I was in the mood for a curry. A luscious, beautiful curry bursting with flavor and color, and with just enough heat to faintly sear the edge of the lips. A book by the inimitable Simon Hopkinson suggested a recipe that seemed to fit the requirements perfectly. Spices, jeweled vegetables, and subtle red lentils, all bound together by the creaminess of coconut milk, and offset a degree by hot pepper and tangy lime. After making my inevitable changes in both ingredients and procedure, I doubt Simon would recognize the recipe as anything akin to his own. But the genesis of the idea lies squarely with him.
I had planned to make basmati rice to accompany the dal. Seemed perfectly logical, almost unthinkingly inevitable. But as the curry began to bubble, the scent of coconut milk filled the kitchen. That lovely and rich fragrance that is like no other. Even amidst the pungency of cumin, mustard, cloves, and garlic, that subtle richness was unmistakable. And even as I inhaled, the aroma filling my senses, only one thought occurred to me. Jasmine rice. Jasmine rice and coconut milk have a natural affinity. Despite the logic of choosing basmati, jasmine it was. And even more incongruous, perhaps, was the wine that Paulo and I drank with the dal. The only bottle of white that we already had chilled was a Viognier. Too sweet, one might think. But somehow the sweetness complemented the savory heat of the dal beautifully. An illogical meal, but oddly perfect.
A few notes about the recipe itself. If you are not vegan, considered using butter. It elicits the sweetness of the onion in a way that oil just doesn’t. But all means use fresh spinach instead of frozen (either one organic, preferably). I used frozen because I happened to have it on hand, and lacked sufficient time to run to the market. The result was fully delicious. As for the tomatoes, unless you have truly vine-ripened specimens straight from a garden, good-quality canned tomatoes have a significantly better flavor. (There the purists go again, screaming at me.) And the lentils. I usually encourage substitutions, but for this recipe I must demur. Red lentils add a wonderfully subtle richness to the curry, but brown or green lentils have too strong a presence, which would overwhelm the other flavors. As the curry stands, the balance between elements is wonderful.
Spinach and Coconut Dal
2 T butter (or oil)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
3/4 cup split red lentils
1 2/3 cup water
1 2/3 cup coconut milk
3″ length of ginger, quartered, unpeeled
2 14-oz. cans diced tomatoes, with juice
1 lb. frozen chopped spinach, thawed
juice of 2 limes
In the butter saute the cumin, mustard, and cloves until nicely fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and saute until the onion begins to soften and turn translucent. Sprinkle on the turmeric and cayenne, and stir for 1 minute. Add the lentils, water, coconut milk, ginger, and tomatoes. Incorporate well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn up the heat and cook until the mixture begins to boil, then cover, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer until the lentils have nearly disintegrated, about 20 to 30 minutes (depending upon the particular lentils). Stir the curry regularly during this time in order to prevent the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
In the meantime, squeeze the excess liquid from the spinach. Once the lentils are very tender, stir in the spinach and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the hunks of ginger. Stir in the lime juice. Add salt and pepper, if needed. Serve over your favorite rice.