Monday, December 26, 2011

Season's Greetings and Soupy Things

It’s the holiday season! Christmas and New Year and Don 2 to look forward to :) Aah, yes, that way I always have my priorities right. Most people have got their woollens out, have got tickets booked to exotic destinations and the hottest parties, and are generally planning to ring in the New Year in style. Not me. For one, there is no winter here in Mumbai... though I guess I should be grateful for the slight nip in the air and for the fact that we don’t have to switch on AC’s at night at least. Secondly, I hate going out on New Year’s eve. It’s too crazy, crowded and complicated. I prefer being at home, maybe with a few friends... and then going for a nice long, leisurely brunch on New Year’s day.

But whichever is your preferred way of celebrating the onset of the festive season, good food cannot be far behind. This is the month of indulgence! Good wine, rich soups, roasted meats, earthy flavours and decadent desserts... I am hoping to get some or all of the above into my system this season :) The process has started already. The last week or so, I find myself in the kitchen every day. Gajar ka halwa, red velvet cupcakes, caramel custard, chicken cooked with shallots, fresh red chillies and port wine, traditional Oriya dalma and more have been made and devoured! Yes yes, I promise to upload recipes soon... erm... well at least by next year!

So let me sign off for this year (I don’t know if I will have the time to post from now till the New Year) with a thick, creamy, rich, spicy, warm soup that’s hearty, filling and just perfect for the winter months. It is soup made with these lentils called Val Dal in Maharashtra. I think they are also known as dried Lablab beans, Hyacinth beans or Field beans. I had never seen or cooked with these dried beans before. But when I saw a packet at the supermarket, I picked it up thinking it would be nice to experiment with a new dal. They seem to be quite common in Maharashtra. My Maharashtrian cook seemed to know all about them and said they are made into curries and regular Rajma type dishes. But that they have to be soaked in water for at least 2 whole days at room temperature for the hard skins to come off easily! Now that bit of information was quite intimidating and stopped me from using these lentils for quite some time. Finally, when I decided to get on with it, she turned out to be right!

Day 1 – soaked the lentils/dried beans at night and woke up in the morning to see they were as hard as before with the skins resolutely stuck.
Day 2 – Stinky, fermented water had to be drained, beans soaked again in fresh water, the skins now seemed less resistant, but the beans were still a bit hard for my liking. Decided to not risk it.
Day 3 – More stinky, fermented water drained! A lot of skins floated up and could be discarded. Remaining beans - each bean individually squeezed between thumb and index finger so that the bean pops into a container and the skin remains in your hand. About 15min of therapeutic popping and throwing later, I had a bowl of gleaming white Val dal!

I know... it sounds like so much work! But the trick is to soak the lentils in water and then forget all about them for at least 2-3days. Frankly I don’t see what the fuss is about the skins. Yes, they are a little tough, but I think if you were to pressure cook the beans even after a day or two of soaking, they should be edible enough. But since I haven’t tried that myself, will just voice it as an opinion and not a suggestion :P

Dried Val Dal/Field beans/Hyacinth beans/Lablab beans – 1 large cup (soaked for 2 days and skins removed)
Fresh Basil – 10 leaves
Onions – 1 large
Olive Oil – 1 tbsp
Salt – to taste
Pepper – freshly ground – 1 tsp
Mixed dried herbs of your choice – 1 tsp
Milk – ½ cup

Heat the olive oil in a non stick pan or vessel and sauté 1 large onion that has been chopped finely. Just when the onion starts browning, add the soaked, drained and peeled Val Dal. Stir and cook for about 8min. Now tear about 5 basil leaves into tiny pieces or chiffonade them. Add these along with a little salt, pepper and mixed herbs of your choice to the beans that are cooking. Stir, cover and cook for another 5-10min till the beans turn soft. Switch off the stove and let this mixture cool a bit.

Now transfer into your food processor jar, add a little stock or water, and grind to a fine paste.  
Transfer this puree or paste back into the non-stick vessel and cook on a low flame. Add 2 cups of water or stock and bring to a boil. Taste and adjust seasoning. When the soup reaches a nice. Thick consistency, add half a cup of skimmed milk and gently cook for some more time. Bring the soup to a boil again and check seasoning. When you are happy with the creamy, thick consistency of the soup, remove from flame. This serves about 3-4 people.
The way I like it:
Serve hot with soup sticks and use the remaining basil leaves to garnish each individual bowl of soup.