Comforting butternut squash and red lentil dal

by sophie on January 21, 2008 · 22 comments

Post image for Comforting butternut squash and red lentil dal

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.

Leave a Comment

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Meeta January 21, 2008 at 12:30

What a perfect dish and I just enjoyed reading your post Sophie. The addition of pumpkin is extraordinary and it must add a wonderful texture and flavor. Thanks!

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Deborah January 21, 2008 at 16:39

Awesome timing! I just purchased 3 different kinds of dal during my first trip to the local Indian food store to experiment with!

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Cassie January 21, 2008 at 18:14

Oh, I’ve been waiting to see what you would do with some of that squash! I like the sound of this dal with the butternut very much, Sophie. I still have more squash in the freezer myself and will give this a try. :)

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Deb January 21, 2008 at 23:41

Looks so great and my chili’s are just starting to ripen in my garden. Always looking for a new way to use them!

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Antonia January 22, 2008 at 19:41

Sophie – this looks wonderuful. I have to confess that I am not too keen on lentils and am trying to love them this year. This recipe looks like the very one that might convert me with all those super flavours – the tarka topping looks and sounds wonderful too. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Wendy January 22, 2008 at 21:02

Adore dhal. Have never tried making it with squash but instantly know it would be wonderful.
That second picture is exquisite. What is it?

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Graeme January 23, 2008 at 14:26

Beautiful. It’s even better when this kind of comfort food is actually good for you.
Great job.

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Sophie January 23, 2008 at 15:39

Meeta – glad you like it, the squash adds a lovely sweetness to the recipe
Hi Deborah – looking forward to reading what you make from your shopping spree
Cassie – let me know how you get on!
Deb – I’m sure it would taste even better with homegrown ingredients! Sadly it just isn’t chilli growing weather in Oxford
Antonia – my husband isn’t very keen on lentils but he likes this recipe. If you need converting then its definitely worth making it that bit more special with the tarka
Wendy – I went for a long walk in the freezing cold University Parks in Oxford just after Christmas (it was so cold my camera LCD kept flickering off). I took lots of pictures of random plants and I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea what most of them are. I might post this one to the plant identification group on flickr – if I find out I’ll let you know!
Hi Graeme – thanks! It’s such a shame that most foods people crave when they need comfort food are fairly unhealthy ones but its nice to find an exception!

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Kittie January 23, 2008 at 17:34

I love dhal but haven’t made it for ages!
This recipe has made me crave cosying up on the sofa, with a big bowl on my lap, a cat on my feet and old moves on the box!

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Maninas January 28, 2008 at 21:03

mmmmm
I love Meeta’s definition, too, and your dal!
I almost made it tonight! :)

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Poonam Phatak February 10, 2008 at 01:45

I love the idea of adding cinnamon to the dahl.

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Coffee & Vanilla February 18, 2008 at 00:27

Sounds very good to me… I love butternut squash and red lentils :)
Have a good day, Margot

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Coffee & Vanilla February 18, 2008 at 00:27

Sounds very good to me… I love butternut squash and red lentils :)
Have a good day, Margot

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Coffee & Vanilla February 18, 2008 at 00:27

Sounds very good to me… I love butternut squash and red lentils :)
Have a good day, Margot

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abby June 22, 2008 at 05:10

i must give this a try with the leftover bns i have in my fridge- especially given summer doesn’t seem to be arriving!

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Kathleen February 25, 2009 at 04:43

I learned about this recipe from the amazing Dietgirl…Made it last night and loved it! Today I made little falafel-esque patties with the leftovers, fried in 2 tsp of olive oil and served with toasted pita wedges,plain yogurt, and hot sauce…Delish!!!

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Yorkshire Pantry December 21, 2009 at 17:25

I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate more lentils into the family’s diet and this dish will definitely be going on my list of favorite vegetarian recipes.

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allison January 19, 2012 at 04:32

Ooooo, I just made this last night. FABULOUS.

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Adrienne August 13, 2014 at 02:31

What a delicious recipe. My roommate made the dal alone and added carrots as an extra boost. It was simply wonderful! We will be making this one again, maybe trying the tarka on top next time!

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