Orange lentils cook down to a beautifully smooth and subtle dahl thanks to the spices and to sneaking in some coconut to add creaminess (coconut haters will probably barely taste it). The red onions, the green of the spinach, the deep yellow of the turmeric and the rosy tomatoes add colour. The Indian cheese, paneer, gives it some heft, making it into a substantial meal loved by veggies and non-veggies alike. Dahl can be a bit too bland for its own good so I used very hot chilli powder, knowing that it loses the edge of its heat during cooking. Coconut milk can be heavy in quantity so I open a tin, decant it and freeze the milk, semi-thawing it, then scooping out what I need before returning the rest to the freezer.
I owe the idea for this dish to my friend Gemma Howell, but as they say in books, mistakes are my own. The proper Indian way to make dahl is to dash in some quickly fried spices at the very end, but here I have incorporated them from the start.
2 red onions
- 1 teaspoon very hot chilli powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
120g orange lentils
500 ml water
2 tablespoons coconut milk
Juice of one lemon
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
Knob of ginger grated
3 cubes frozen spinach or two good handfuls of fresh spinach
8 vine tomatoes
1½ teaspoons salt or to taste
225g pack of paneer cut into bite-sized cubes
1 teaspoon garam masala
Dessertspoon of finely chopped fresh coriander
Fry the finely sliced onions over a moderate heat until they are translucent. Remove half of them for the moment, raise the heat and fry the rest until they are crisp. Drain these on kitchen paper: you will use them for garnish later. Return the first batch of onions to the pan and add the spice mix, frying the spices over a moderate heat for about 2 minutes. Tip the lentils into the pan along with the water, coconut milk, lemon juice, crushed garlic and grated ginger. Let it all simmer, uncovered for about 25 minutes when the lentils will have softened but still have some shape.
While this is happening, thaw out the spinach in the microwave, or wash and roughly chop the fresh spinach. Dip the fresh tomatoes in a jug of boiling water for 60 seconds, drain them and slip off the skins. Add the spinach and the tomatoes to the lentils, then the salt and let it all simmer for another two minutes.
In a separate pan, heat a little oil and fry the paneer. Watch carefully as it can easily burn. Add the paneer to the lentils or save it if you prefer it to sit on the top. Sprinkle the garam masala over the dahl, followed by the browned onions and chopped coriander.
Serve from the pan with warmed chapatis or with home made flatbreads