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Recipe for Red Lentil Dhal with tomato, coconut and lime from Fresh Spice by Arun Kapil.
Fresh Spice, written by Arun Kapil (Pavillion, 2014), does what it says in its subtitle and brings vibrant recipes for bringing flavour, depth and colour to home cooking. It is a good lockdown book because not only is it comprehensive – but it peps up some familiar dishes with store cupboard spices. Naturally, not all those suggested are going to be lurking in your spice drawer, well not in mine anyway, but there is more than enough to get on with using the basics. I decided to try three dishes that I cook repeatedly to see how Kapil’s use of spicing might add something new to my family meals. I’m sharing the recipe for Red Lentil Dhal so you can try for yourself, but there’s so much more in the book if you decide to buy it.
Kapil advises that spices be bought whole if possible and ground as needed. This is because the volatile oils in the spices – which provide the flavour and aroma – do not last long. Many of us, I suspect, buy our spices from the supermarket and they often become stale and do not add much flavour to our cooking. I always admire the spice stalls in French markets where you can buy as little or much as you need for the day’s cooking. I don’t shop like that, sadly. Under lockdown, as my spice stores are run low, I have discovered how much can be ordered online and so spice shopping is changing for me. Kapil has his own online spice company called Green Saffron.
Kapil compares spices to guests at a dinner party, Understanding the characteristics of each individual spice enables the cook to compose a group that will work well together. A musical analogy helps too – he describes different spices as having low, middle and high notes and details which spices belong to which group. I would imagine that a few days of instruction by Kapil would transform my cooking forever; at home, I can refer to his descriptions and suggestions in his user-friendly introduction, A-Z of Spices.
A chapter on The Science of Flavour has some fascinating information about taste perception – why is it that a stew tastes better the next day or what is the taste receptor for fat? For those confounded by how our bodies respond to chilli, Kapil explains the physical reaction, chemesthesis – a chemical response related to pain, touch and heat receptors. The opposite effect of chillis on the tongue is mint which tricks our bodies into the perception of cooling off. The taste receptors on the tongue that react to menthol in mint also triggers the same receptors in our skin– the result is that we feel we are cooking down. When eating chilli, the capsaicin has the opposite effect. Usually, our taste receptors would only send a signal of heat to the brain if our food is 42 C but the capsaicin lowers the threshold to 35 C – this is why we feel hot when eating food at room temperature that contains chilli. This must explain why my husband sweats when eating chilli – if the brain perceives we are hot, it turns on our ‘air conditioning’. The sweating process cools our skin thereby keeping our temperature normal.
For those designing online quiz questions during the lockdown, there are plenty of esoteric details in Kapil’s 20-page introduction that only your food nerd friends will be able to answer.
Fresh Spice offers chapters on meat dishes, birds, fish and shellfish, eggs and cheese, before exploring the world of grains and pulses. Vegetables and fruits are divided into seasonal sections and the recipes conclude with sweet things, relishes, chutneys, jams and jellies. There is a lot to consider. The photographs are enticing, with simple and effective food styling.
The eclectic set of recipes reflects the background of the writer who had a father from India and a mother from Yorkshire. His wife is Irish and he now lives in Ireland where he trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. We can choose from recipes that range from Irish stew, sausage and potato pie, and even blackcurrant summer pudding or Christmas cake, to the likes of Tarka dhal or Bengali grilled seafood with crisp okra and the Red Lentil Dhal with coconut, lime and tomato that I’m sharing. I liked the sound of the fusion dishes such as roast pork shoulder vindaloo. There are a number of French dishes I love to make on summer holidays like mouclade (under lockdown, I nearly cried when I read this recipe which evoked so many memories of beachside meals), Niҫoise pan bagnat or raspberry clafoutis. And, other influences include Moroccan cuisine with a recipe for chicken Marrakesh.
The first dish I tried was baked aubergines with crumbly goat’s cheese. Not a week goes by in my kitchen without the roasting or baking of trays of aubergines, so I was intrigued to see if these were different from the Middle Eastern (Ottolenghi inspired) treatment I usually employ. The dish was lovely and gentle as it always is – the silkiness of baked aubergine never fails to stir me – the chilli was less spicy than I expected (I guess it depends on the heat of what one uses), but the surprise was the toasted cumin. It lifts the dish and takes it in a slightly new direction.
Red lentil dhal with tomato, coconut and lime was a dish I was most interested to taste. We are big dhal eaters in my household. I have my favourite recipe from a very renowned chef, so I was sceptical about this being an improvement. Was I wrong! I could tell as I prepared the dhal that this was going to be good because of the number of spices I ground up with my mortar and pestle. I find grinding spices by hand to be very satisfying.
When we tasted the dish, which is easy to make, my youngest opined, ‘I’d be happy eating this in a restaurant.’ I knew exactly what he meant. This dhal – aside from being spicier than my usual – had a complexity of flavour thanks to those ground spices, a generous amount of fresh ginger, onions and garlic, the sweetness of coconut milk (which I have never added to dhal) and the acidity of lime juice (which I have). The added crunch of toasted cashew nuts was the cherry on the top so to speak. I could not add the coconut pieces to decorate because I discovered too late that the bag of coconut I retrieved from the back of the cupboard expired in August 2015. I pride myself on not storing stale spices but hadn’t accounted for the depth of my grocery cupboard where abandoned ingredients are living out their old age. Under lockdown, I was unable to pop to the shops to refresh. Still, I hope it did not compromise the flavour too much. I will certainly be adding this recipe to the family repertoire of dishes. Here’s Arun Kapil’s recipe for red lentil dhal with tomato, coconut and lime if you’d like to try for yourself.
A spicy dhal combining red lentils, coconut, zesty lime and chilli
- 500 grams red lentils
- 1 handful cashew nuts Add a few more if the chef needs to nibble
- 2 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon I used ready ground
- 1 tsp powdered tumeric I used ready ground
- 60 grams unsalted butter or 3 tbsp vegetable oil (I used this alternative)
- 250 grams onions chopped into chunky dice
- 2 red onions diced
- 6 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 red chilli deseeded and finely chopped
- 125 grams fresh ginger grated or blitzed in food processor
- 2 400 gram tins chopped tomatoes
- 1 tbsp golden caster sugar I used regular caster sugar
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 600 ml vegetable stock I used Marigold Bouillon
- 1 lime juiced
- 1 bunch coriander leaves chop a small handful to sprinkle on top
- 1 small handful coconut flakes
Place the lentils in a bowl and cover with cold water. Soak for 10 minutes
Dry fry the cashew nuts in a frying pan over a medium heat for about 5 minutes. you want them lightly golden. Toss the pan regularly as you don't want the nuts to burn. When cool, chop roughly and set aside for later.
Finely grind the peppercorns, cumin, coriander seeds and cloves in a mortar and pestle. Then mix in the ground cinnamon and tumeric.
Heat the butter or oil in a large casserole or saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, chilli and ginger. Cook gently for 5 - 15 minutes until softened. I like to add my garlic when the onions have already begun to soften so that it doesn't burn.
Add the spice mix and cook gently for a couple of minutes. Stir the spices into the onion mix so that it gets well incorporated.
Add the tinned tomatoes, caster sugar, salt and coconut milk and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Rinse the lentils well and add them to the casserole or pan. Allow to simmer while adding the stock. Stir from time to time to prevent the contents from sticking to the bottom. Cook on a medium heat until the lentils are soft. This will take around 20 minutes.
Add the lime juice and stir to combine.
When you dish up, sprinkle the dhal with the chopped coriander leaves, coconut flakes and chopped cashew nuts.
I served the dhal with a pot of brown basmati but you could also serve it with Indian flatbreads.
A delicious recipe for red lentil dhal with coconut, lime and tomato
Salmon is a fish I eat twice a week, so I am always on the lookout for new ideas. Roast herbed salmon with cardamom sauce has cream in the recipe which I would usually avoid (for the same health reason I eat a lot of oily fish). So it was ironic that although I ordered the cream in my weekly, lockdown delivery box, the carton burst open in the delivery van and was removed. That must be karma looking out for my arteries, but it meant that I made the sauce sans cream. I concocted a mixture of cream cheese thinned with milk and got on with the sauce. While the consistency was not what it would have been with double cream, the taste was wonderful – what wouldn’t be with a generous amount of butter as instructed by the recipe?
This is not the healthiest salmon dish but, the son exclaimed, ‘this is superb, the most professional salmon I’ve eaten’. Wow. That’s one for impressing the guests if we are ever allowed to have anyone for dinner in future.
This dish – like many others in the book – is more for indulging in when you have a bit of time or a special dinner. Some recipes are quick and easy but many more have fairly long ingredient lists and several stages of preparation.
I usually need to put dinner on the table within half an hour so I will use this book to improve my home cooking on the weekends. From only three recipes I have already learnt something very important which is that an abundance of black pepper is not to be feared! I have never used as much black pepper before, thinking of it more as a seasoning than as a major ingredient. The success of these recipes has given me the confidence to spice up my cooking.
Do try the Red Lentil Dahl with Coconut, Lime and Tomato and let us know what you think – we recommend Fresh Spice for anyone wanting to perk up their dinner table!
Fresh Spice is currently available from Amazon priced at £25