Toor-vana – Cooking the Perfect Pot of Dal Under Intense Pressure

Excerpt from My Upcoming New Book — Curry and Cupcakes: My Silver Lining Cookbook

See my recipe for Toor-vana at the end of this article — which will be included in my upcoming new book: Curry and Cupcakes — My Silver Lining Cookbook! Curry and Cupcakes

Our chaos-infused lives inside of the ashram got even crazier once a year after the guru announced that the ashram was going to hold an annual mela, which means Indian Fair — including lots of food booths, games, dance performances, and booths selling Indian music, jewelry, clothing, and more.

While everything took lots of time and careful planning to execute, the food prep was the biggest deal, because most people who came to the event expected to eat and drink a lot of delicious authentic Indian fair food — like dosa, samosas, chat puri, sweets, lassi, and chai. What’s more, food sales is where the money is!

In the frenzy of preparing for the ashram’s first-ever mela, which was held on a Saturday in the Spring from 12 noon to 5:00 p.m., no one thought about the fact that we still had to serve a dinner meal that evening for the devotees and guests.

I had worked in a drink booth for half the day, and then took off to hide in my room from the crowd and commotion (never my favorite aspect of ashram life).

At 5:00 p.m. my isolation was disturbed by the phone ringing. It was Sondra.

“We have a crisis. No one thought to cook dinner tonight. The devotees are hungry, the guests need to be served dinner, and all we’ve got is some leftovers from the mela,” she said.

After being overworked all day, everyone was looking forward to a simple nutritious dinner.

“Can you come down to the kitchen right now. Everyone else is busy with the mela. If you can make a pot of fresh toor dal and a salad, I’ll bring the leftovers from the booths to round out the meal.”

I changed back into work clothes, a sari, and ran down to the kitchen. I knew I had only 30 minutes before the devotees and guests would start filing into the community dining hall expecting supper. Meal times were fairly sacrosanct highlights in the course of our typically dull days.

On the way back down to the kitchen, I began strategizing my impromptu meal prep. I was still fairly new in the ashram and, while I’d cooked many meals, I had never yet cooked a pot of toor dal.

I did know the basic process from watching other cooks. Wash the lentils (toor is split yellow peas). Put them in the pressure cooker with water and a few tomatoes. Seal the lid. Turn it up high. And let the cooker do its thing — cook food really, really fast under high pressure.

I’d have to take several shortcuts to be ready close to mealtime.

This meal prep was going to put my already legendary efficiency skills to the test.

As soon as I entered into the kitchen, I started gathering the ingredients. I measured lentils, quickly checked for rocks and sticks (a typical step with Indian beans), washed them, dumped them in a large pressure cooker, added water, salt, and three tomatoes. I secured the lid and blasted the flame. Once the pot was boiling, it only had to cook for 10 minutes, then decompress for another 10 minutes. Because it’s a split pea, toor is a fast-cooking bean.

As the toor boiled, I cooked the spices in a small pan on the stove. First, heating the oil, then dropping in mustard seeds. When they popped and turned red, I added the grated ginger, curry leaves, turmeric, and more salt. There was no time to measure. I just had to eyeball it, just like I’d seen many Indian guest cooks do. I let the spices simmer on low heat while I gathered the ingredients for a salad.

I was a whiz at shredding lettuce, a skill I’d learned in my old restaurant days. I had the lettuce, grated carrots, and cubed tomatoes in the bowl in 10 minutes flat. I even spotted a few errant avocados in the walk-in refrigerator. I grabbed them and some yogurt, combining both with some salt, pepper, and apple cider vinegar — and made a delicious last-minute salad dressing (a treat we were typically discouraged by the guru to indulge in).

At the stroke of 5:30, like clockwork, people began walking into the kitchen asking, “When’s dinner?” and “What’s for dinner?” I recruited a few of the early birds to help me arrange plates, utensils, and napkins.

Sondra’s helpers started bringing in mela leftovers. I arranged the trays of leftover rice and samosas around one of our two kitchen islands, since the usual serving line was filled with mela paraphernalia.

Finally, it was time to release the pressure on the cooker. A geyser of hot air gushed and sputtered up to the kitchen ceiling. People were lined up now waiting for the main course.

That’s when I started to worry. I realized that I had no idea how the toor dal would turn out. After all, it was my first time. It could be bland, too spicy, too watery, too thick, or too salty.

Finally, the steam settled down. I removed the lid, poured in the spices, and stirred. I scooped out a spoonful and blew on it. Then I tasted my creation. It was spiced perfectly. In fact, it was rich with flavor.

Plus, it was neither too thick nor too soupy. Like the baby bear’s porridge in Goldilocks, it was “just right.”

Happy that the toor dal was a success, I rolled the dish over to the island, and the people started filling their plates. The reviews started coming in quickly, including my favorite: “This is the best toor dal ever.”

Here’s my recipe, which will be included in my new cookbook — Curry and Cupcakes: My Silver Lining Cookbook.

Toor-vana — Comfort Food for the Soul

This basic toor dal is a light, but satisfying main dish — and is a wonderful mainstay and go-to meal for a vegetarian diet. Toor dal, in many forms, is a central meal for many Indians, who typically eat toor dal several times a week. The consistency of toor dal can be anywhere from very thin to very thick. This version is between the two extremes. Toor dal can also include vegetables, such as in sambar. But this is just a simple, pure toor dal at its finest.

Main Ingredients:
1 cup toor dal
3 cups water
1 large tomato, with core removed

3 TBSP oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
2 TBSP grated ginger
4 stems curry leaves
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. salt

Cooking Instructions:
1. Soak dal for 4 to 6 hours. Rinse.
2. Place dal in pressure cooker with water, 1 teaspoon salt, and whole tomato. Cover.
3. Pressure cook dal at 10 pounds for 10 minutes (or boil in saucepan for one hour).
4. While dal is boiling, cook spices. Start by heating oil in a small saucepan.
5. When oil is smoking hot, add mustard seeds. Cover. Turn off heat. Cook for 30 seconds or until seeds pop and turn dark.
6. Add ginger and curry leaves. Stir. Cover. Turn heat to low. Cook 1 minute.
7. Add turmeric, lemon juice, brown sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir. Cook 1 minute.
8. When the toor dal is finished cooking, take the whole cooked tomato(s) out. Peel off skin and discard. Cut into small pieces and add back to dal. Stir.
9. Add the cooked spices into the dal. Stir. Cover. Turn heat to medium-high. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
10. Salt to taste and serve.

Cooking Options:
1. Add 1 clove minced garlic with ginger (delete hing).
2. Add 1/4 cup diced onion after ginger, and cook for 5 minutes (delete hing).
3. Add 1 minced chili pepper with ginger.

Serving Suggestion:
Serve with Basmati rice and a veggie side dish, such as Spinach, Carrots, and Potato (recipe #46).

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