While this dish isn’t strictly “Mediterranean” — i.e., from a country bordering on the Mediterranean Sea — it embodies so many of the principles of the Mediterranean diet that I recommend you add it to your repertory.
Its Mediterranean-ish elements include the presence of:
- Healthy fats
- Several vegetables (tomatoes, onion, spinach, cucumber)
- Legumes that provide fiber, low-glycemic carbohydrate, and protein
- Spices and herbs with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties
- High-quality protein from yogurt and egg
- Probiotics (in the yogurt)
Moreover, it’s easy and inexpensive, being made from simple and easy-to-source ingredients.
Dal (also spelled dahl or daal) is a staple food in India and a popular dish in Indian cuisine. It refers to lentils that have been cooked and seasoned with various spices and herbs. Lentils come in different varieties, such as red lentils (masoor dal, the ones I used here), yellow lentils (toor dal or arhar dal), green lentils (moong dal), and black lentils (urad dal).
To prepare dal, the lentils are typically washed and then cooked until they become soft and mushy. The cooked lentils are then tempered with a mixture of spices, which often include cumin seeds, mustard seeds, turmeric, ginger, garlic, onions, and chili peppers. This tempering process, known as “tadka” or “tarka,” adds flavor and aroma to the dish (see this recipe.) However, since I like to keep things simple, I usually cook my dal in a pressure cooker/Instant Pot and include all the above-mentioned seasonings from the start. (I hope my Indian friends will forgive me for this transgression.)
Dal can be prepared in many different ways, and the choice of lentils and spices can vary depending on the region and personal preferences. Some dal recipes are thick and hearty, while others have a more soupy consistency. Dal is commonly served with rice or Indian bread, such as roti or naan. While this is a delicious and traditional way of eating dal, combining lentils with bread and rice results in a meal that can be rather high in carbohydrate (not a problem for folks who are metabolically healthy, but potentially unhelpful for those with insulin resistance) and low in protein. Since I try to get 30 grams of protein per serving into my recipes (and try to limit net carbs to 30 g per serving), I tweaked the recipe by adding an egg and a generous blob of cucumber raita.
Cucumber raita is a popular side dish in Indian cuisine. It is made by combining yogurt (also known as curd or dahi) with grated or chopped cucumbers and various spices and herbs. The yogurt used is typically plain and unsweetened. Cucumber raita is known for its cooling and soothing properties, which can help balance the spiciness of other Indian dishes. The crispness of cucumbers adds a pleasant texture, while the yogurt provides a creamy and tangy element to the raita.
While this meal may sound involved, it’s actually super quick and easy to prepare. Sure, you (and a kitchen helper) chop a few vegetables, but once they’re cooking away in the pressure cooker, all you need to do is throw together your raita, and dinner’s ready. I usually have a batch of hard-boiled eggs in my fridge, ready to be used at a moment’s notice; if you don’t have the time to hard-boil eggs, you can buy them ready-cooked, or top the dal with eggs that you fried or poached while the dal is cooking and the raita is chilling.
Spinach Dal with Cucumber Raita
- 1 pressure cooker/Instant Pot alternatively, can be prepared on a stovetop in a regular pot; cooking time is around 30-35 minutes
- 4 eggs large
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 green shili seeded, deveined and finely chopped; I use jalapeno peppers; if you like it hotter, use Thai or serrano chilis)
- 1 tbsp garlic minced (4-5 cloves)
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger root minced
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ½ to 1 tsp chili flakes or chili powder (optional)
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 yellow onion finely diced
- 1 cup tomatoes diced
- 1 cup cilantro coarsely chopped (including stems)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1¼ cup red lentils rinsed & drained
- 4 cups water if you want to boost the protein content of this dish and are an omnivore, replace with chicken bone broth
- 10 oz fresh spinach washed, drained and coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp lemon or lime juice
- 1½ cup Greek yogurt plain, full-fat
- ½ English cucumber unpeeled, coarsely grated or diced
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp salt
- ½ cup chopped fresh herbs my favorites are mint, cilantro and/or parsley; reserve a few leaves as garnish
Boil the eggs
- Stovetop: To boil the eggs, place them in a small pot and cover with 1 inch of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn off the heat and cover the pot with a lid. Set the timer to 10 minutes. Once the timer rings, drain the eggs and plunge them into a bowl of iced water. Set aside. Once chilled, peel and keep covered.
- Instant Pot: place eggs in the Instant Pot on a trivet with 1 cup of water. Program to PRESSURE, LOW, and set timer to 7 minutes. As soon as the timer rings, release pressure manually, remove eggs with tongs, and plunge them in a tobowl of iced water. Set aside. Once chilled, peel and keep covered.
- Set the Instant Pot on SAUTE, MEDIUM, and warm the oil. Add cumin and mustard seeds and saute for 30 seconds or until they start to pop and crackle.
- Add diced chili, garlic, ginger, coriander, chili flakes (if using), and turmeric, and saute, stirring, for about a minute. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until it turns translucent – about 5 minutes.
- Turn up the heat to HIGH. Add chopped tomatoes, half of the chopped cilantro, and salt, and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the lentils and water or broth (whichever using); stir to combine. Lock the lid. Change the Instant Pot setting to PRESSURE COOK, HIGH for 5 minutes.
- Once the Instant Pot beeps, let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, then release the remaining pressure manually. (Place a towel over the vent so you don’t get steam and droplets everywhere.)
- Remove the lid and stir the dal with a wire whisk to break down any remaining lentils; you should have a very smooth, thick puree. Set the pot to SAUTE, MEDIUM, and stir in the spinach. Let it come to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring, until the spinach wilts – 1-2 minutes.
- Season the dal to taste with salt, pepper, and lemon or lime juice. Garnish with the remaining cilantro leaves and stir. Ladle into bowls and top each with a large dollop (about ⅓ cup) of yogurt sauce and a sliced or quartered hard-boiled egg.
- While the dal is cooking, combine the raita ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; season to taste with salt and pepper and refrigerate until serving.