Quick dinner: Instant Pot pot-in-pot dal and rice
There are approximately one bazillion different types of dals in this fine world, and there is no way I could ever hope – or even want – to pick just one in my rotation. In my pantry, I usually stock chana dal (hulled, split garbanzos), masoor dal (split red lentils), moong dal (split mung beans), toor dal (or toovar dal, split pigeon peas), and whole garbanzo beans, along with various other bits and bobs. I mostly buy from the bulk section, but I really like the Trikona brand, which is from Kent, Washington, and I buy my toor dal in enormous (organic) bags from Costco. Having this variety on hand might seem excessive, but each of the dals has its own character, and each fits differently into a meal. I’m working my way through Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, which has a beautiful enormous chapter on dals, each one more mouth-watering than the next. She often has you mixing different dals together, which is just tremendously exciting.
TO BE CLEAR, I’m a white girl from New England, I have just never met a dal I didn’t love. I properly discovered Indian food in college – weekend Indian buffet brunch was a regular staple, though at the time I had some kind of weird interaction with something in the cooking (I never figured out what it was, but it was very sad) and every time I ate it, I got what my roommates and I referred to as “dying” – which required me to immediately exit the restaurant and breathe deeply until the truly terrible feeling subsided. Perhaps alarmingly, it took me a very long time to decide this horrible feeling maybe wasn’t worth it; I had a sabbatical from Indian food that ended once I moved to Thailand, and I’ve been great gang-busters without any ill effects since. A mystery of my past life.
The greatest thing about my favorite dal dishes – apart from their comforting, earthy warmth – is that my kiddos also love them. If I had to draw a Venn diagram of my family’s food preferences there would be only the tiniest overlapping area for the four of us, and right smack in the middle would be dals.
The trouble with dals? Some of them take forever, especially if you’re cooking your beans from dried, which I pretty much always am. And then, even if you’ve figured out using your Instant Pot to make your dal, you still have to make your rice. Which of course you could do on the stovetop, but you’ve already mastered doing it in your Instant Pot so ARGH. What are you supposed to do? Sequential rice then dal? Or dal then rice? Fussy and impractical, I say.
The answer? Pot-in-pot rice and dal. You cook the dal in the Instant Pot liner, while simutaneously cooking the rice in a pot set above it. The key is to pick a rice and a dal that cook at approximately the same rate. I have some dals I do with brown rice, some with white, and all have been quite successful. To do this, you need to have the right equipment. I use an 8-inch stainless steel Blanda Blank bowl from Ikea and a tall trivet that came with a different appliance. I don’t think that the rack that comes with the Instant Pot gives enough height to have the rice clear the dal cooking below it.
The dal recipe below is a mash-up from a range of different recipes – some from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, some from her book World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking, but also some just from what I like to eat and how I like to mix up spices. I use a white basmati rice that I buy from the bulk section of our grocery. It’s quite nice, longish, and cooks up fluffy and even. I prefer it over white jasmine rice; because rices can be so different, you might have to experiment a bit with the water amounts and the timing. But if you try with a white basmati rice that has a medium to long grain, I think you’ll be very happy.
Also, my children will run screaming with their mouths aflame if I include any heat in anything I make. They sometimes complain that black pepper is too spicy. I know this is going to change and in ten years they’ll be able to eat things much spicier than I can handle, but for now, I just leave it out. Feel free to add it back in, I suggest amounts and timings below.
There are usually a few stages to cooking a dal, and this recipe is no exception. The dal cooks in the Instant Pot along with a few spices, but the real flavor punch comes from the tarka, a mix of spices that you cook at high heat in oil. In this recipe, you add it at the end. It looks so good, you’ll be tempted to eat it plain. This dal recipe makes a quite soupy dish, which I like, because it soaks into the rice and is divine. If you like a stiffer dal, you could definitely safely cut back on the water.
Instant Pot pot-in-pot masoor dal and white basmati rice
- 1 1/2 cups white basmati rice (about 315g)
- 1 1/2 cups water (about 345g)
Masoor dal - base
- 1 cup masoor dal (hulled, split red lentils)
- 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
- 2 quarter-sized pieces of peeled fresh ginger
- 3 cups water
- 1 tsp salt
Masoor dal - tarka
- 1 1/2 tbsp canola oil
- 1 pinch asafetida
- 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
- 1/2 small red onion, quartered and slivered
- 2-3 dried red chilis optional, to taste
First prepare your rice. Look, I know it's a pain. Wash it anyway, it actually feels quite nice. Put your rice in a bowl, cover with water, swish your hand around. The water will turn milky white. Drain through a sieve (or daringly, use your hand like a sieve and try not to dump the rice out of the bowl). Repeat until the water is relatively clear.
Now, put your washed rice into your pot-in-pot. This should be a stainless steel Instant Pot safe vessel that will fit on top of a trivet and still allow you to safely seal up your Instant Pot. Add the 1 1/2 cups of water and set aside.
Now prepare your dal. Put the masoor dal, turmeric, garlic cloves, ginger, and 3 cups of water into the Instant Pot stainless steel liner. Stir gently to combine.
Place a trivet that clears the top of the dal mixture into your Instant Pot, and put your rice bowl onto the trivet. The Instant Pot should be able to close and seal completely.
Set the Instant Pot for 10 minutes on manual. Allow for natural release; lentils splatter everywhere if you try to quick release. While this is cooking, get on with preparing the rest of your meal. Get your spices together for the tarka, prep a vegetable, some yogurt, maybe some kind of eggy goodness. Whatever will complete your meal. Or, put your feet up and eat bonbons for half an hour. There is nothing to be done.
After the Instant Pot has signalled the cooking is done and the pressure is coming down, wait about five minutes, and then, begin to prepare your tarka. This is the flavor punch! Heat up the canola oil in a small, cast iron pan.
When it's very hot, toss in a pinch of asafetida, then the cumin and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop (it should just take a few seconds), add in your chili peppers, if you are using them, then the slivered onion. Cook on high heat, stirring nearly constantly, for 5-7 minutes, until the onion is browned and crispy, but not burned.
The Instant Pot should be ready to open while your tarka is finishing up. Open it, and *very carefully* remove the bowl of rice. Set the rice aside. Add the salt to the dal, stirring. When the tarka is done, carefully pour it all into the dal and then put the lid back on top, trapping the flavors.
Fluff the rice while you wait. After a minute or two, re-open the Pot and stir the tarka into the dal.
Serve the dal ladeled over rice. It's very nice to sprinkle some fresh cilantro over the top if you have it. I often serve with another vegetable, an Indian-style omelette, plain yogurt, and various chutneys. Enjoy!