There are a few things this dish is not.
There are a few things this dish is.
I try and eat vegetarian dinners at least three times a week. The other four days will usually mean fish once or twice, and meat the rest of the time. It's probably a psychological thing, brought on by all the food publications I read telling me to eat less meat because it's both bad for the environment and for my body, but I just feel cleaner somehow when I've had a vegetarian dinner. Not just cleaner, but - oddly enough - more satisfied. If I've managed to make something moreish and delicious without recoursing to a giant joint of pork or a bland chicken breast, I get an immense feeling of satisfaction.
This is usually because meat is so damn expensive these days. I'm not sure it's suddenly surged in price overnight, but it constantly strikes me as more expensive than I expect. I think it might be because I'm not at university any more - at Oxford I could go to the butcher and buy a beautiful £25 piece of beef topside because I'd then invite eight people round for dinner who would each give me £4 to contribute, and so it really wasn't as if I'd spent any money at all. Here at home with my family, my mum baulks at the cost of a joint of beef or a whole free range chicken, so I feel guilty when I ask for money to go and get one for dinner.
Instead, I've been trying lately to devise delicious vegetarian dinners that don't cost the earth. That's another reason for the satisfaction; if I've managed to make something a) meat-free and b) delicious that's also c) cheap - well, isn't that the holy grail of recipes? (Ardent carnivores, like many of my friends, would of course disagree wildly with part a).
Normally, when trying to come up with an interesting vegetarian recipe, I turn to the aubergine. This is without a doubt my favourite vegetable, with red peppers coming in a close second. There's nothing quite like an aubergine baked or grilled to unctuous, silky softness, its rich and smoky flavour combining so well with any seasoning or ingredient you care to throw at it. It also has a meaty enough texture to fill that flesh-shaped void in your dinner. My all-time aubergine recipe is this wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi creation. I think I could quite happily live off it. However, I like trying out new aubergine recipes in the hope that I'll find something to rival it.
I think this may just be that recipe.
I came across it on the BBC Good Food website a while ago, and it's been sitting in the 'Vegetarian' folder in my Food bookmarks section for weeks. Last night I decided to break out of my aubergine rut and try something different. I wasn't entirely sure what it would taste like - the idea of sweet and sour lentils was a bit hard to comprehend, but I went ahead. I've never made dhal before - I don't know if this is an entirely authentic recipe, but it tasted good enough to me.
The sweet and sour flavour comes from tamarind paste - if you've never tried this, the pulp of the tamarind fruit, you're in for a treat. It's rather like dates in its sticky sweetness, but a lot more sour. The paste is a thick black gloop that looks rather like molasses and is equally difficult to get off the spoon. It's used a lot in Asian cooking to add a delightful sweet-sour note, rather like pomegranate molasses in Middle Eastern cooking. I've only cooked with it once before, but this time I found myself licking the spoon quite assiduously.
Red lentils go in a pot with water, turmeric and tamarind and boil until soft. Then you caramelise some onion, add garlic and ginger and curry powder, and add the lentils. They cook down to a soft, earthy mass, rich with savoury flavours from the onion and ginger and with a gorgeous sweet-sour spicy taste from the tamarind and curry powder. It's not what you'd expect from a bowl of lentils, an ingredient that I think is sorely underrated and misunderstood. Lentils can be delicious, but too many people associate them with socks-and-sandals-wearing health freaks.
Add some slices of chargrilled aubergine, crisp on the outside and meltingly soft in the centre, and you have a truly incredible meal. I was really pleasantly surprised by this; the lentils are so moreish I could probably eat them on their own with a spoon, but against the smoky rich aubergine they are even more special. I was going to make some home-made naan bread to mop up the dhal, but in the end couldn't be bothered. You don't really need anything else, as this is a complete meal, but some steamed greens and maybe some naan bread or rice would make it extra tasty.
Unfortunately, it's not the prettiest dish, especially when photographed in a hurry in artificial light. Don't let that put you off.
Sweet and sour dhal with grilled aubergine (serves 4):
2 very large aubergines, cut into 1.5cm slices
250g red lentils, rinsed
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1.5 tbsp tamarind paste
2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5 inch piece ginger, grated
3 tsp curry powder
6 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
Cover the lentils with 1 litre water. Add the tamarind paste, turmeric and salt, cover and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until the lentils are very soft and most of the water has been absorbed.
Meanwhile, brush the aubergine slices with oil and cook on a griddle pan in batches until nicely charred on the outside and soft in the centre. You can put them in the oven at 160C to keep warm and cook through as you go.
Once the lentils are nearly done, fry the onion, garlic and ginger in a little oil until golden brown and softened. Add the curry powder and cook for another minute, then add the lentils and cook for 10 minutes, until thickened but still a little soupy. Add the coriander, and check the seasoning - mine needed a lot of black pepper. Remove the aubergine from the oven and serve on top of the dhal in bowls.
Serve as it is, or with some rice or naan bread to mop up the dhal.
(Adapted from BBC Good Food, here)