(Courtesy: Pure & Special)
Being part of a family of Gujaratis who lived in Delhi for years meant that we soon ditched the sugar in our sabzis to embrace pindi chole, rajma and khasta roti with gusto. Even after we moved away from Delhi to Mumbai, my mother would soak sabut urad dal a day before guests were to arrive. That’s because her dal makhni was always a favourite with family members and guests. The black gram slow cooked with cream, tomatoes and chillis had a special taste for all of us. It has now become a family ritual, given that our family is all scattered, every time we unite, my mother makes it a point to make some house favourites – kheer, puranpoli, and of course dal makhni.
I confess that most of my dal cooking is limited to boiling lentils (and if I am feeling a little more energetic, I throw in a clove of garlic) and give it a quick vaghaar or tempering. And dal makhni honestly takes a lot of effort and the amount of cream that is poured in is quite heart-stopping. But when I got Vidhu Mittal’s book Pure & Special – Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, I came across the recipe for black velvet lentil/makhmali dal makhni and I knew it was time to make my own, well actually Mittal’s version of the dal.
What really lured me into cooking this dal was the easy-to-follow explanation that the author offered, along with step-by-step photographs and little tips, such as “The secret to this dish is patience. As described in this recipe, these lentils need to be simmered for a long time to achieve their signature velvet texture” and that using “unrefined mustard oil brings out the flavour of the black gram”. That’s pretty much the vein of the entire cookbook – simple steps to make interesting Indian food.
Mittal has been conducting cooking classes in Bangalore for over 15 years now and had authored a bestselling book called Pure & Simple: Homemade Indian Vegetarian Cuisine. In her new book, she introduces novices to Indian cooking to spices such as haldi and khus khus, as well as vegetables, nuts, fruits, and lentils. It serves as a good primer – ever tried to shop for dal and tried to distinguish tur from chana? The back of the book also offers basic instructions for boiling raw bananas, potatoes, lotus stems and making different gravies. She then gets down to the business of recipes and there’s a whole range – Drinks, Soups & Salads which includes the refreshing-sounding piquant pear/raseeli nashpati, where pears are stewed with cinnamon and water and then blended and a lotus stem pasta salad; Snacks & Appetisers in which she again works with regional foods such as shingara (water chestnuts) and shows you how to jazz up the humble dalia.
In Main Courses, there’s different sorts of gravy and dry vegetables, some with paneer and methi and others are more exotic such as the Zesty Zucchini Lentil where she mixes up the vegetable with moong dal. Mittal’s Rice & Breads section is equally interesting where she offers recipes for rumali roti and jackfruit rice. And what’s an Indian cook book without recipes for chutneys, which can be found in the Accompaniments section. The Desserts section is lean but comes with an interesting twist, such as saffron kheer with makhanas and a fluffy cheesecake that doesn’t need fancy cheese to make it.
Cookbook perused, it was time to try the dal makhani. It was a lengthy, but not a laborious process. The pre-soaked black gram dal was first boiled in a pressure cooker along with ghee, salt, cinnamon, bay leaves, black cardamom, hing and ginger. Once boiled, I discarded the whole spices and let the dal simmer before adding yoghurt and cream. Half an hour later, my kitchen was fragrant with the smell of cinnamon, bay leaves and cream mingling with the ghee-laced dal. Another half-an-hour later, I added sautéed tomato puree and then a last vaghaar of ginger and chilli powder. The result was a luscious dal that was sheer velvet and laden with spices. Patience was indeed the main ingredient in this dal.
The dal went perfectly with the layered crispy bread/lachchedaar tandoori paratha, a recommendation from Mittal again. The paratha dough was a mixture of wheat flour, baking powder and milk and needed to be proved for an hour before shaping it into balls, rolling it out into a small disc and then pleating it to a cylinder shape. The pleated cylinder was then twisted to form a circle and rolled again, causing several layers to form. Here, the photographs really helped understand the rolling process. Mittal recommends using the inside of a pressure cooker to replicate a tandoor. It didn’t work very well for us, but we used the tava method to roast the parathas. The hot crispy, flaky paratha and the dal makhani left us happy and, when I told my mother, she beamed with approval.
By Bijal Vachharajani on July 04 2014