Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cast Iron Dhal

When I saw the enormous cast-iron wok at a garage sale I wasn’t thrilled yet, but I asked Cassie how much she wanted for it. My sly young friend cocked her head at me and asked, “What’s it worth to you?”
I tossed off a figure – five dollars, maybe – and she accepted. I hefted it into the car – it’s a heavy thing – and thought that it might be just the thing to put on/over my Big Green Egg (a kind of outdoor grill/cooker), in order to cook with more variety outdoors this long hot summer.
As it turns out, of course, the summer, if that’s what this is, has not been onerously hot, and I’ve made good use of that wok on the stove-top. Its glorious expanse of hot cast-iron heats the entire kitchen nicely, not a bad thing in this subzero July.

I was struck by the quandary, recently, egged on by a website called Gherkins and Tomatoes, of whether cuisines grew up around available cooking utensils rather than utensils being invented to fit the cuisine. This wok (labeled Mr. Bar-B-Q and made in China) tapers from a 14 inch rim to a six inch flat bottom, and the cast iron conducts heat through the entire pan. You can make a pretty sizable stir fry in that without overflowing. You can also steam vegetables in it by setting a bamboo steamer over water in its bottom; you can make rice in it – a rather large lid fits down inside of it – and I imagine you can even make a soup or a casserole. It’s a pretty all-purpose, one-pot-meal kind of thing. Now I’m getting a little more thrilled.

That wok wasn’t my only new (or used) acquisition lately. Down at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, I was checking out the cookbook section when Simon Hopkinson charmed me with his lead-in to a recipe, Spinach and Coconut Dhal, in his book, Second Helpings of Roast Chicken. He described it as "Sloppy, warming, comforting, and astonishingly delicious. Also, extremely gassy. Time to tether the duvet to the bedposts." That made me chuckle and it made me buy the book.

The book is organized alphabetically, somewhat haphazardly, mostly by ingredients but sometimes by genre. For instance, Cabbage, Celery, Chicken, Chillies, lead to Cocktails. After that comes Cocoa, Cucumber, and then Curry. Under each chapter heading are three recipes, and under Curry is Mrs. Pringle’s kofta curry, Constance Spry’s original coronation chicken salad dressing, and the aforementioned Spinach and coconut dhal. The paper is thick and very white, which I know is just wrong, but I love the texture. But the best thing about this book, besides the originality and imagination of the recipes, are Hopkinson’s words. He has a sly and irreverent take on everything, and I find myself looking forward to his description and humor.

I had everything I needed for the Dhal except the black mustard seeds. I substituted black radish seeds which I had, somehow, in my spice cabinet. I always have a quantity of roasted cumin seeds because they are a favorite snack. For the tomatoes – which are not yet in season – I used almost a quart of crushed canned ones from Foggy Meadow Farm. I have onion, garlic, cilantro, and mint in my garden. And I happened to have red lentils and canned coconut milk in my pantry. As for the spinach, mine is either not growing or bolted, but it’s the usual spinach contest between Dutchess Farms, Foggy Meadow, and Boardman Hill at the Farmers’ Market. I hold really sweet taste photos in my mind of each of these spinaches, and perhaps will tell you about them in the future, but for now, let’s just say that I’ve bought spinach from each of them, it is all excellent, and I cannot remember whose this is in a plastic bag in my fridge.

As you’ll see, Hopkinson recommends serving this Dhal with Naan, a flat – well, puffed – Indian bread made with yogurt, enriched with egg, risen with yeast. I remember seeing a recipe for it that I trusted lately, but I cannot find it when I need it, of course. I’ll pass it along when I do. At its lack, I served this with thinly sliced, lightly toasted Bear Mountain Honey Oatmeal bread, which was not awfully authentic but was awfully good. So now, without further ado...

Spinach and Coconut Dhal
Serves 4
9 oz onions, peeled and finely chopped
6 tablespoons butter
1 ½ tsp whole cumin seeds, roasted
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds, roasted (I used black radish seeds because that’s what I had)
4 cloves
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp chilli powder
¾ cup plus 2 tbsp split red lentils
1 2/3 cup water
1 2/3 cups coconut milk
3-4 thick slices of fresh ginger, unpeeled
1 lb fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
9 oz fresh leaf spinach, washed, trimmed, and roughly chopped
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 large lime
1 tbsp freshly chopped cilantro
2 tbsp freshly chopped mint
1 tsp salt
Serve with
naan or pita bread

Fry the onions in 4 tbsp of the butter until pale golden. Add the whole spices and half the garlic and continue to cook gently for a further 5 minutes. Stir in the turmeric and chilli powder until well blended, and cook for a couple of minutes. Tip in the lentils and the water, coconut milk, ginger, tomatoes, and spinach. Bring up to a simmer, add the pepper, and cook very gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30 – 40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender and have all but dissolved into the liquid.

Remove the pan from the heat. Melt the remaining 2 tbsp butter. When it starts to froth, throw in the rest of the sliced garlic and stir around vigorously until it starts to take on a little color, and the butter starts to smell nutty. Immediately tip into the lentils and stir in. (There will be spluttering, so watch out.) Add the lime juice, the cilantro, mint, and salt to taste. Cover with a lid and leave to mellow for 10 minutes before serving, remembering to remove the slices of ginger before you do so. Eat with hot and fresh flat bread, such as naan or, failing that, pita bread.

I find that my beautiful cast-iron wok retails for less than $30 on, and receives less than glowing tributes. Apparently a better one is made by Lodge, and sold for slightly less than $80, though it would probably be over $100 by the time you paid Amazon's shipping. Nevertheless, I made the Spinach and Coconut Dhal in mine, and it was nothing short of delicious. Incredibly satisfying, not at all gassy, and the duvet stayed put.


Penny said...

Hope you remember where you found the trustworthy Naan recipe. That would make this a most authentic and delicious meal. Will have to try it. Hope my suggestion was a help. Let me know if you find another Naan recipe.

Penny said...

Oh, and by the way, that pan looks awesome to me. Five dollars? What a deal.

Randal Smathers said...

I cheat like mad on Naan and use pizza dough (even the bagged ones from the grocery, sometimes) ... made into small rounds and tossed on the grill. It's not authentic, but it's quick and easy.