Looks like hell, tastes like dinner: Cauliflower Daal

Not everything you cook is going to be beautiful.  There are times that you just need to man up and agree that sometimes entrees are like babies; the rest of the world might shudder and recoil, but Mama is always going to think she has the prettiest peach in the pram.  More importantly, sometimes dinner might look like someone’s leftover breakfast, but that just means you’re eating delicious daal.  Get over it, and come join us on the East side……

Daal (also spelled dahl, dal, and dhal) is a dish of stewed and spiced pulses or legumes.  I highly recommend that you do a blind taste test on daal before you dismiss it.  Popular in the cuisine of many Far East cultures, daal is as pervasive in India as it is in Nepal, and from Sri Lanka to Guyana.  Daal can be a blend of vegetables and pulses, or just plain old seasoned and stewed lentils, in shades such as brown, yellowish brown, reddish brown, orangey yellow, kind of greenish and beige.  None of them look particularly appetizing to the novice; all of them are delicious.

If you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful vegan entree, look no further.  The way that I see it, daal is the Eastern equivalent of mac’n’cheese.  Soft and digestible comfort food, deliciously moreish and full of balanced protein and carbohydrates, daal can easily sub in as the main meal but is often served along with a few other side dishes to accompany slow cooked meat.  See? Just like mac’n’cheese.  The only key differences would be an embarrassing amount of full fat dairy and about 1200 calories per serving. Other than that though, you know, totally the same.

When I realized that we had never posted a recipe for daal on Choosy Beggars, it was clearly an oversight on our part.  However, I thought that I would start you off slow…..a sunny yellow cauliflower and split pea daal might take about three times as long to prepare as a red or black lentil daal, but we’re all about the baby steps here.  We’ll start you off with something that looks moderately edible, and then as soon as you’re hooked (which you will be, and fast), we’ll throw you into the fire. Figuratively, of course.  Just remember that when it comes to daal, the appearance and flavor have a converse relationship; the uglier it is, the more delicious it is bound to be.

Cauliflower Daal

Serves 6 as a meal with rice, 8-10 as one of several entree options

  • 1.5 cups yellow split peas *
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 3 tbsp oil, divided **
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 4 fat cloves garlic
  • 1 knob ginger (1.5″)
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 1/2 large head cauliflower
  • 4 green chili peppers
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Bengali Five Spice (Panch Phoron)

  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seed
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seed
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1/2 tsp nigella seed ***
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seed

* Yellow split peas can be found in most East or West Indian grocery stores, sometimes labeled as Bengali cholar dal, matar ki dal or mutter dal.  These larger, drier peas are not the same as chana dal, which I think of as “yellow lentils”.  The taste is similar and you can often use them in similar preparations, but yellow split peas do not break down into mush as readily as their lentil cousins, and as you can imagine the cooking time is much, much longer.

** Olive oil is the healthy choice, but mustard oil has a lovely complementary flavor.

*** Nigella seed looks like black sesame but has an incredibly intoxicating and aromatic fragrance.  Nigella is often misrepresented as black onion seed  or black cumin seed, neither of which is accurate but might help you to find it.  It is frequently sold in Eastern grocery stores as kalonji, kalo jeera or mangrail.

Pick through the split peas and discard any pebbles, dirt or debris.  Put the split peas into a large pot along with the water and turmeric.  Place over moderately high heat and bring the mixture to a boil.  Let it boil for 5 minutes before covering the pot, turning the heat down to a simmer and letting the peas cook for 45 minutes.

Heat up one (1) tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add all five panch phoron spices and temper (fry) them in the oil until they are fragrant and crackling.  Do not let the spices burn, so keep a close eye and stir as they toast in the oil.  After the spices have cooked for about a minute, immediately scrape the oil and spices out of the pan and set them aside.

Do not scrape out the pan, but do try to ensure that there are no more seeds clinging to the sides.

Peel and dice the onion. Mince the peeled garlic and ginger.  In the same pan, heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil over moderate heat.  Sweat the onion for about 5 minutes until it is translucent and then add the ginger and garlic. Continue to saute the mixture until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, stirring intermittently to prevent burning.

Dice the tomatoes and add the chunks, along with all accumulated juices, to the pan.

Let this cook down, stirring regularly, until the tomatoes have broken down and the mixture has thickened enough that your wooden spoon leaves a trail in the pan as you stir.

Finely dice the chili peppers and add this to the mixture.  Let this cook for another minute before taking the pan off the heat.

Separate the cauliflower into bite sized florets and discard the woody stem (I like to reserve this and add it to pureed vegetable soups, but that’s because I am a hoarder).  Add the cauliflower to the yellow split peas which, after 45 minutes of simmering, should be somewhat tender but still have a bit of bite and texture to them.  Put the lid back on the pan and let the cauliflower steam in the peas and juices for 15 minutes.

Stir in the tomato mixture and spices with oil.

Let the mixture continue to simmer for 5 minutes if you like the cauliflower to be tender but shapely, or 30 minutes for the cauliflower to break down into a textured sauce.  Surprisingly, that is my preference.  Maybe it is because most of the daal I have eaten has had the texture of baby food, or maybe it’s just because there is something innately comforting about a bowl of mushy peas that you just don’t get from tender-crisp cauliflower, but the worse it looks, the better daal tastes.

Served with long grain brown basmati and a blood pumping spicy lime pickle on the side, this is an incredibly satisfying yet heart healthy vegan dinner.  The best part, however, is that I could make this for my militant-conspiracy-theorist-vegetarian brother, who would eat it by the shovelful, but when I serve it to my carnivorous husband he also scarfs it down without once pausing to ask, “Where’s the beef?”  After all, it looks like hell, but it tastes like dinner!

  • Teagranny

    This looks healthy and delicious. I love the vibrant yellow color! Doesn’t look like baby food at all, there are a lot of people who eat dal daily.

  • http://www.eatatburp.com lo

    Honestly — that’s pretty darned beautiful food you’ve got there, Beggars. All bright mustardy yellow and full of flavor.

    As a dal lover, you’ve totally wooed me doubly with your split pea-filled ramblings.

  • Nanco

    Ooh, this looks good!! I still remember when in high school, I had some daal made by my friend’s grandma who was from Kashmir and I had never tasted anything so delicious! I’ve never tried making it but I’m going to make this for dinner this week and can’t wait. (Your recipes always exceed my expectations!)

  • Katie

    Just made it for dinner! But, sadly it didn’t turn out as stewy as yours. The tomatoes never really broke down so I added canned crushed tomatoes, but that didn’t seem to help. Also, the lentils never really got mushy. My theory is that it is because I live in Colorado, high altitude maybe?

    Besides that I’m still eatin it! It is delicious either way, thank you for the recipe!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Katie,
      Thank you for your comment!! Okay, so my thought is that although altitude may play a role and require a longer cooking time and a higher temperature, I think that there are more likely culprits. First of all, this is really not the season for tomatoes. Your average grocery store tomato is thick, fleshy cardboard which means that it will be as resistant to breaking down as an eggplant. That isn’t to say that it won’t happen, just that it takes time. In terms of the yellow split pea, they do need a longer cooking time so perhaps they just needed a bit more heat and a bit more time? You can’t overcook this dish. Seriously. It has the texture of mushy with little floret remnants thrown in for good stead. The other thing that could have affected the peas was age. Generally, legumes and pulses that are old, weather affected (ex, left in the open or improperly sealed for a few months) or poorly dried will be tougher and often stay that way. It is easier to see in beans which don’t puff up as much and stay wrinkly, dense and hard, but the same goes for yellow split peas or some of the larger lentils.
      If you try it again, I would give it a bit more heat, a bit more time, and a whole lot of anticipation!!