Dal and rice were the flavor of my childhood. Mmm, childhood.
I tinker with quantities depending on what is on hand -- onions and carrots add extra sweetness, celery adds tang-- but this is my skeleton recipe. A squirt of fresh lime/lemon juice, or a tablespoon of ghee (Indian clarified butter) added at the end is delicious.
1 cup red split lentils, rinsed
4 cups water
1-2 medium onions, chopped
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
1 carrot, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 tsp. turmeric
1-2 dried hot chilies
1-3 Tbs. garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. fennel seed (optional)
fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
2 Tbs. oil (olive or canola recommended)
salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
In a saucepan, combine lentils, water, turmeric, celery, and carrots. Bring to boil, skimming off the foam that inevitably develops no matter how many times you rinse the lentils beforehand. Grr.
Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, add oil, cumin, fennel, bay leaf, and chiles. Sautee on medium heat for 30ish seconds to bring out the flavor of the spices, but taking care not to burn them. Add onion and sautee until clear, about 8 minutes. Add spice and onion mixture to lentils when saucepan begins a rolling boil.
Cook lentils until soft, about 20 minutes. Add extra water to desired thickness as lentils expand (according to Dad, serving thicker dal is considered a mark of affluence, since one might thin this staple soup to serve many mouths in hard times). Using an eggbeater, whisk lentils to smooth texture. Reduce heat to low, adding tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, salt, and pepper to taste.
Elsewhere, steam rice. You can figure that out yourself. Enjoy immediately, or considerably later -- lentils are one of those magical Indian dishes whose flavors are improved the second day, making for excellent leftovers. You can make a load to freeze and reheat dal (gasp!) if you're camping out for a long period and want several simple, satisfying, and easily stored meals (for example, a week at Burningman).