Comforting butternut squash and red lentil dal

by sophie on January 21, 2008 · 22 comments

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I adore Meeta’s definition of comfort food – “food that hugs you from the inside”. Sums up this kind of food just right doesn’t it?

Dal is very special class of comfort food; it feels like a comfort food (all soft and squishy), it tastes like a comfort food (soothing but moreish) and you can dip your choice of bread into it or shovel with a spoon, bowl to chin. All good stuff. But unlike other comfort foods, dal need not have a touch of cheese, butter, chocolate or cream to their name. In fact they are positively brimming with nutritional benefits, especially when you combine them with a vegetable as in this butternut squash and red lentil variation.

The cinnamon, turmeric and cumin lend a very gentle touch here, imparting aroma to the lentils and squash rather than spice. A tarka is simply a garnish, in this case slow cooked red onion, fiery chilli and garlic. Tarka are generally made using ghee, a saturated fat heavy clarified butter, replaced here by olive oil.

All of those enthusiastic things I said about beans being “agriculturally sustainable and nutritionally multi-tasking” hold true for lentils and I plan to get to know them even better this year. Red lentils are a forgiving place to start if cooking with lentils is new to you, disintegrating into the requisite creamy puree whatever you do to them.



This dal is the kitchen sibling of the Butternut squash, oat and ginger cake bites from last year – roast squash leftover from making either recipe will sit happily in the freezer until you have time to make the other. We eat this dal with the onion tarka and naan in the evening and then on its own for lunch later in the week. A generous bowlful counts as two of those portions of fruit and veg, one from the squash and one from the lentils (in fact probably a little over two if you have the onions).
This is a recipe to customise to suit your fancy:

  • Skip the tarka all together if you are calorie counting and this will make a very trim meal (you can still stir through chopped chilli if you fancy a bit of feistiness).
  • Add cup of lightly cooked vegetables at the end of cooking if you fancy a bit of crunch; peas, cauliflower and carrots work well.
  • If you really dislike the taste of olive oil in an indian style dish use rapeseed oil/vegetable oil for the tarka (both rapseed and olive oil have a much higher percentage of monounsaturated fat than ghee)
  • Dilute the leftovers with hot water or stock for an instant soup

[The cute hug mug in the picture, perfect for soup and sandwich or tea and biscuits, is a present from my Mum from Nigella Lawson’s range]
This recipe is for Meeta’s comfort foods mingle

Recipe for Butternut squash and red lentil dahl

Note: a medium squash cut in half takes about 35 minutes in a medium oven. Allow to cool very slightly then scoop out the flesh from the skin. Any reasonably firm winter squash will work.

Makes a big batch

For the dahl
1 medium squash, roasted and deseeded
300g red lentils, rinsed and checked over
2cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 tsp ground cumin
half a tsp turmeric
A small stick of cinnamon
1 litre hot water

For the tarka (optional)
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 red large chilli, cut into thin strips

Put the cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, lentils and hot water into a saucepan. Grate the ginger straight into the pan.

Simmer on a low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, make the tarka if you are having it. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the onions. Cook the onions on a very low heat until golden and caramelised.

Once the lentils have absorbed all of the water and disintegrated, fish out the cinnamon stick and discard.

Stir the roast squash into the lentils and give it a good stir with a wooden spoon to break up any lumps.

Add the garlic and chilli to the tarka and cook on a low heat for another 10 minutes, while the dal warms through thoroughly.

Serve the dal in warm bowls with spoonful of the tarka on top to garnish.

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