1. Pick through the lentils and remove any debris. Rinse the lentils thoroughly in a fine-mesh sieve under running water. Drain thoroughly.
2. In a deep saucepan, bring 3 cups water, the turmeric, and 1 tablespoon of the oil to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are very soft. If the water starts to dry up, add up to 1/2 cup water. Remove from the heat.
3. In a medium skillet, heat 11/2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they begin to sizzle. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and salt and mix well. Allow it to come to a gentle boil. The consistency should be that of a thick soup. If it is too thick, add up to 1/2 cup water to thin it. Simmer briefly to blend the flavors.
4. Just before you serve, pour the lentils into a serving bowl. Heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil in a small skillet. When the oil shimmers, add the garlic. As soon as the garlic changes color, stir in the cayenne or paprika and remove from the heat. Pour this over the lentils, sprinkle with the cilantro, if desired, and serve immediately.
Makes 1 quart
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013