By Catherine Winter
Are you familiar with the phrase “the hungry gap”? This is a period in springtime in which last year’s harvest is dwindling, but new crops haven’t grown yet. When pantry goods are almost gone and there’s little available at the grocery store, we need to get creative with what we can find.
As I write this, people are hoarding canned goods (and toilet paper…?) as virus fears sweep the globe. Many who visit supermarkets are discovering that entire sections have been picked clean, creating a different type of hungry gap.
There’s a bright side to this mess, however, and that’s the fact that it’s mostly pre-prepared, processed foods that have been snapped up. Not raw ingredients.
My own sojourn to the local (only) market shop in town showed me that few people around here are interested in dry goods like rice and beans. These were staples when I was a poor college student, and have been nourishing millions of people for thousands of years. They’re cheap, easy to cook, and remarkably versatile.
If you haven’t tried mujadara yet, prepare to be tantalised. It’s a delicious, savory dish that’s pretty much a staple throughout the Middle East. I’m familiar with it because of my affinity with Sephardic cuisine (thanks ancestors!), but there are many different variations to try, depending on region.
Some people like to season theirs with sumac, while others might double—or triple—the onions and mix them into the dish instead of using them as garnish. In some regions, bulgur wheat is used instead of rice, and I’ve made this with quinoa in a pinch as well. You can even add in crushed vermicelli noodles if desired.
This is my standard mujadara recipe, but feel free to adapt it to make it your own. It also has the benefit of being absolute comfort food, so it makes you feel all happy and content with every bite.
- 2 cups long-grain white rice, like basmati
- 1 cup dry brown, green, or red lentils
- 2 large onions
- 2 teaspoons cumin
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Water, stock, or bone broth
- Salt and pepper
- Optional: other seasonings like za’atar and garlic powder, and/or garnishes such as chopped green onions, parsley, whole pomegranate seeds, etc.
- Rinse the rice, making sure to remove any small stones or lego pieces. Then pour it into a large bowl, cover it with cold water, and add a generous pinch of salt. Let this soak at room temperature about an hour.
- Bring 5 or so cups of water to a boil in a medium-large pot. Give your lentils a quick rinse, checking for rocks and other strange somethings, then add them to the boiling water along with about 2 teaspoons of salt.
- Reduce the heat down to medium-low, and simmer for about 15 minutes. You’d like the lentils to be fork-tender, not squidgy.
Drain these in a colander and give them a quick rinse with cool water.
- Now drain that soaked rice, give it a rinse, and drain it again. Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil on high heat in a large frying pan or wok. Toss in the lentils, and sprinkle with cumin, around 1/2 a teaspoon of salt, and a couple of pinches of pepper. Turn the heat down slightly and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add in the rice, and about 2 cups of water (or stock), raise the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce so it simmers. Let this percolate for 10-15 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed (just keep an eye on it). Then turn off the heat, fluff it all with a fork, and cover it back up again.
- Now, peel those onions and slice them very finely. If you have a mandolin slicer, that’s perfect. Otherwise just make sure you’re working with a freshly sharpened kitchen knife. Once they’re all sliced, heat 1 tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large skillet, and toss the onions into that.
- Sautee these on medium heat until they’re gorgeously caramelised and dark brown. This can take a while, so be patient. Put on some great music, stir often, and remember that food always tastes better when prepared with love. Once they’ve browned to your heart’s content, take them off the heat and set them aside.
Fluff the mujadara mixture again, and season it to taste. Remember that the caramelised onions are quite sweet, so having this mixture on the salty/savoury side is a good idea. I generally add a bit more cumin here, along with a tiny bit of paprika for a kick, but how you season it is really up to you.
Dish out the rice/lentil mix, and top with a generous portion of caramelised onions.
I love this dish with a scoop of plain Greek yogurt on the side or a fried egg on top. It’s also great with a side salad like fattoush to make it a full, balanced meal. If you’d like to keep it vegan, try the suggested garnishes such as chopped green onions, pomegranate seeds… even a dollop of hummus. Whatever piques your interest.
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Lead image via Foter.