Spinach dal

Since Jon and I got together, our tastes have merged somewhat. There are still things we will never agree on, for example, I have always been a believer in that bit from the Simpsons, that one where Homer is dead and Dr. Hibbert pulls broccoli from his corpse. “Yet another broccoli related death,” says Dr. Hibbert. “But I thought broccoli was healthy,” says Marge. “Oh no,” says Dr. Hibbert, “one of the deadliest plants on earth. Why, it tries to warn you with its terrible taste.” Yet despite the obvious truth of everything in the Simpsons, Jon calls broccoli “the king of vegetables”.

Other than this and a few others, we generally agree on most things, food-wise. I’ve mentioned before about my incredibly fussy eating, particularly as a child but to some extent continued today. Jon was never as fussy as me, but he did have some peculiar dislikes (we’ll save the discussion of his cherry phobia for another day) which, in my opinion, were not so much dislikes of the actual food but of the way he had encountered them. He now devours peas like they are going to be rationed, and as he eats, happily says, “I love peas! Didn’t used to!” Similarly, with the various different apple pies and tarts that I make, he wolfs them all down but he still maintains that he doesn’t like apple pie BUT he makes an exception for mine. This is because the apple pie he has in mind, the benchmark apple pie, is one from a bakery in north London called Sharon’s. It’s horrible – an overly sweet crust, with the apples inside in a claggy goo. It sullies the good name of apple pie.

Actually, we once had a whole ridiculous conversation about Sharon’s apple pie. Jon was maintaining that he doesn’t like apple pie, as a general rule. My point, which got slightly obscured in the heat of the argument, was that he does like apple pie, he just doesn’t like Sharon’s apple pie, and any other rubbish apple pies. I was trying to say that, if he’s going to have a general rule about apple pie, it should be, “I like apple pie” and then he could have exceptions to the rule, which would be the various bad apple pies that he doesn’t like. The discussion got more and more heated until I said, “but what if you were sitting here, eating my apple pie, and Sharon came in and said, “but you said you didn’t like apple pie!” THEN what would you say? Huh? Huh? What’s your answer to THAT?”

Yes, I accept that Sharon is unlikely to come over and say anything about apple pie, even if Sharon is an actual person and not just a brand name. Sharon sells hundreds of these inferior pies every day and she won’t care at all if Jon doesn’t want to eat one. But my real point here is that often people think they don’t like things, but they do. It could be that they refuse to eat all apple pies because they’ve had one horrible one, or it could be that they think they don’t like courgettes but when you call a yellow courgette a squash then actually courgettes are pretty nice.

Or it could be lentils. Lots of people (men, mostly, I think) say that they won’t eat a meal of lentils. Jon is now a big fan of the recipe I’m about to share with you, but he admits that a few years ago if you’d suggested that he would eat a plate of lentils and call it dinner, he’d ask what the main course was. My dad is the same, although I’m not convinced that even now he accepts that lentils can make up a nutritious, satisfying meal.

This recipe, though, is really one to try, even if you are unsure about lentils. From a nutritional perspective it is a bit of a super-meal, it is really tasty and, very importantly, really quick and easy and perfect for a mid-week supper.

I adapted this recipe from Tarla Dalal, who is apparently the Delia Smith of India.

Makes 4 or 5 adult portions

  • 3/4 cup of red lentils (I use an ordinary kitchen mug for this recipe, and it works just fine)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 green chillies
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 large knob of ginger (equivalent in size to about 3 garlic cloves)
  • 250g spinach
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp amchur powder (this (dried unripe mango powder) is available from Indian stores. If you can’t find it, you could use the juice of half a lemon to achieve the sour element, or a teaspoon or two of tamarind paste)
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
  1. Put the lentils and water into a saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. When I make this it nearly always bubbles over, so watch it carefully, and use a bigger saucepan than you really need.
  2. If you have a food processor, de-seed the chillies, and put them in the food processor with the ginger and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor, then finely dice the chillies, grate the ginger and crush the garlic. Set them aside.
  3. Finely dice the onion.
  4. Heat the oil in a second, large saucepan. When it is hot, throw in the cumin seeds and a few seconds later add the onion. Fry on a medium heat until the onion is translucent. Then add the chilli, ginger and garlic, and stir and fry for a few more minutes.
  5. The lentils should be soft and cooked now. If they are not, turn down the heat in the onion saucepan and wait, then tip the lentils and their remaining liquid into the saucepan with the onion.
  6. Stir and add the tomato puree, amchur powder, turmeric and salt.
  7. Roughly chop the spinach and add to the saucepan. Stir and cook until it is all wilted and mixed in. Taste, and add more salt, amchur or tomato puree as needed.
  8. Depending on the consistency of the dal and what you prefer, you could keep cooking to reduce it a little more, or you can serve straight away. It’s good with rice or chapattis.

Baby-friendly version

At 2, do not add the chillies, but chop or process and keep aside.
At 6, do not add the salt.
After 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add the chillies and salt to the remainder, and cook for another 10 minutes to make sure that the flavours blend together.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 169 kcal
  • Carbs: 24g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 11g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 736mg
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