Slow-cooked Dal Makhni (Creamy Lentil Stew)

It’s the beginning of 2010 and the start of a new year of cooking adventures! For the last few months, I was craving this particular hearty lentil stew, if you will, called Dal Makhni or Maa ki dal or Maa ki dhal. ‘Dal’ or ‘dhal’ means lentil in the Hindi language. ‘Makhni’ means butter or cream. ‘Maa’ mean mom.  So the literal meaning of this lentil stew is Creamy lentil stew or Mom’s lentil stew. I don’t know why it’s called Mom’s lentil stew – it’s the common man’s lentil and so is probably considered home-cooked food wherever it’s eaten, add the relation of home-cooked to ‘mom’ in the title and you get Mom’s lentil stew.

In this recipe, I modified some of the typical spices, so it’s not over-the-top crazy spicy, but flavored well enough to enjoy each and every element. My take on this classic recipe is vegan – i.e. without the cream or butter – and  maybe I should call it Dal Bina Makhni (Creamy Lentil stew without cream). It’s easy enough to add in the cream if you wish. The stew has a phenomenal texture and fresh, light quality without the heaviness of the cream. I find that the cream tends to mask the texture and fine complexity of flavors in the dish.

While this dish is typically Punjabi (from the northern state of Punjab in India), it is eaten in many parts of India, including Uttar Pradesh (or “northern province’ literally, the state that my family descended from in northern India). It is also traditionally slow-cooked. So, I cooked this recipe in my slow-cooker – which works magically. In fact, the slow-cooker is such an awesome way to cook many traditional Indian meat dishes or rice dishes that are slow-cooked. I personally do not recommend using a pressure cooker – the chance of overcooking the lentils is higher and then all you have is textureless mush. Plus slow-cooking allows the flavors to seep into the food.

The quantity of lentils and beans used in this recipe will make servings for 4-5 people.

Dal Makhni (or Dal Bina Makhni)

Slow-cooked Stew

  • 3/4 cup Whole Urad Dhal (also called Black gram, see picture of whole urad black lentils on the right)
  • 1/4 cup Rajma (or Razma or Red Kidney Beans, see picture of rajma red beans on the right)
  • 6 cups of water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp of saunf (often sold as ‘lucknowi saunf’  or fennel seeds, shown in picture below as the greenish seeds in the upper right corner)

Additions to the slow-cooked stew after 10 hours:

  • 4 Tomatoes (chopped) or 1-12oz can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 inch piece of Ginger, peel off outer skin, then finely chop or grate
  • 2 Cloves of Garlic, minced
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons of olive or canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds (or jeera seeds, see picture, greyish/brown cumin seeds are in lower right corner)
  • 2 teaspoons of methi seeds (or fenugreek seeds, see picture,  yellow/light brown seeds are in lower left corner)
  • 1 tsp of saunf (often sold as ‘lucknowi saunf’  or fennel seeds, shown in picture as the greenish seeds in the upper right corner)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of red chili flakes or 1-2 chopped green chilis or hot red chili powder (not to be confused with mexican red chili powder which does not have the same heat as Indian red chili powder or as it’s called in hindi, lal mirch powder) (optional)
  • Salt to taste
  • 10-15 stalks of Coriander leaves, washed and chopped finely (optional)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Method

  1. Start by measuring the amounts of the red kidney beans and black urad lentils using measuring cups. I always recommend pouring out the measured quantities onto a plate to check for stones.  Generally the lentils or beans are clean, but occasionally, a stone may get through. Once you’ve checked the lentils and beans, place both in a large bowl and  rinse a couple times with water. Then fill the bowl with 3 cups of room temperature water. Leave the lentils and beans to soak overnight or at least 8 hours (or 4 hours with hot water added instead of room temperature water).  Soaking is key to improving the digestion of the lentils and beans.
  2. After the soak, turn on the slow-cooker to the low setting. Rinse the bowl of beans and lentils with tap water, then drain the water from the bowl. To the slow cooker: Add the kidney beans and urad lentils, 3 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds or saunf .  The fennel seeds help with digestion as well.
  3. Stir the mixture together and place the lid on the slow-cooker.
  4. Disappear for 10 hours (you can start this before you go to work)
  5. When you return 10 hours later, the lentils and beans should be completely cooked. The lentil or bean should be easily crushable with a spoon or your finger. Turn off the slow cooker.
  6. Now we’re ready to add the tarka (or ‘end seasonings’) to the stew. In a medium sized sauce pan, on medium-high heat, add the olive or canola oil.  Never cook with oil if it begins to smoke when overheated – the smoke means the oil has passed it’s smoking point. The flavor will change for the worse and the oil will degrade into by-products that are harmful to your body when ingested.
  7. The oil should heat up quickly. Test that the oil is hot enough by throwing in 1 or 2 cumin seeds. The oil is ready when the seed sizzles almost immediately. Once you’ve confirmed the oil is ready, add in all the cumin seeds. The seeds should sizzle quite fast.
  8. Wait about 10 seconds, then add in the methi or fenugreek seeds. These seeds are also good for digestion.
  9. Wait about 5 seconds, then add the saunf or fennel seeds and the optional chili flakes (or chopped green chilis or chili powder).  Fennel seeds should be slightly green. If the seeds are a greyish color, then the seed has aged too much. ‘Lucknowi saunf’ is fennel seed that is grown in the town of Lucknow (in the state of Uttar Pradesh!) and the seed is smaller, sweeter and more fragrant than the general type of fennel seed sold. It can be found in most Indian grocery stores.
  10. Immediately add the chopped onion, minced garlic and chopped/grated ginger.  Stir the mixture together and lower the heat to medium. Cover the pan with a lid.
  11. Stir the mixture every minute to ensure it does not start to stick to the bottom of the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the onions are transparent or tender.
  12. Then add the chopped tomatoes or chopped canned tomatoes. If you use canned tomatoes, verify that the main ingredients in the can are tomatoes without italian seasonings.
  13. Stir the mixture and cover the pan with a lid. Lower the heat from medium to medium-low. Stir every 3-4 minutes for approximately 15 minutes.
  14. After 15 minutes have passed, add the slow-cooked stew mixture to the sauce pan with the tarqa or ‘end seasoning’.  Stir.
  15. Allow the mixture to come to a boil, then turn off the heat.
  16. After 5-10 minutes, taste for salt and add salt sparingly if necessary. I often find that very thermally hot food masks the salt content within the food, so it’s better to taste for salt when it has cooled down a bit.
  17. If you so desire, you can add a small amount of heavy cream (say 1/4 cup) and 1 tablespoon of butter for flavor (optional).
  18. Transfer the Dhal Makhni to a serving dish and top with the optional finely chopped coriander leaves.

The finished product can be eaten with plain white rice or quinoa or with many types of leavened and unleavened breads. I could eat the Dhal Makhni plain, it’s so good. However most Indians prefer to eat it with unleavened breads like roti, paratha, etc. Sometimes, I can eat it with a slice of French bread, sourdough bread, etc.

This recipe can be scaled – simply scale the ingredients. Also, there are many variations of this stew in terms of additional types of lentils and spices added.

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