"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Lemon love

by Julie Tilsner on June 17, 2007

in Dinner, Vegetarian

When life hands you lemons, forget the lemonade. Make Lemon lentils! Lemon lentils are creamy and tangy at the same time. They are good for you. Spoon them over rice and they are a complete protein. Plus they give your kitchen that come-hither aroma.

Lemon Lentils will always make you happy.

When they turn out, of course.

Lemon lentils are not unusual. You can find dozens of recipes on the Internets. This one, however, was bestowed upon me by an unlikely source: A Mormon couple with four kids who lived in our student family housing compound at Berkeley. They were very smart…and very devout. They also had a thing for home-cooked Indian fare. For some reason this struck us funny, as if conservative folks can’t have exotic tastes (which we know isn’t true. Just look at Pastor Ted Haggard). Every time our courtyard had a potluck, this couple would trot out some delicious Indian fare or another. A favorite was the lemon lentils.

After much nagging on my part, they gave me their recipe. Here it is, adapted from The Best of Craig Clairborne cookbook. This recipe serves 12, I usually halve everything when I make it for dinner for my family.

Limbo dal (Lemon Lentils)

1/1/4 cups peanut, vegetable or corn oil (peanut oil gives this the best taste, I think)

2 onions, halved and thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)

4 (2-inch pieces) cinnamon sticks

2 pounds red lentils (the kind you can find in bulk at Indian food stores). Rinse and pick over until water runs clear.

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

5 cups fresh or canned chicken broth (Trader Joe’s version is good here)

5 cups water

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon cayenne

juice of one lemon plus pulp and shell (I cut it in half and squeeze, and cook the two halves in the dal)

1/2 cup chopped onion (for topping)

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 hot green chile, chopped, with seeds (I omit this usually)

4 bay leaves

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat 3/4 cup of the oil in a large saucepan and add the sliced onions. Cook to wilt, and add the cinnamon pieces and the lentils. Add the ginger and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes. Add the broth, water, cayenne and salt to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice, pulp and shell and cook for about 50 minutes longer, stirring often.

In a separate skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup oil and add the chopped onion, garlic, chile and bay leaves. Cook, stirring, until the onions are browned. Add this mixture, including the oil, to the lentils. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve hot.

This goes great over basmati rice, cooked with some butter or ghee.

Learn from my past mistakes: Make sure you use chicken broth. Vegetable broth will make it taste gross. And make sure you STIR often. Otherwise it starts to clump and it won’t turn out creamy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

sheila June 17, 2007 at 6:23 pm

Sounds delicious, I’ll have to give it a try. But 1 1/2 cups of oil seems excessive, a few drizzles would suffice. I don’t want my healthy lentils drowned in oil.


eliza June 25, 2007 at 4:22 pm

hi Julie,
this is an interesting pairing, partly because I’m so used to the regular lentil dish in the Indian buffet restaurant 🙂 which I don’t think uses lemon in it?


Cheri Schulzke August 20, 2007 at 8:42 pm

As the smart, devout Mormon not named above, I’d like to give proper credit for this recipe. It was invented by Ismail Merchant (of Merchant-Ivory films–did you know he was a cook too?). We have his cookbook Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters. But the recipe has been widely circulated and was once printed in the New York Times.
I came across Julie’s post while googling the recipe for my sister (yes, I have the cookbook, but it’s so much easier to send a link 🙂 ). And last week Eric’s sister called for the recipe too. Still a fave, obviously!
Julie, you might like to know that tonight for dinner Eric grilled pork chops with an incredible Mediterranean-Indian-inspired rub of his own devising. The spices included ground fennel, cloves, ginger, thyme, and turmeric. This was accompanied by a salad with grilled red potatoes, corn and sweet peppers, fresh red onion and a red wine vinaigrette. He also grilled fresh peaches with cinnamon and brown sugar. (No point in wasting propane, eh?)
Re the post about fat: We do cut the oil in half, but note that (1) it serves twelve, (2) some oil is used at the end to sauté vegetables for the tarka, and besides, (3) ya know how fat lubricates our taste buds and makes everything taste better. Which may help explain the extra 10 pounds . . .


westernqueensland August 26, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Cheri, Julie, Javier and Julia, Eric, Sean, Emily, Shams and Inji, and everyone else I can’t type here now, I miss you. Here is a link to my curry lentils (five minutes cooking and then stir it frequently once it is off the heat, maybe even take it out of the pot to keep from overcooking, and I’ve been adding a bit more than twice as much water, preferring it saucy Cheri), http://westernqueensland.wordpress.com/2007/03/02/curry-lentils-foods-i-love-part-1/.
When we come to Utah, we’ll have the pork chops.
Love Stafford


Bad Home Cook August 26, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Bwahhahahah! My evil plan to collect all my favorite courtyard recipes is working! Mwwaahhahahaha!
I miss you guys, too. Goes without saying. See how I’m obsessing about food so much these days?


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