How Low Can You Go? Dal, Chilean Style

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Chilean Dal with Chickpea Curry on the side

Dal is a delicious simple Indian dish, often served with rice or wheat flatbread (called “roti”). It’s often a mainstay of vegetarian diets because it provides quite a bit of protein, and the rich flavorings make it palatable to us omnivores as well. Valerie Gaino, of Pichilemu, Chile, submitted a delicious Chilean variant on the dish to the How Low Can You Go contest:

3 cups of lentils
2 cups of chopped potatoes
2 chopped carrots
3 chopped tomatoes
1 hot pepper, chopped
1 small onion chopped
2 gloves garlic chopped
16 ounces tomato sauce
1 tsp cumin
a little beer or sherry
a little red vinegar
olive oil
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

1. Soak and cook lentils till soft. Drain and rinse, set aside.
2. Sautee onions, garlic, hot pepper, and cumin in olive oil. Add beer or sherry.
3. Add potatoes and carrots, cover with water, bring to boil.
4. Add tomatoes and cook till potatoes are soft.
5. Add lentils and tomato sauce.
6. Salt and pepper to taste. (I sometimes add more water or beer if it’s too thick, or vinegar if it’s too sweet.) Add more cumin or hot sauce if you like it really spicy.
7. Throw in the cilantro, take if off the heat. Serve after a few minutes.

One immediate problem I observed is that the “three cups of lentils” likely refers to three cups of lentils after boiling, which means that 1 1/2 to 2 cups of dry lentils should be more than adequate for this recipe. Three cups of dry lentils would make this recipe mostly flavored lentils with a few other pieces thrown in.

Sarah (my wife, for those of you new to The Simple Dollar) handled most of the food preparation for this dish, so most of the notes that follow come from her. Here are the ingredients we used:

Ingredients for Chilean Dal

First, you simply boil some dry lentils, easily found in the bean section of any grocery store. We only used two cups of dry lentils to start with. Just boil them in a large pot with plenty of water for about thirty minutes or so and they’re fine, then drain the water off of them. This can be done a day or two in advance – store the cooked, drained lentils in the refrigerator. Here are the lentils we had after boiling:

Lentils after draining

While the lentils are boiling, you’re going to be spending that time chopping vegetables – again, something you can do a day or two in advance. The potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onion, and garlic all need to be chopped.

We use a special knife called an ulu to make this process easier. An ulu is an all-purpose knife used by the Inuit for many different purposes, but it works really well for quickly chopping small amounts of vegetables. You simply grasp it by the handle and rock it back and forth on a cutting board with the vegetables underneath.

Mincing with an ulu knife

Of course, you can use pretty much any knife to chop vegetables – this is just a recipe where the ulu really comes in handy.

Next, I sauteed the onions, garlic, pepper, and cumin together, with about two tablespoons of white sherry. The same amount of a mild beer would be fine.

Starting up

Next, add the potatoes and carrots, then add enough water to cover everything, then raise it to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the tomatoes and then let it boil for ten minutes or so. Check a piece of potato and see whether it’s soft enough for your tastes – if it isn’t, let it boil for another five minutes and check again.

Cooking Dal

Once the potatoes are finished, it’s basically done. Just add the tomato sauce and the lentils, stir it a bit, season with some salt and pepper, and serve it!

Of course, you’ll want to serve it on something. If you have access to a flatbread, that’ll do just fine. Alternately, you can simply use rice. Here’s our rice steamer in action, steaming while the dal was cooking:

Steaming the rice

You might also want to have something else on the side. We had a very simple chickpea curry – basically just chickpeas (garbanzo beans) loaded up with curry paste. Yes, we love our chickpeas at the Hamm household!

Here’s our final plate:

Chilean Dal with Chickpea Curry on the side

This made a huge amount of dal. We had enough for our dinner that night, lunch the following day, and lunch two days after that for all four of us, and we still wound up freezing some of it.

Did we like it? All of us liked it quite a bit. Sarah perhaps liked it the least, particularly on reheating, and strongly suggested trimming the amount of cilantro, which I agreed with. It was delicious, though, and I was happy eating it even the third time.

Our total cost (ignoring fractional items we had on hand): $8.29, almost entirely on fresh vegetables. Given the amount we made, though, the cost per meal was $0.69 – pretty nice!

Changes I Would Make to Save Cost and Time
First of all, I’d trim the entire recipe by half. This made far too much food for us as is. Without some significant changes, you’ll either be freezing it – not a great option, since the texture will be ruined – or eating it all the time for days.

Second, I’d cut the remaining cilantro by half – and use dried cilantro. Fresh cilantro has a stronger flavor, but dried will work fine.

Third, I’d chop the vegetables and boil the lentils the night before. Turn on a radio in the kitchen and take care of these tasks in the evening so you can toss the meal together very easily when you arrive home from work the next day.

These changes modify the recipe a fair amount, making it cheaper and perhaps slightly faster. Here’s what the new recipe would be, as modified by me:

Trent’s Chilean Dal

1 cup of lentils
1 large red potato, chopped but unskinned
1 chopped carrot
2 chopped tomatoes
1/2 hot pepper, chopped
1/2 small onion chopped
1 clove garlic chopped
8 ounces tomato sauce (small can)
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tbsp beer or sherry
olive oil
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

Night before:
1. Chop potato, carrot, tomatoes, pepper, onion, garlic, and cilantro.
2. Soak and cook lentils till soft. Drain and rinse, set aside.

Next day:
1. Sautee onions, garlic, hot pepper, and cumin in olive oil. Add beer or sherry.
2. Add vinegar, potatoes, and carrots, cover with water, bring to boil.
3. Add tomatoes and cook till potatoes are soft.
4. Add lentils and tomato sauce.
5. Salt and pepper to taste. Add more water or beer if it’s too dry, or add hot sauce if you like it spicier.
6. Throw in the cilantro, take if off the heat. Serve after a few minutes.