These days I do most of my recipe-clipping on Pinterest, but I still have a recipe folder on my browser’s bookmarks bar dating back from the days before ‘pinning’ was a household term (shocking, I know). The heart of the collection is a sub-folder marked “Tried and True,” which holds those special recipes that I’ve come back to again and again… the keepers! Along with the formula behind killer pumpkin garlic knots, this folder is also home to an unassuming yellow dal bookmarked from Smitten Kitchen. I made this recipe for the first time in college, just starting to dip my toes into Indian cooking, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve served it up since then!
This dish has been a dinner staple in my house for a lot of reasons. For one, the recipe is really straightforward, easy enough to commit to memory. It’s also super inexpensive. I do my best to cook with economy and grace, and these tasty lentils make it easy: all of the budget-friendly benefits of dried beans, but with no soaking needed. It’s a hearty vegetarian (easily vegan) source of protein – about 14 grams per serving, before the yogurt garnish. And those healthy legumes are filled out with plenty of vegetables and nutritious spices. I’ve been putting more focus on anti-inflammatory foods in my diet lately, and the turmeric, cumin, coriander, cayenne and garlic in this recipe all offer functional health benefits to reduce inflammation in the body. This is definitely an example of getting your flavor from real food, and this enticing combination is so nutritious that it’s practically medicinal!
There’s a lot to love about this dal already, but there’s one more thing that takes it to the next level: Instant Pot! My faithful pressure-cooking companion has made this procedure another notch simpler, and I just had to get this on paper for my fellow devotees. Follow the original technique if you’d rather cook on the stovetop, but this is my method now!
When I used to follow the original recipe, I would cook the lentils first and make a spicy sauteed onion tadka to stir in at the end. Now, I take advantage of Instant Pot’s Saute function to cook those ingredients first before adding the lentils to the same pot (the actual legume-cooking-time is so much quicker under pressure, that I no longer find it worth it to cook the aromatics separately). I don’t know if purists may turn up noses at this technique, but to my tastes the results are perfectly delicious.
Today I used an equal mix of red lentils and yellow split peas, but you can also just pick one or the other – they’re similar in texture and flavor. Just don’t use hardier lentils like brown, green or black, because those won’t break down into a smooth consistency like these will. After stirring in the water, this mixture cooks under pressure for 10 minutes.
It doesn’t look so pretty when we open the lid, but don’t fret. Take this opportunity to easily pick out the slivers of tomato skin, and then the dal is easily whisked to a smooth, almost-puree consistency.
You could stop with just the perfectly spicy, tomato-infused lentils, but on the other hand… why not add a TON of spinach?!? The delicate leaves wilt right in, and add so much extra nutrition. You can even add more than this if you like, go nuts! I use fresh when I have it, but I also keep frozen spinach on hand for this.
To make this a full meal, I top with a generous dollop of cold, plain yogurt and lots of fresh cilantro, then serve the dal with a side of whole grain rice or naan. It’s really hard for me to do justice to how delicious this is… it doesn’t seem so exciting because it’s a bowl of stewed lentils, vegetables and greens – not to mention peasant food – but I’m honestly always happy to sit down to a bowl of this dal. Those unassuming ingredients come together into something unexpectedly rich, savory, spicy and satisfying. Trust me… it’s a keeper!
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[Instant Pot] Everyday Lentil & Spinach Dal
- 2 tablespoons coconut or olive oil
- 1 large onion red or yellow, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon dried cayenne pepper
- 1 1/2 cups red lentils or yellow split peas or a combination of both
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 large tomato cut into 6-8 wedges
- several big handfuls of spinach about 4 cups
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro chopped (optional)
- 2 teaspoons butter optional – this gives a richer flavor, but leave it out to keep it lighter/vegan
- plain yogurt
- fresh cilantro
- cooked brown rice or naan
- Add the coconut or olive oil to the pressure cooker to cook over medium heat (press the ‘Saute’ button to begin cooking at medium saute heat). When the oil is hot, add the chopped onions and cook until they soften and become translucent. Stir in the garlic, and cook for another minute until fragrant. Turn off the heat (hit the ‘Cancel’ button), then add the cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne and mix well to combine.
- Add the lentils, water, salt and tomato wedges and stir into the onion mixture. Cover the Instant Pot with the lid, and be sure that the valve is in sealed position. Press the ‘Manual’ button and adjust cooking time to 10 minutes. After the program is finished, press ‘Cancel’ to turn off warming mode, and wait 10 minutes before opening the valve to release pressure.
- Remove and discard the tomato skins, and whisk together the lentils to emulsify, smashing the tomato wedges against the side of the pot if needed. Add the spinach, along with cilantro and/or butter if desired, and stir to combine. The residual heat will wilt the spinach quickly.
- Serve over brown rice or with naan, topped with plain yogurt and fresh cilantro.