Monday, March 21, 2011

The Soup Project: Masoor Dal

Turnips, leeks and beets sparkled in the sun at the market on Saturday. These winter root treasures could be great soup inspiration if I hadn't already seen these vegetables for so many weeks now. Even though there are so many at the market now, I'm over these root vegetables for the season, and can hardly face them anymore. I'm hungry for summer fare, and good local Northwest vegetables are still months away. What's a cook to do?

My thoughts turned to pantry options and favorite soups of the past. I wondered if there were any possibilities in my own recipe files? (Or the stacks of recipes I refer to as "files.") It didn't take long until I thought of the perfect recipe that I wanted to share.

Called Masoor Dal, this curried lentil soup recipe originally came from Silence Heart Nest, a restaurant in the U-District that I'd thought had folded, until I discovered this website recently listing their new address in Fremont.

I used to meet my friend Paula at Silence Heart Nest for lunch years ago when I taught vegetarian cooking classes at North Seattle Community College, Edmonds Community College and PCC Natural Markets. Most of the food on the menu at this restaurant was on the bland side for my taste, but they served this amazing dal soup that I ended up ordering every time Paula and I got together.

One day, I noticed Silence Heart Nest offered copies of the recipes and my favorite Masoor Dal with red lentils was the first recipe listed. I made this recipe over and over again, but now it's been years since I've made it. It wasn't hard to find because the original recipe is on bright lime green paper. And there it was, tucked into a stack of saved recipes.

The main ingredients are red lentils, onions and garlic. Red lentils cook so fast and the smooth texture is comfort food at its finest. I had plenty of onions on hand, but I'd finished using all the garlic that I'd saved from last fall, so I took out garlic powder from the pantry. This isn't really just any old garlic powder, but I bought both garlic and onion powder from JoanE at Rent's Due Ranch last season. They're different than commercial brands because they are dried at lower temperatures and have much better flavor. I decided to toss in some of the onion powder, too and I also added vegetables to the line-up--carrots, celery, rutabaga, potato and carrots. Okay I caved, and added root vegetables again but soup for dinner has to be the full-meal-deal at our house.

My Cooking Assistant makes no apologies for pointing out his favorite addition to this soup.

Here's my adapted version of this savory soup:

Masoor Dal
Mama Lil's are my first choice for peppers when pepper season is months away, and if you want to use fresh, make sure it's organic because peppers are on the top ten list of pesticide-contaminated vegetables. Another alternative, cayenne, works but doesn't have as much flavor as Mama Lil's.

3 medium onions, diced
2 tablespoons light sesame or canola oil
1 tablespoon butter or ghee (optional)
1 heaping tablespoon Mama Lil's peppers, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or 1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, or 2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon onion powder (optional)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 carrot, sliced
1 rutabaga, diced
2 stalks celery, sliced
1 red potato, diced
1 heaping cup red lentils
28-ounce can fire-roased diced tomatoes
4 to 5 cups water or stock
Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
Ghee or canola oil
1 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat a heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and oil; cook and stir until onions soften. Add butter, peppers, curry powder, garlic powder, turmeric, carrot, rutabaga, celery, potato and red lentils. Stir until all ingredients are coated, then add tomatoes and water or soup stock. Bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for approximately 40 minutes, stirrring frequently. Add more water if needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Heat a skillet over medium heat while soup cooks, and saute the mustard and cumin seeds in ghee or canola oil. Blend in the seeds with cilantro (if desired) and a squeeze of lemon.

I hadn't finished making the garnish yet, and daylight was fading fast, so I thought the Port Madison spring cheese that I got at the market would pair perfectly in a photo with the soup. My assistant was overly eager to pose as soon as he saw the food and my camera. So he quickly got into position and I snapped what I thought was the perfect photo, but now that I see that the rascal was way more fascinated by the scent of this equisite goat cheese from Port Madison Farm. Who can blame him?

Dress up this soup in any way that suits you. Have fun and make it your way.

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