There are a few common denominators to most recipes for this dish - black lentils (whole urad dal), a smidge of red kidney beans, cumin, chili powder, onions. But the numerous variations beyond that were clearly indicative of the many different ways this dish can be prepared. However, the main common denominator was one that made this dish something that I never made: soaking lentils and kidney beans overnight.
Now, I certainly do soak dried beans (haven’t bought a can of chickpeas in months!), but I’m generally not good about planning meals in advance – I am prone to whims and want them satisfied immediately (ask my mom about this one – there’s a Tamil phrase for this and she’s been saying it to me as far back as I can remember). So a dish that required me to soak lentils overnight just never really happened. What can I say, I’m kinda lazy like that.
I thought and thought about how to get around this and it suddenly came upon me that if I cooked French lentils long enough, they would start to fall apart and get creamy, thereby mimicking the texture and flavor of whole urad dal. So I set to work one evening to see if my theory would hold true.
I haven’t had dal makhani in ages, so I’m not actually sure if this is an approximation of it, but, whatever it is, it sure is good. Matt devoured it and even my dad, who knows his North Indian food, loved it. The best part is that you can make it when the mood strikes you instead of having to plan in advance – and the instant gratification alone is enough to make this a winner.
Shortcut Dal Makhani
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic
1” piece of ginger
1-2 small green or red chilis
1 medium tomato
1 cup cooked red kidney beans*
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1 pod green cardamom
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ teaspoon red chili powder**
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup dried French black or green lentils
2 tablespoons yogurt
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves
*I used canned beans to make this meal quick, but you can soak and cook dried beans in advance
** I used ½ teaspoon but you can always add more to tast
Add the canola oil to a wide saucepan (I used a 4 quart) set over medium-high heat. Peel and finely chop the onion. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook until they are softened and starting to brown, about 5 minutes. If the onions start to brown too quickly, lower the heat.
In the meantime, peel and finely chop the garlic and ginger, then seed and chop the chilis. (Or you can do what I did – peel the garlic and ginger, then throw those, along with the chili, into a mini chopper.) Finely chop the tomato and set aside. Lightly mash the kidney beans and set aside.
Add the garlic-ginger-chili mixture and the cumin seeds to the saucepan after the onions have softened and cook for another 30 seconds. Add the tomato and cook for 1 minute. Add the mashed kidney beans, bay leaf, cardamom pod, cinnamon, tomato paste, chili powder, salt, and lentils to the pan along with 4 cups of water. Cover the pot and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat, crack the lid, and simmer until the kidney beans have fallen apart and the French lentils are very tender, about 40 minutes. Check on the lentils every now and then minutes and add more water if necessary. The final mixture should be slightly thick but not dry; it should have a thick gravy.
While the lentils are cooking, mix together the yogurt and milk in a small bowl and set aside. Finely chop the cilantro and set aside.
When the lentils are done, turn off the heat and stir in the butter, yogurt mixture, and cilantro. If it’s too thick, thin it out with a little bit of water. Serve warm with rice or chapati.