Cooking is Coping: Make this Instant Pot Dahl Recipe to Fuel Your Daily Struggle
by Jeff Simmermon
The Following is taken from comedian and storyteller Jeff Simmermon’s weekly series “Cooking is Coping” – where he describes how cooking helps him deal with depression, anxiety, and stress. To learn more about Jeff’s coping and recipes, click here.
This is a recipe for my “Authentic” Dhal, a dish that my mother and grandmother never once made for me, largely because my family is white as hell and also has a deep spiritual allergy to interesting spices.
However, I think of myself as an Authentic Person, the sort of person who hates aspirational lifestyle Instagram profiles that put motivational quotes under a photo of a perfect ass staring into the sunrise, even though I do actively feel the gnawing emptiness that those influencers are addressing.
If I’m gonna post a photo of an ass staring into the sunrise it’s gonna be my ass and it’s not gonna because I “rise and grind,” it’s gonna be the sunrise because I still have not figured out how to put myself to bed at a decent hour.
I was a freshman in college when I tried Indian food for the first time and my mouth felt like a time-lapse of desert flowers blooming after a flood.
This is really easy to make, and I’m measuring the ingredients out so that you have some leftovers to eat for the remainder of the week.
All these measurements are approximate unless I state otherwise. One teaspoon = a couple good shakes and one tablespoon – 4 times as many good shakes.
Peel and dice one entire medium-to-large onion. It doesn’t matter much what size the onion is, or what size the dice is – it’s going to completely liquify by the time this is done.
Finely chop 6-8 medium cloves of garlic, two Thai chili peppers (you can use Serrano or jalapeño peppers too, just give it a little heat here) and a piece of fresh ginger the size of a large man’s swollen thumb.
If that ginger measurement is too hard to visualize, just chop a piece of fresh ginger that is half the size of the most forgettable penis you’ve ever seen.
A lot of people tell you to peel the ginger, and I am not going to be one of those people. Nobody notices or cares if there’s ginger skin in there, and this thing is going to cook so hard and fast that it should dissolve, too.
As for finely chopping all of this stuff: chop it if you want, but I like to just throw the garlic, ginger, and hot peppers into a blender or smoothie maker and brrrrrrp for like 30 seconds. If you do a sloppy job rinsing out the cup it’ll give your morning smoothies a real zippy zang the next day, too.
Once you’ve got all this chopped, plug in your Instant Pot and set it to “sauté.” If you don’t have an Instant Pot, get with the program.
Put a few tablespoons of olive oil into the instant pot as it’s heating, and then throw that onion in there once it’s hot enough to sizzle when onion hits oily metal. I like to add a little salt and brown sugar here for color and to help draw out the liquid. Cook this, stirring often until the onions soften and turn a yellowish-brown.
I like to think this helps to prepare the little onion chunks for their eventual obliteration, but I think it also allows the sugars in the onion to caramelize and helps the flavor to develop.
Once the onion is soft and mushy, throw your garlic/ginger/hot pepper blend in there and stir that around.
While that’s cooking, in between stirs, measure out 3 cups of water and 3 cups of your favorite broth. This can be chicken, beef, pork, vegetable, it doesn’t really matter. But if you’re using some high-minded-ass bone broth you can put in a mug and sip for its supposed healing properties, I just really don’t wanna ever get to know you.
Once the stuff in the instant pot smells really flavorful, you’re ready to add the broth.
BUT: check and make sure no brown crusty stuff is forming on the bottom of the Instant Pot. That stuff is delicious in its own right, but if if forms on the bottom of the pot it’ll prevent the thing from sealing somehow and you’ll have to glop this whole mess out, clean the pot and put it back in again and it’s gonna be a huge pain in the ass.
So before you go dumping all the broth/water in at once, check for sticky stuff at the bottom of the pot. If there is some, use a little of the broth to deglaze, hydrating that crud and using a silicone spatula or something like it to loosen the crud and create a completely smooth surface. Don’t worry about the crud floating around in your food, it’s basically concentrated flavor.
Once that’s all done, dump in the rest of your broth and give everything a good stir. By adding the cold liquid you’re buying yourself a little time before the next crud onset. Measure out 2 cups of lentils and throw them in the pot.
Give it a good stir, then add:
- 2 pods black cardamom
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp Jamaican curry powder
This may not be stuff that you have easily available, depending on where you live. But you can buy it on Amazon, or why don’t you just go ahead and visit one of those “ethnic” grocery stores?
I am fortunate to live in New York City, where there’s a huge immigrant population and basically every grocery store is “ethnic” from somebody’s perspective. That’s all “ethnic” really means when people say it, right? Just a group of people that have a culture you’re not a part of?
Like, usually when white people say “ethnic,” what they mean is “unfamiliar and therefore a little scary.” How about you take yourself out of your comfort zone and visit a grocery store where you can’t read everything on the package?
It’s not like Chinese people secretly like to eat arsenic and you wouldn’t know it because you can’t read the lettering on the ingredients list. It’s not gonna kill you to try something you didn’t grow up with. If anything it will expand your world and make you a little bit more your own person, distinct from your own homogenous family tree.
If you’re Chinese and reading this, try getting into Indian spices. If you’re Indian, check out Thai flavor combos. Any town in America with multiple paved roads has a Chinese and Indian population at the very least, and they all get their food from somewhere other than Wal-Mart.
Go there and get real comfortable. And if you can’t do that, buy too much of this stuff on Amazon and hoard it. You’ll have it around for next time.
When I was a little kid I would always daydream about winning a Toys ‘R Us shopping spree, and had mapped out some very specific strategies for maximizing my returns. It’s what I would think about when I woke up in the night and had trouble getting back to sleep.
Now that I’m an adult and I have trouble sleeping, I just think about everyone that’s ever wronged me.
Visiting Kalustyan’s in New York City is the closest thing to a Toys ‘R Us shopping spree I can experience as an adult. It’s a wonderland of dried chilis and spices from all over the planet – you can get spices for Chinese food, Korean sauces, Thai peppers, every dried and powdered spices you can imagine.
My therapist’s office was right around the corner for years, and I’d go in there afterwards feeling freshly heard and understood and drag home 50 bucks’ worth of guajillo chilis, lemongrass, dried mushrooms and gochujang.
I’m probably the only standup comic in New York who’s asked to go up first on shows because I want to get home before the whole room starts to smell like asafoetida and feta juice leaking from my backpack.
Honestly, the only thing that makes me happier than shopping for spices is seeing someone enjoy the food I’ve made with them.
Put the cardamom and garam masala and Jamaican curry in the pot. Use Indian curry powder if you want, I don’t care that much.
Then, while that’s cooking, put 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a small pan on the stove, heat it up to high. Once it’s hot, add 4 teaspoons of cumin seeds. Once those start dancing around really fast (1 minute tops), take it off the flame and throw in a few pinches of Indian chili powder and half as many pinches of asafoetida.
This stuff is called chhonk – I learned about it from “Indian-ish,” Priya Rai’s spectacular cookbook.
It takes maybe an extra 2 minutes to make and adds 90 minutes’ worth of flavor.
Let the Instant Pot sit for a while after it’s finished cooking. This is called “natural pressure release,” and I’m not sure that it’s absolutely necessary. Just use the extra time to do the dishes, really Martha Stewart the production.
When you open it up, you’ll find that the liquid is all sitting on top and it looks like a yellow puddle. Don’t stress about it, just give everything a stir.
Once it cools down, it’ll thicken a little. If you chopped your onions small enough you’ll see that they have completely dissolved into the lentils that have also detonated, creating a rich and flavorful puree.
Serve this over rice. We like to top it with a half cup of Greek yogurt and some chipotle hot sauce, but you can put vanilla ice cream and maple syrup on yours for all I care.
This is a recipe for you at home, to help you fuel the struggle of your entire life. Let yourself enjoy this however you want, it’s hard enough out there.
Want more tips on how to cook your feelings before you eat them? Get Jeff’s series delivered directly to your inbox every week by signing up here. His standup and storytelling album “And I Am Not Lying” is also for sale via multiple online platforms, and you can find out where to see him perform live at http://www.jeffsimmermon.com/