Chana Dal with Spinach, Cucumber and Pomegranate
The vast majority of Indian recipes involve lengthy lists of dried spices, fresh and dried herbs, and other flavor-building bases. These are intense and delicious. Then there are those others, relying on elegant simplicity that, despite employing only a few ingredients, are still complex and immensely satisfying.
Today’s is one of those more simplistic recipes, in time for lighter fare desired for warmer afternoons and evenings. The ingredients can be varied for enjoyment any day of the year, though, and you’ll see some of my recommendations below.
This cheerful dish is composed of the mildly sweet chana dal we met last week, with wilted spinach leaves and onion, garlic, cumin and turmeric gently warmed in oil to coax out their flavors. Cucumber chunks offer a cooling component; pomegranate arils, a bright crunch and visual appeal. A final layer of freshness from lemon juice and cilantro leaves before serving.
Roasted, sauteed or grilled vegetables, such as zucchini or yellow squash, sweet spring peas, small brown mushrooms, eggplant or okra, would be delicious alternatives to the cucumber. To vary the spice theme as the seasons change, try sweet flavors like cinnamon, cardamom and anise paired with fresh or toasted coconut, blanched almonds and currants or golden raisins; or the earthiness of brown mustard seeds, whole coriander seeds, fennel seeds with slivers of fresh red and green chillies.
Serve as is, or pair with complementary plant proteins* like Basmati or brown rice, quinoa, or a sprinkling of black nigella seeds or other seeds. Plain yogurt, the yogurt-based sauce raita, or a fresh herb chutney (like cilantro, or mint + coconut) would be welcome as well.
Leftovers, if there are any, will thicken a bit as they rest in the refrigerator. Add a glug of coconut milk or stock when reheating and serve over quinoa or rice, or spoon onto a warm naan, pita or wrap-type bread with more fresh greens, herbs and lemon juice. I’d even scoop up a bowlful with besan crackers!
Tell me… What changes would you make to personalize this dish to your tastes?
Maternal Nutrition Bonus: Chana dal is loaded with nutrients vital for fertility, pregnant mums + developing fetuses, and breastfeeding! Zinc in particular is abundant in legumes like chana dal — very important to keep the immune system strong and primed for conception, balancing reproductive hormones, and promoting healthy eggs (also good to boost sperm motility for the future dads). Adequate zinc is also linked to decreased risk of preterm delivery and low birthweight, and is a key factor in maintaining levels of prolactin — the primary hormone for regulating milk production. Zinc also helps decrease absorption of any heavy metals you may consume through foods or from packaging.
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 cup chana (Bengal gram) dal, picked through, soaked overnight and drained
- 1 tbsp olive or coconut oil (or ghee; not vegan)
- 1 small onion, sliced into thin rings
- 3 small cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 heaping handfuls fresh spinach (coarsely chopped if leaves are very large)
- 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cubed
- 1/2 cup pomegranate arils
- juice from 1/2 lemon, plus wedges, to serve
- a small handful picked fresh cilantro leaves, to serve
- Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in baking soda until dissolve, and then add soaked and drained chana dal. Stir once, cover and cook at a gentle simmer. Do not stir again until about 45 minutes into the cooking time to let the dal do their thing. At this time, begin to stir occasionally, and add more water by the tablespoonful if sticking to the bottom of the pan. Chana dal should take a total of 60 to 90 minutes, or until tender enough to break down easily when pressed between two fingers. Remove from the heat and set aside (strain if excess liquid remains).
- When the chana dal is nearly ready, begin to heat the oil in medium skillet. Add the onion and sweat over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally -- try not to let them brown. Add garlic and stir 1 minute, until fragrant. Add cumin, turmeric, spinach leaves and the dal. Stir to fully incorporate the ingredients, and cook 5 minutes to just wilt the spinach.
- Remove from the heat and season lightly with salt and pepper. Add cucumber, pomegranate arils and lemon juice; mix well. Taste, and adjust as needed with more lemon juice (acid/tang/salt) or pepper (spice/heat). Garnish with lemon wedges, sprinkle with whole cilantro leaves, and serve warm.
Another trick to soften is to add 1/4 tsp baking soda to the water before heating. (Note: Omit this step if you plan to use a pressure cooker, lest chana mush is your goal. Then again, this would be a great food for bubs and toddlers because of the creamy texture and rich nutrition!)
One cup of dry, uncooked chana dal yields 2 2/3 cups once cooked. Therefore, the suggested serving size of 1/4-cup (dry) should yield about 2/3-cup cooked. Make extras and refrigerate/freeze leftovers for later!
Recipe adapted from Cook Republic.
*As was discussed in the Have you met… post, chana dal is a high-quality plant protein and contains eight of the nine essential amino acids. Pairing this protein source with a complementary plant protein ensures nutritional balance. And, contrary to previous thinking, complementary proteins do not actually need to be eaten together within the same meal — only within the same day. To make a complete protein with legumes like chana dal, pair with grains (a great match), nuts or seeds (great), or dairy (good).
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