Photo by: Ari Levaux
Photo by: Ari Levaux

During the long, blank winter, I reserve the right to self-medicate with red dal. I have a recipe that brings color and flavor to the darkest corners of that bleak time, repelling the winter blues with its bright red hues and stimulating flavors. Today, on the messy cusp of spring, I serve this red dal with sharp cubes of white cheese floating in it, like remnants of one season melting into the next. 

Split red lentils are known as masoor dal in India.  Masoor is the specific variety of pulse, which are dried, edible seeds in the legume family, while dal specifies that the seed has been split. Dal also refers to a broad category of thin soups made from split pulses like beans, peas and lentils. Masoor, the red lentil, is actually brown on the outside. When split, the dark skins are removed, leaving behind the salmon-colored disks of masoor dal, the prettiest pulse in the pantry.  

My red dal represents the culmination of years of experimentation, practice, apprenticeship and outright thievery in my pursuit of knowledge of the dal arts. The pursuit of red on red color, meanwhile, led the flavor to an altogether new place, as notable for what it omits- turmeric, for example, and garam masala - as it is notable for doubling the chili powder and tomatoes I had previously been adding to my dal. 

You can guess the impact of increasing the hot chili powder, while tomatoes add a flavor that is less obvious but even more important.
Sour is the most crucial flavor in dal, adding brightness and contrast that can help elevate a pedestrian serving of watery mush to high art. Tomato, tamarind and lime (or lemon) juice are the three pillars of sour dal power, and I try to include them all in every batch. When I added more tomato for redness, I had to also increase the lime and tamarind, so as to prevent the dal from tasting like tomato soup. 

This increase in sourness demands more fat to absorb it, as a sip of wine needs a bite of cheese. In dal, fat is typically added in the form of butter or coconut milk. I use butter and olive oil, but with an additional twist: I make a batch of fresh paneer cheese, and cook the dal with leftover whey from that process. I serve the soup with the rich, creamy cheese curds floating in the hot and sour leguminous magma.

Icebergs and Magma
As with many Indian-style dishes, the recipe is simple, but with many steps, some of which can be done concurrently. Once you get the hang of it you’ll probably be able to make the cheese, soak the lentils, toast the spices and chop the vegetables, all at the same time without breaking a sweat. 
Special gear: heavy-bottomed cookware, spice grinding capability, and cheesecloth or a comparable fine strainer. Yield: 10 servings
2 quarts milk
5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons whole cumin
2 teaspoons whole coriander
2 teaspoons black pepper
3 cloves
3 coriander pods
2 tablespoons butter 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, minced
1 heaping tablespoon minced ginger
4 garlic cloves 
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon (or more) red chili powder
Handful of cilantro, leaves picked off and stems minced
1 cup red lentils, washed (and stirred) twice
1 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (or five chopped fresh tomatoes)
1 Tablespoon tamarind concentrate - pulp, paste and even tamarind-flavored dried soup mix can all be used
4 teaspoons salt
Optional: 3 fresh curry leaves, if available
Any and all of steps 1-3 can be done ahead of time. 
(1) Making the cheese: heat a quart of milk on medium in a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir often with a spatula to keep the bottom from scalding. Squeeze the limes and then, as your attention allows, proceed to other steps like soaking lentils, toasting spices and chopping veggies.   
As the milk approaches the boil, foam will appear on top, followed by active bubbles around the perimeter. Be ready. When it boils, add 4 tablespoons of lime juice, give a gentle stir, and turn off the heat. Add two teaspoons of salt and give another gentle stir. Let it cool to where it can be safely handled, and pour through a fine strainer or a cheesecloth-lined colander.

Allow the curds to drain into the container of whey-if using cheesecloth, tie the corners together and hang it. After 45 minutes, transfer the curds to a separate bowl and refrigerate both curds and whey, covered. 
(2) Soaking the lentils: add them to a pot of cold water. Stir, and soak for five or so minutes. Pour off the cloudy water, refill the pot, and stir again. After ten minutes, replace the water a second time, and stir again. The water should stay clear, and the lentils will look bright. If not, repeat. Keep the lentils soaking in the water until needed. 

(3) Toasting the spices: put a dry (un-oiled) heavy-bottomed sauté pan on medium heat, and add the black pepper, cardamom, coriander and cloves. Stir occasionally for about 4 minutes until the kitchen smells like the other side of the world, and add the cumin.  Toast for another minute or so until the cumin starts to brown, and kill the heat before anything burns. When cool enough to handle, open the cardamom pods. Keep the seeds and discard the woody husks.  Reserve two teaspoons of these toasted spices, and grind the rest. 

(4) Cooking the dal. On medium heat, sauté the onions, ginger, garlic and cilantro stems in the olive oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed pot.  When the onions become translucent, stir in all ground and unground spices, including the garlic and red chili powders. Stir and cook about five minutes, and add the drained split lentils. The pot will sputter from their moisture; use this opportunity to give some hard, scraping stirs the bottom of the pot, so nothing burns. Add the whey, which should be about seven cups, and another 5 cups of water, for a combined total of 12 cups.  Add the tomato, tamarind and curry leaf (if you can find it). Cook on medium for at least 60 minutes. 

Season with about two teaspoons of salt, another tablespoon or so of lime juice, and extra chili powder as necessary. 
At serving time, remove the cheese from the fridge, cut it into cubes, and gently add them to a bowl of flaming red dal, along with fresh cilantro.