Make (a Little) Time for Geeta Bansal’s Masoor Dal

Savory and aromatic, red lentil soup from the chef-owner of Irvine’s Clay Oven is a tonic any time of day

Chef Geeta Bansal of Clay Oven in Irvine embraces many influences, including the European style of many globally-known chefs she interviews for her wide-ranging blog, Gastronome Geeta. The recent overturning of the ban on foie gras in California enables Bansal to add samosas that pair the rich liver with sour-cherry chutney to her menu—a dish she served when she cooked at the James Beard House in New York back in September.

Sometimes, though, traditional is indicated, as with this red lentil soup recipe that Bansal shared with me for Taste of Orange County. Often labeled with their Hindi name, masoor dal, pink or red lentils are easy to find in Indian and natural foods markets, as well as in our Orange County Persian-and-everything-else super stores like Wholesome Choice and my favorite Mission Ranch. Because they’re decorticated—had their outer skins removed—masoor dal cook even more quickly than regular lentils, which are already the fast food of the bean world. The pinkish-red mellows to an ochre-y hue as they soften.

Ready in way less than an hour, this simple soup is cumin-perfumed and entirely plant-based if you opt for olive oil rather than ghee. Either way, it’s a tonic. You don’t have to be following a vegan diet to benefit, though—and Bansal has some decidedly non-vegan suggestions for customizing it. I kept it all-vegetable, with tender dandelion greens from the aforementioned Mission Ranch as my leafy add-in—Bansal likes the red heirloom spinach that’s getting easier to find, but also gives ideas for alternatives below. I like her recommendation to add cooked rice or quinoa, too. Plain or gussied up, it’s the kind of thing that’s welcome any time of day.

Geeta Bansal’s Red Spinach and Lentil Soup

For the heirloom spinach, you can substitute green spinach, amaranth, tatsoi, chopped baby bok choy or Swiss chard—with either of those, increase cooking time. Leftovers can become a stew with the addition of chopped roast chicken and vegetables. You can also add pieces of sautéed filet mignon and cook down the liquid, adding more garlic, to get a dry meat curry that is good with crusty bread. I like to float chili oil on top to add some spice.—Geeta Bansal

(Makes 4 servings)

1 cup dry pink lentils (also known as masoor dal)

1 tablespoon ghee or olive oil

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 small shallot, minced

1 medium tomato, diced

1 teaspoon coriander powder

¼ teaspoon chile powder or paprika

3 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup red heirloom spinach or other leafy green, washed and rinsed

Fresh lemon juice

Rinse lentils, cover with water, and soak for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to cook, heat ghee or oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add cumin seeds and sauté 1 minute, stirring. Add garlic and brown lightly. Add shallots and sauté until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, coriander, and chili powder and cook 1 minute, then add water. Drain lentils and add. Bring to a boil and add salt. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer, checking and stirring occasionally for 15 to 20 minutes. When lentils become soft, stir in leafy greens and cook 1 or 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat, add 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, adjust seasoning, and serve hot.

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