As our pepper fermentation expert says above, a lot of this...
There aren't very many foods John and I are intimidated by. Two years of living in the woods and working for America's most beloved cookbook will do that to you. Part of it is developing a devil-may-care attitude towards complex dishes. We're testing and developing recipes, not preparing food for someone at a high-end restaurant in New York City. If we fail--and failure happens, even for experienced cooks--we regroup and try again (if you fail in the woods with no one around to witness it...).
Enter Indian food. We're big fans. Spicy, complex, aromatic, and satisfying. As anyone who has tried to make it at home may know, though, you need a well-stocked spice cabinet and a flair for adventure, and even if you have both of these things...well...sometimes it still doesn't work out.
But there are levels of complexity within any cuisine, and even the faint of heart can benefit from a bit of spice in their diet. My advice--start with dal. Dal is an Indian lentil dish that can be as heavily spiced as you like. Over the years, using JOY's dal recipe as a guide, I have developed a personal dal recipe that I think is quite good, although I make no claims to authenticity.
Where I differ with JOY is that I prefer my dal to have a bit more texture. I also prefer to sweat my onions, garlic, ginger, and chiles rather than simmering them. This deepens the flavor without much extra work. Finally, after doing a bit of research on Indian cuisine, I began to use tempering spices in dal. This simply means heating a little oil in a small skillet or saucepan, toasting whole spices in the hot oil, and adding them to the dish at the last minute. The toasting process heightens the flavors of the spices and makes them richer.
Please feel free to spice this dish as you see fit. We use homemade garam masala to achieve the flavor we like, and so I have included the recipe for that, but you can also just use ground turmeric, cumin, coriander, etc. If you have a local Indian market (and if you live near even a smallish city, you probably do), I would urge you to visit. You can usually find whole spices in quantity for a very reasonable price. You can also find many of the vegetables and aromatics used in Indian cooking--particularly curry leaves. Curry leaves add a really lovely flavor to Indian dishes (and I've even used them in chicken soup and seasoned rice), and they are edible. I love adding them to my tempering spices--the hot oil renders them crunchy.
Other articles you might enjoy: Basic Yogurt Sauce, Green Rice, Little Eggplant Appetizers With Spiced Yogurt Sauce
Heat in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Add and sauté until translucent, about 5 to 8 minutes:
1 medium onion, chopped
Add and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes:
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger root (from about a 1-inch square piece of root)
2 serrano or jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 1/2 teaspoons homemade or store bought garam masala (see recipe below)
Add and bring to a simmer:
1 cup yellow split peas or red lentils
2 cups water or stock
One 14.5 ounce can whole tomatoes, with their juice
Simmer until the peas are tender, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the tempering spices. In a small skillet or saucepan, heat:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
When hot, add:
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds (in a pinch, yellow will work)
1/2 teaspoon calonji or black onion seeds
A dozen or so fresh curry leaves
The spices will sizzle and pop. When they smell fragrant and are a toasty brown color, about 2 minutes, add the spices and oil to the dal. Serve with:
Yogurt sauce (use cucumber, mint, cilantro, garlic, and a seeded and minced serrano pepper)
Makes about 1 cup
Put in a heavy plastic bag and smash with a rolling pin until lightly crushed:
1/2 cup green cardamom pods
Break open the pods and shake out the tiny seeds. Discard the pods and combine the seeds with:
1/3 cup whole cloves
1/4 cup cumin seeds
1/4 cup black peppercorns
5 hefty (about 1/3 inch thick) cinnamon sticks
Grind the mixture to a powder in batches in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Store in an airtight container in a cool place.