We’re in that part of winter where it feels like the cold has seeped deep into my bones and I won’t ever know what it feels like to be warm again. I’ve learned the hard way that my bean boots don’t have the greatest traction on icy sidewalks. My coat hood, so necessary for survival, cuts off all peripheral vision and a good percentage of my ability to hear…both important attributes when moving about our crowded, beloved city. This is exactly the time you should start talking to me about the tropical island that you have just gone to / about to go to. I would love that.
Isn’t it funny how quickly we adapt to the status quo? I know in a few months, I’ll be trudging along the streets, with the smell of hot asphalt in the air and a river of sweat running down my back, wishing fervently to live in an igloo. All I will want is a dark, cool place to retreat to. I’ve only very recently started adapting to a new job that operates at a much more bureaucratic pace than I’ve been used to. For the first two months, I was crawling out of my skin. This past week, I started to understand how to let the troublesome things go by, like quips in a sitcom, and use the time that I have to learn things I want to know about and meet new people that I would have never otherwise met.
I’m worrying about being brave. I’m worrying about losing time.
I’m not stressed, but I’m not settled. There’s a vibrating part of me that’s just wanting to pounce (on what I’m not sure), but just as ready to curl up in a ball in my bed with a whiskey and a cat, and never come out. We’ll just call this the winter blues. One amazing antidote? Besides this. And this. And this? A little mujaddara, a super simple dish of rice, lentils and fried onions that will make you feel like you’re being petted with a large, warm cashmere glove.
This earnest vegan combination comes from the Middle East, and has been circling the food blogging world for a while now. Arabic for SMALLPOX (wiki says lentils look like pockmarks), this dish benefits from the best your pantry has to offer. With so few ingredients, each one is key – a good olive oil, sea salt and black pepper will help elevate your mujaddara to mindblowing levels. This recipe is adapted from Aarti Sequira’s version. I love the way she builds flavor by first blooming the spices and toasting the rice, as well as letting the ingredients cook together rather than mixing them together at the end as other recipes do. Because I like my mujaddara to whisper, not shout, I’ve taken away some of the zingier spicing, and substituted white rice with fragrant brown basmati rice.
By the way, it’s moo–jah–dah–ra.
1 cup organic green lentils, rinsed and picked over
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns (I love the Tellicherry ones from Kalustyans.)
3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup brown basmati rice
Greek yogurt, for garnish
Salt, as needed
First things first. The lentils get put into a medium saucepan along with enough water to cover them by at least an inch. Bring the pot up to a boil and then lower the heat to allow for the smallest of simmers. The lentils should be tender and ready to go after 20 minutes. Drain the lentils and set aside.
While the lentils are cooking, we’ll be super efficient and take care of the onions. Take a large saucepan, and put in the olive oil. Let the oil warm up a little over medium heat and add in the peppercorns and cumin seeds. Give the pan a little swirl. After a minute, you start to smell the spices (which activate when you heat them!) and the cumin seeds should be a just little darker than when you started.
Add the onions, along with a half teaspoon of salt. This next step will depend on how much time you have. The longer and slower you cook your onions, the more amazing they will be. Think Funyuns vs. french onion soup. No, I kid. Things will be fine. But slower will be finer. We’re aiming for onions with a deep brown overall color and a little bit of crispiness along the edges. This is the non-negotiable part of the assignment.
Now the choose-your-own-adventure part: Over medium-high heat, carmelizing the onions will take about 20 minutes. Take the heat down to low-medium and we’re talking at least 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your pan. Splash the onions with a little water if they stick to the bottom of the pan.
When the onions are done, remove about half of the onions with tongs or a slotted spoon and set them aside to use as garnish later on. (Once, I forgot this step and almost went out to look for orphan children to separate the onions from the rice a la Argo.)
Add the rice to the remaining onions in the pan over medium-high heat, stirring gently until some rice grains just start to brown. Add the cooked lentils, 3 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of salt and let it come to a boil. Turn the heat down to low so that the pan is at a simmer, cover and cook 30 minutes. The water should be completely evaporated and rice should be tender. If there’s still too much water in the bottom, put the lid back on and cook for another 5 minutes. If the rice is still a little crunchy, pour in another 1/2 cup of water and recover for another 5 minutes.
Once the rice is done, turn off the heat, keep the lid on, and allow the rice to steam undisturbed for about 5 minutes.
Serve with the reserved caramelized onions, and a generous dollop of Greek yogurt on top. I like to add a light sprinkle of a good sea salt and a squeeze of lemon as well, but you’ll figure out how you like your mujadarra after a bowl or two. Or three.