Because I have strange habits, I spent a lot of time one night last week watching videos on YouTube of grandmothers and other home cooks making dal makhani, a rich black lentil dish from the Punjab region. Unpolished home cooking videos are one of my favorite ways to learn how to make a dish that is foreign to me, and while what I’ve made here isn’t an authentic black lentil (urad) dal, it’s worth knowing why it is isn’t. For example, it would have a small portion of kidney beans (rajma) it in too, you’d definitely have soaked your lentils and beans together the night before and in almost every case, cooked them in a pressure cooker on another burner while making the spiced base sauce, and then together for a little or long while. The more authentic versions I looked at have a lot more butter and cream in them, and only sometimes began with an onion. In every case, the cook had a “ginger-garlic paste” that seemed to have come prepared, something I was previously unfamiliar with but find brilliant as they are so often better together, and of course all spices were added with eyeballed measurements.
It’s also much more loose. A traditional dal is like a gravy or a loose soup, but here I go for something thicker, almost like a chili. You can loosen it a bit with more water and serve it like a soup, or ladled over rice; you can also add a spoonful of rice to the middle, as we did with this soup to give it a bit more heft. We ate it in small bowls with some toasted naan and these potatoes and cauliflower on the side, a forever favorite.
But you can’t write about a dish known as buttery lentils without talking about all the of cream and butter typical in it, and for this, can we talk for a minute about monter au beurre? Literally, lifted or raised with butter, it’s one of these French cooking techniques that sounds complicated but isn’t at all — it’s just finishing a sauce or dish with additional butter for maximum flavor impact. This idea of putting rich ingredients where you can best taste them has useful home cooking applications, especially here. I find that by finishing this with a smidgen of butter (salted, please) and a spoonful of cream, rather than cooking much larger amounts into the dish, it tastes like you’re eating the most decadent thing on earth without the arterial implications that go with it. It also means you get to have it more often, which was, after all, the goal.
Punjabi-Style Black Lentils
- 2 tablespoons oil, butter (regular or ghee)
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1-inch piece of ginger, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala (optional but traditional)
- Ground chile powder, to taste (I started with a 1/2 teaspoon, but I have to keep things weak for kids)
- 1 cup finely chopped or pureed tomatoes, fresh or from a can
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
- 1 cup dried black lentils
- 4 1/2 cups water, plus more to taste
- 4 teaspoons butter (salted is lovely here)
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Handful chopped fresh cilantro