In the drab, weary winter, I crave color and heat on the plate. I want foods that are light and bright and spicy.

My source of refuge from this harsh landscape is the book "660 Curries," from Raghavan Iyer of Minneapolis. This collection of vibrant recipes is like a culinary vacation, without the airline ticket. The dishes are easy, accessible, straightforward and deliciously quick.

Take red lentils, the beautiful salmon-red, mild-tasting legumes. Their seed coat has been removed and the lentils then split so that they don't need to be soaked. These cook in only 20 minutes, melting into a saucy mash that's perfect for curries and that makes a nice thickener for soups and purées.

The term "dal" applies to legumes as well as the loosely defined family of spiced stews that are ubiquitous throughout India; it's both the name of the primary ingredient as well as the final dish. A dal of red lentils is ideal for those evenings when you just want to throw something healthful together at the last minute.

You can find red lentils in the bulk section of our natural food co-ops and in packages in grocery stores. Store them in an airtight container in the pantry, away from heat and light. While red lentils may be kept for up to a year, like all foods, the longer they are stored, the drier and harder and less tasty they will become.

Perhaps the most important step when making dal is to cook the spices with onions in oil to release their fragrance and flavors before adding them to the dish either midway through preparation or at the end of cooking.

Among Indian cooks, there is some dispute over whether to add salt to the water (as you do when cooking pasta). Older cookbooks advise against it because, they say, salt will make the lentils tough, but I've found it doesn't seem to matter. The lentils absorb the salt when it's added early on, saving me from adding it (often too much) to the dal after it's been cooked.

Serve red lentil dal on its own over white or brown rice with a side of roast cauliflower, or alongside salmon, lamb or chicken. This colorful, comforting dish pleases a range of appetites from vegan, vegetarian and omnivore, for a meal that transcends cultures to the delight of us all.

Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at