Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Poor man's dish?  Any man would be lucky, a fortunate poor man in fact, to feast on this hearty  Lebanese dish of rice and lentils.  "Mujadara" translates as "poor man's dish" and was at one time, considered a standard meal for those that couldn't afford meat. At least one might subsist on it.  But once you've tasted it you might agree with me that it is better to insist than subsist.  This is a dish worth insisting on! With several onions in the mix, the legumes and rice are infused with the rich, silky sweetness of caramelized onions, and "Arab-ized" with the addition of spices such as allspice and cinnamon - just a pinch.  I am careful to add "just a pinch", especially for those that are not acclimated to cinnamon in non-sweet dishes.  Though I am acclimated, cinnamon isn't really my first choice of seasonings for some dishes - including pizza.  When the first Pizza Hut in Amman opened down the street from where we lived at the time, we were thrilled to have a taste of home nearby.  But as the months passed and the local chefs couldn't resist, the ground meat on the pizza began to taste more and more like kefta, an Arab spiced ground meat mixture.  They had a hard time leaving hamburgers alone too and Fuddruckers completely lost their franchise for straying too far from the American recipe). But in the Levant cuisine, cinnamon is an absolute must and so we will happily defer to their spices for their native dishes.  The version of mujadara I was taught to prepare, is topped with a middle-eastern salsa of tomatoes and cucumbers which tweeks the earthy grains in the dish to freshness;the accompanying yogurt sauce does its part to tang it up. My children loved it for a quick weekday dinner - if you train them up on beans and rice, they will learn to love this healthy, hearty combination! One of my early experiences serving mujadara to some unsuspecting Americans was wrought with disaster, when one of my guests stood up abruptly at the table and rushed into the kitchen to spit out a bite full of gravel.  A lesson indelibly learned - clean the lentils of stray bits of chaff and gravel, before cooking.  Who'd have thought!!  A more polite guest would just have swallowed them down and discreetly declined seconds!

Mujadara (Lebanese Lentils and Rice)
1 1/3 cups brown lentils, cleaned of gravel or chaff and rinsed
1 cup olive oil
1/2 - 1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium yellow onions, thinly slivered
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups water or vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, cumin and allspice
salt to taste
1 tsp. sugar
dash of cayenne pepper
1 cup basmati rice, (soaked for 15 minutes in cold water and 
                 then rinsed until water runs clear)

Yogurt Sauce
1 1/3 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tab. chopped fresh mint (optional)
2 tab. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt

Tomato-Cucumber Salsa
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 English cucumber, finely chopped, with skin on
½ red or yellow onion, finely chopped
4 tab. chopped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste

-Place the slivered onions into a microwave proof mixing bowl and toss with 2 tsp. salt.  Microwave the onions for 5 minutes on high and then rinse in a colander.  Spread the onions out on paper towels or a clean dishcloth and blot out as much moisture as you can.  Set aside.

-Place the cleaned lentils into a medium saucepan. Fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about one inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

-Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, place a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm for a minute, then add the cracked peppercorns and cook, stirring briefly for about 1 minute.  

-Add the chopped onions, sprinkle with a dash of salt and cook stirring often for 25-30 minutes until onions are a dark caramel brown with a slight crispiness developing on some of the onions. Using a slotted spoon, remove about half of the onions to a paper towel-lined plate; these are for garnish later. Leave the other half in the pot. Pour off the onion oil until you have about 4 tab. left in the pot.  (Reserve any remaining onion oil for later use.)

-Add the ground spices, cayenne pepper, sugar and garlic to the oil and onions in the pot and cook about 1 minute over medium-high heat.  Add the rinsed rice and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often but gently until some rice grains turn wheat-colored (2 minutes). Add the cooked lentils to the pot, 3 1/2 cups of water (or chicken broth)  and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt; bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low to simmer; cover then cook 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, place a towel over the pot and return the lid.  Let rest for 10 minutes then fluff rice with a fork.  (The towel absorbs extra moisture so that the rice will be fluffier.)

-While rice is cooking, combine tomatoes, cucumber, diced onion, parsley, garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.  

-Prepare the yogurt sauce by combining yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, (mint), salt and pepper.  Chill until ready to serve.

-Taste the rice for seasoning. Place lentil-rice mixture in a large or individual serving dishes, top with yogurt sauce, then the Tomato-Cucumber salsa and garnish with reserved caramelized onions.  A squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkle of sumac add an extra level of flavor!

Persnickety P.S.:

Sumac:  Not be confused with poison sumac, this spice comes from the flowers of the sumac bush known as Rhus which are ground into an elegant crimson-purple powder with a bit of a glittery quality to it.  It is my favorite spice discovery in all my time in the Middle East and adds a truly stunning lemony pop as a garnish to salads, soups and meat in Jordan.  In fact one dish, musakkhan, composed of chicken postitively swimming in oil and sumac, makes you smack your lips in satisfaction!  Sumac is available in Middle Eastern and global grocery markets or via Amazon online.

Lentils:  You''ll be glad to know that the best, most autehntic lentils for this dish are the common brown ones we find easily in U.S. grocery stores in the dried bean section.  They tend to cook faster than other color lentils and hold their shape well.  Easily done!

Leftovers:  Mujadara makes excellent leftovers.  Heat a bit of butter or oil in a frying pan and cook until heated through or popping and crispy.

1 comment:

  1. Is the 1 cup of olive oil correct? We are excited to try this recipe! We bought some sumac online per your raves for it here, and we love it! We've mostly been putting it on Greek pasta salad and potato salad so far. This recipe is next!