The chef Nina Clemente spent much of her childhood in New York City and southern Italy, but some of her earliest memories are of Chennai, India, a bustling city on the Bay of Bengal. She and her family lived there for half a year while her father, the artist Francesco Clemente, worked in the area. “I remember an insane monsoon season,” says Clemente, who was 4 during their stay. “I woke up one night and my bed was floating in the center of the living room, and all the stray cats we had taken in were gone.”
This journey to a different world heightened Clemente’s senses and stimulated her palate. Her mother — the artist, actress and costume designer Alba Clemente — would often experiment with local ingredients as she cooked a red lentil dal. “To this day,” Clemente says, the traditional Indian dish “is one of my comfort foods.”
For a comfort food fix, Clemente puts her own spin on a traditional spiced red dal that her mother used to make for the family when they were living in Chennai, India. Her modern version includes Spanish onion, garlic, makrut lime leaves and goes “super heavy” on cumin and ginger.
It’s one that Clemente, who runs her own catering business, turns to when she’s battling a cold or just feeling run down. While her mother “made a mellow version,” Clemente goes “super heavy on the fresh grated ginger and cumin” for an extra kick. She also adds in makrut lime leaf, which lends an aromatic, floral fragrance. She finishes it off with fresh cilantro and scallion, a dollop of goat’s milk yogurt and a spoonful of mango pickle, a condiment “that I wish I could claim I made myself,” she says, “but the bottled version is the same as my childhood.”
Since relocating from Los Angeles to New York City with her partner and their five-year-old daughter in 2017, Clemente has been preparing the hearty dal regularly. “I need energy for walking everywhere,” she explains. Every now and then, she makes the dish for her father, whom she describes as the easiest dinner guest — “I put greens in a bowl and he’s like, ‘This is the best salad I’ve had in my entire life!’”
Clemente finishes off her dal with a dollop of goat’s milk yogurt, mango pickle and cilantro.
Nina Clemente’s Hearty Red Lentil Dal
∙ 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
∙ ½ Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped
∙ 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
∙ 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
∙ 1 teaspoon cumin, toasted and ground
∙ ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
∙ 2 fresh makrut lime leaves
∙ 1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained
∙ 3 cups water
∙ 1 cup basmati rice, cooked
∙ 1 scallion, thinly sliced and stored in ice water; pat dry before using
∙ ¼ bunch cilantro
∙ ½ cup goat’s milk yogurt
∙ Mango pickle, such as Patak’s brand
1. Heat olive oil in a medium pot over low heat.
2. Add onion, garlic, ginger, cumin and turmeric; sweat aromatics until just translucent (do not brown).
3. Add lentils and stir to incorporate quickly, then add water.
4. Bring to a boil, turn down flame to simmer.
5. Crack the makrut lime leaves in half, add to the pot and cover.
6. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until tender.
7. Remove makrut lime leaf, season with salt to taste. Top with cilantro, scallion and a dollop each of goat’s milk yogurt and mango pickle.
8. Serve with basmati rice.
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