canola oil for frying
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1.5 inch piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
4 c. water
½ tsp sugar
½ tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt plus to taste
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp cumin seed
½ tsp anise or fennel seed
½ tsp cayenne
½ cup shredded coconut
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp ground cinnamon
First things first, go ahead and admit you are in a terrible mood. Really, just awful. Touchy and irritable, ready to banish any and all family members to the furthest reaches at the slightest affront. But look, take a deep breath and remind yourself that part of the reason you are doing this—cooking these meals, writing this book– is because you loved your father and despite the headache-inducing screeching sounds your children are making (and have been making all afternoon) from the other room, you love them, too.
Remind yourself that cooking usually makes you feel better and resolve to push through.
Check online for recipes. Read a few to get a sense of the basic shape of the dish and then decide to go forward with your own version. Recipes are good places to start.
Sort and rinse 1.5 c. chana dal in lots of cold water, and put into a pot with 4 c. of water, salt, sugar and turmeric…except you don’t have any. Dammit. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer. Skim the scum from the pot of dal and give it a stir every now and then. Add more water if it gets low. Cook until the dal are almost tender.
Chop an onion the way you saw it done on a cooking show once—hold it down with one hand and make parallel slices through the half moon, then lateral slices down to create a fairly perfect dice—and remember watching those proto-celebrity cooking shows, the Frugal Gourmet and the Singing Chef, with your dad.
Now remember him taking you to your first Indian meal in the restaurant in White Plains, NY. How the air there was pungent and redolent, oily and almost unbreathable.
Invite your vegan friend to join you for this meal. Wonder what your father—glutton and lover of world cuisine– would have thought of veganism. Realize you know the answer, but decide that he would have loved your friend–smart, wry, kind and curious– despite her dietary preferences.
Fry onions in three tbs. oil over med high heat until they begin to brown. Every Indian recipe you’ve ever read has admonished you not to go to quickly, not to skimp on this step. Slow down. This will take more than five or ten minutes and will be worth the wait.
Chop the garlic and ginger and add to the onions once they are good and brown. Fry for another minute or two. Add onions, garlic and ginger to dal.
Pull the bag that holds your bulk Indian spices from the pantry and check to see what you actually have on hand. Ground cumin, coriander, cumin seed, ground ginger, some red-brown powder labeled, simply, “hot,” ground cardamom, no fennel, but you do have anise seed which should work. Splay the spices and all the other ingredients over the single square foot of workable prep space you have in this kitchen (the last time you had an adequate kitchen, you were a child in your parents’ home) and feel the walls close in. Unbreathable.
In a food processor, combine the coconut, cinnamon, 1tsp cumin seed, coriander, cayenne and cardamom plus ¼ c. very hot water. Pulse into what is supposed to be a thick paste, but when yours turns out too soupy, remember that sometimes recipes are only good places to start.
Add paste to the simmering dal and cook for another twenty minutes or until dal is tender.
In a bit of oil, fry the remaining tsp of cumin seed and the anise for about a minute. Don’t burn it. Add it to the pot just before serving. Taste to check spice level. Add some more cayenne at the last minute. Why not match the heat to your level of angst? If you overdo it, don’t worry. There will soon be raita to cool all tempers.
Seed a cucumber and throw it into the food processor. Add a cup of plain yogurt, a handful of fresh mint, some ground cumin, salt and pepper. Process until smooth.
The kids will have stopped screaming, maybe, but they still won’t eat this. (You didn’t eat Indian until you were in college, after all.) Feed them bread and cheese and slices of orange pepper while you heat the nan and make a salad in your mother’s teak salad bowl. Its deep, elegant beauty alone might be enough to soothe you.
Let your friend, the vegan, keep the kids company at the table. Don’t worry about how this recipe isn’t perfect, how this day hasn’t been perfect, about how your fantasy of a family weekend most always gets derailed sometime mid-day on Sunday. Everyone’s screaming–actually or metaphorically–sick of everyone else and you all need to get back to your routine. Tomorrow.
Tonight, now, serve this dal over steaming hot basmati rice, topped with cilantro and drizzled with raita (spring green and tempting, even for a vegan) at the table. Pour a glass of chilled white wine, tell your husband and friend the story of that first rather mediocre Indian dinner with your dad, and really, Sheila, just calm the hell down and eat.