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Undated file photo shows a tray of black mustard, turmeric, garam marsala, cardamom, cinnamon, fenugrek and ajwain.

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Over recent weeks, with the increasing likelihood of self-isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic, my thoughts around food changed. I am the primary cook for my family. That responsibility feels greater if we are confined to our home.

Lucky with the luxury of time and resources, I put together an emergency meal plan. I aimed for variety and nutrition, while relying on established favourites in the hope that the familiar will make uncertain times seem less so.

My grocery list included more tofu than usual, because it lasts weeks in the fridge, as well as shelf-stable milk, extra tinned tomatoes, tuna and salmon, grains and noodles.

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I organized my kitchen shelves, separating a working pantry – the things I’ll continue to use – from emergency reserves.

My strategy became one batch for tonight, one for later. I cooked lasagna, chicken tikka masala, keema, macaroni and cheese with greens, chole, enchiladas, burritos, turkey meatballs and chicken pot pie. Everything was marked with reheating instructions and expiry dates. Then, into the freezer they went. I set reminders on my phone of those expiry dates, too.

The rest of the freezer has been filled with ingredients: frozen vegetables (garlic, ginger, peas, carrots, corn, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, spinach, squash), milk (yes, you can freeze milk, as long as there is space in the container for expansion), meats (in marinades and raw) and frozen fruit.

My food-related conversations changed, too. Friends described their cupboard inventories, discoveries such as frozen mirepoix and a forgotten fondness for corned beef. We shopped for each other and shared our surplus. We planned cooking parties.

This dal soup was the project of one of those afternoons. It is satisfying, stick-to-your ribs food, not at all demanding to make and can be pulled together wholly from the pantry and freezer when needed, or made ahead and frozen for up to three months.

Substitutions abound. Instead of fresh onions, you can add Asian-style fried onions or shallots – bawang goreng in Indonesian. Those onions are brilliant to have on hand, providing body to soups, stews and braises. I have listed fresh coriander here, but it can be replaced by freeze-dried, packaged paste or left out entirely. The host of spices for the tarka, the seasoned ghee that seasons the dal, are a guide of possibilities rather than must-have essentials.

There is no need to defrost the vegetables, save the spinach if it came in a solid block with lots of moisture. If that is the case, defrost according to package instructions, squeezing out excess water before using. You could bulk up the vegetables with green beans, zucchini or winter squash. Broccoli and cauliflower are quite nice additions; they can go directly in the soup or roasted separately and added last. (Frozen cauliflower roasts unexpectedly well.)

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Stocking my freezer and pantry was about preparedness, as well as a gesture to feel actively useful in the midst of worry. I found a small calm in the productivity, in rearranging my stores until I found reassuring order in a corner of my world.

Vegetable Dal Soup


Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 cup moong dal (skinned split yellow lentils) or Masoor dal (skinned split red lentils)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger, fresh or frozen
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced, or 1 cup frozen
  • 1 medium carrot, diced, or ½ cup frozen
  • Medium-grained kosher salt
  • 5 ounces baby spinach, fresh or frozen
  • 1 cup peas, petit pois preferred, fresh or frozen
  • 3 tablespoons ghee or neutral oil
  • ½ cup cilantro, leaves and tender stems
  • 1 small onion, minced, or ⅓ cup Asian fried onions
  • 2 dried chiles, stemmed or 1 teaspoon dried chile flakes
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • Half a cinnamon stick
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • Cooked rice, preferably basmati, and lime wedges, for serving

Rinse the lentils to start. In the pot you intend to cook in, which should be medium-large and heavy, cover the lentils with water. With clean hands, agitate the lentils. Pour lentils through a fine-meshed sieve and repeat, scrubbing, rinsing and draining, until the water runs clear. Pick out any stones, then pour in 7 cups of fresh water. Set pot over medium-high and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to maintain an enthusiastic simmer and skim any foam from the surface. Stir in the turmeric, garlic and ginger. Cook the lentils, stirring regularly, until tender and creamy, 35 minutes more or less. Add water as needed to keep things soupy.

Tumble in the sweet potato, carrot and 1 teaspoon salt. Cover, and continue to cook until the vegetables are tender, 12 minutes more. Fold in the spinach and peas, stirring until the leaves are wilted and the peas are bright, 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.

While the dal is cooking, mince the stems from the cilantro and set the leaves aside. Melt the ghee and onions in a small skillet, stirring often. Cook until the onions are tender, around 5 minutes. (If using fried onions no need to cook alone. Add with spices and proceed.) Sprinkle in the chiles, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and the minced cilantro stems. Cook, stirring, so the spices become fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir most of this tarka into the dal, keeping some for garnish. Rewarm if needed, and check seasoning. Serve directly from the pot, or transferred to a heated dish, with the reserved tarka and cilantro leaves on top. Eat with rice and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

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