives, but honestly this dish already takes quite a while to make so no judgment here if you decide to go with canned.  One can of each should do the trick, or else you can do what I did and use 1 cup each of black beans and kidney beans:

If going the dried beans route you'll want to either soak them overnight or quick soak them.  How long they take to cook through will depend on the age of the beans -- generally I plan on 1-2 hours for this part.  If you're using a pressure cooker then go with whatever setting you use for kidney beans.  Either way, you'll want to cook them until they squish between two fingers but not to the point they're completely mushy:

And then set them aside.  Save some of the liquid if you'd like (see below for discussion of re-using bean liquid).

In a separate pan you'll want to do the medium-high heat + 0.5 tsp oil + 1 tsp cumin seed routine that I'm sure you're a pro at by now:

Give the cumin seeds 10-30 seconds to sizzle, then add 2 tsp each of ginger paste and garlic paste:

Stir that about for around 2-3 minutes or until fragrant.  Then add 0.5 tsp turmeric:

And stir that all around for another minute or two to "cook" the turmeric.  Next up is around 3 cups of tomato puree (use canned if you prefer), and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Let this cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes.  It takes that long for the tomatoes and turmeric to lose their raw flavor and begin to turn into a tomato sauce.  Just be sure the heat isn't too high because you don't want your tomatoes to scorch.

After that, go ahead and add:  1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste), 0.5 tsp paprika, and 1 tablespoon coriander (yes, that much):

Stir that up and let it simmer for another 10 minutes on medium-low, stirring now and then to prevent burning.

This next part is where the "makhani" part of the recipe comes from, makhani meaning "butter" (cf. murgh makhani, butter chicken).  If making this recipe vegan I think you can honestly skip the butter altogether.  The purpose of the butter is to add richness to the sauce.  In the original recipe he uses about a quarter cup of butter, which makes for a very rich but also very calorie-dense sauce.  I usually skimp and max out at around 2 tablespoons of butter:

You can see how the cooked tomatoes changed color there, too.

Stir the butter around until melted.  Next up is 1 cup of liquid.  The original recipe calls for using liquid left over from cooking your dried beans.  (Note: please don't use the liquid that comes with canned beans, because ew.)  I did that at first, too.  The bean liquid brings a smoothness and density to the sauce that's hard to achieve otherwise.  At the same time, I find that cooking black beans means that the water turns black and I just can't shake the feeling that it's also maybe full of what specks of dirt I couldn't quite rinse off the beans, even though I'm pretty obsessed with rinsing them very, very thoroughly.  I think you'll be 100% a-ok if you use the bean water.  But if you're using canned beans or if the dried bean water creeps you out, then you might do what I do, i.e. use 1 cup of vegetable stock instead:

You can see there that I'm using some veggie stock that I'd frozen a while back.  Water would also do in a pinch here if you don't have stock on hand.

Dial up the heat back to medium-high and let that stock cook in for about 5 minutes or until it achieves a slow, gentle boil.  (Don't forget to stir every few minutes.)

Then, at long last, it's time to add in the beans:

Along with 2 tsp fenugreek leaves and 1 tsp garam masala:

Stir that up, dial the heat back down to low, cover it, and let it simmer for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.  You can let this cook on a low simmer for longer, if you'd like.  As with chili, the longer it slow-cooks the deeper the flavors will be so don't be shy if you want to pop this dish on the stove in the early afternoon and let it do its thang for an hour or two.

The very last step, just before you serve, is to drop in 0.25 cup of cream and garnish with an optional dash of fresh cilantro.

Salt to taste and you're done!

I've never subbed in nondairy milk (e.g. soy, coconut, almond), but I think if you wanted to experiment that probably would be a nice way to keep the creaminess of the dish without jacking up the calories.

At any rate, this dish freezes exceptionally well (as do most bean dishes) and is a nice way to get some vegetarian protein.  Personally I love it atop rice and alongside a simple salad.

Dal Makhani


  • 1 cup each of red kidney beans and black beans (either urad dal or black turtle beans), soaked over night, rinsed, and cooked until just mushy enough to crush easily between two fingers
    • can sub 1 can of each, if preferred
    • optional: reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid [dried beans only, not the liquid from canned beans] to use in place of vegetable stock, below
  • 0.5 tsp oil or ghee (clarified butter)
  • 2 tsp ginger paste
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • 0.5 tsp turmeric powder
  • 3 cups tomato puree (fresh or canned)
  • 1 tsp red chili powder (optional, adjust to taste)
  • 0.5 tsp paprika
  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder
  • 2 tablespoons butter (optional, adjust to taste)
  • 2 tsp fenugreek leaves
    • tip: crush these between palms before adding to release extra flavor
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 0.25 cup cream
  • scant handful fresh cilantro (optional garnish)
  • salt to taste

  1. Heat a large pan on medium-high until warm.  Add oil.  When shimmering, add cumin seeds.  Allow to cook 10-30 seconds or until sizzling.
  2. Add ginger & garlic pastes, saute 2-3 minutes or until fragrant.
  3. Add turmeric, saute another 2 minutes.
  4. Add tomato puree and turn heat down to medium-low.  Cook on low, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
  5. Add butter, stir in until fully melted.
  6. Add vegetable stock (or bean liquid, if using).  Return heat to medium-high and cook until just barely beginning to gently boil, stirring occasionally (around 5 minutes).
  7. Add cooked beans, fenugreek leaves, and garam masala.  Stir to mix, then turn heat down to low.  Cover and let simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Before serving, remove pan from heat and add cream, cilantro, and salt.

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