Saturday, July 17, 2010

0 Recipe #140: Mujaddara (Lentil & Rice Pilaf with Caramelized Onions)

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This dish was tonight's dinner.

If you can't tell from the number of related posts on this blog, I really love legume & whole grain dishes, & have a particular fondness for lentils. Also, some Twitter pals have asked me for some meal ideas incorporating lentils. Hence, the reason for this recipe. :)

What I especially love about this recipe is that it's so easy to make & is also extremely nutritious to boot. It's very high-protein and contains lots of iron, manganese, and B complex vitamins (particularly B-1, B-6, B-9, & B-12).

Additionally, the ingredients of this dish are surprisingly inexpensive & basic -- standard staple foods found in most people's kitchen cupboards (lentils, rice, onions, garlic, dried spices, etc.). This dish also manages to make the most of its very modest ingredients -- Even with its very simple ingredients, it still manages to be highly flavorful. It does a lot with a little!

Once regarded as rustic "peasant food," this Levantine dish has since become a main staple of the Middle Eastern diet. It's also become highly popular here in the U.S. as well. Mujaddara ( مجدرة‎; ) is traditionally served slightly warm or at room temperature, and is either made with bulghur or rice, depending on regional customs.

If you're familiar with Near East Lentil Rice Pilaf,  that product somewhat approximates the idea of this dish, except that this recipe is much more vibrant & flavorful, & of course, a lot fresher-tasting because it's made using fresh vegetables & spices. :)

In fact, I'm betting that the Near East company's original idea was to basically produce their own version of mujaddara in a box & then mass-market it to an American audience. :) Of course, when they first released their product, they probably opted not to call the dish by its real name, "mujaddara," because, for most Americans, that probably would've been too unfamiliar-sounding as well as a mouthful to pronounce. :) "Lentil rice pilaf" rolls off the tongue a bit more easily. :)

Of course, these days, Americans in general tend to be a bit more familiar with ethnic fare, due to diverse neighborhoods, the internet, & an increased prevalence of ethnic fare in various food-related outlets -- restaurants, chain grocery stores, small family-owned markets, outdoor markets & festivals, etc. And there are also a lot more stores these days that sell ethnic cookbooks & related specialty kitchen utensils, etc.

And of course, there are a lot of Americans themselves with diverse cultural heritages, and in many situations, this also lends to a more open & culturally-aware environment.

Then there's the educational system itself. Sometimes, it happens from an early age: Perhaps a teacher might've encouraged their kids to talk about their heritage & bring in some representative cultural objects at "show & tell" time, or the kids might've been asked to do a class project/assignment about food from around the world.  Or, in an informal sense, an introduction to new foods can be as simple as what little kids learn from social interactions -- i.e., little kids bringing bag lunches to school that don't look like the other kids lunches. :) One kid says to the other, "What's that?" and then a discussion arises. :) Of course, kids often learn things this way as well.

Or maybe, you work in an environment with adults who bring ethnic food into the office, either to share with coworkers to eat for lunch. At a past office party (from a former workplace), one of the themes was "Food from Around the World," and each of the hosts brought in a dish representing their own heritage. This was several years ago, but a lot of the food & beverages were very memorable, & to this day, stick in my mind. I distinctly remember sampling dishes like Glögg (Swedish mulled wine), Vietnamese pot stickers, several Chinese & Japanese dishes, as well as many other appetizers, beverages, & sweet treats. It was a really fun event, & a great opportunity for people to share a bit of their background with others & for others to be introduced to new dishes that they might not otherwise know about.

So, if you're unfamiliar with mujaddara, now's your chance to discover it for yourself. :) Or, if you're already a big fan of the dish but haven't had it in a while, now might be the time to get reacquainted. :)

Mujaddara (Lentil & Rice Pilaf with Caramelized Onions)

1 Tbsp. butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 c. yellow onions, halved, sliced crosswise into 1/8" rounds & then halved again to form crescent slivers (about 2 large onions)
1/4 c. baby carrots, finely diced (about 4 baby carrots)
1/4 c. celery, finely diced (about 1/2 large stalk)
1 Tbsp. garlic, finely minced (about 2 large cloves) (or add 1 1/2 - 2 Tbsp. if you like more garlic flavor)
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
2 large bay leaves
1/8 tsp. dried chili pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 c. long-grain (Basmati) brown rice
6 c. water
1/2 c. brown uncooked lentils, washed & picked over for stones
1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)
2 large sprigs or 1 Tbsp. fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, finely minced (for garnish)

Directions:  To prepare/soften lentils, place them into a large bowl & soak overnight (or for at least 6-8 hours) in 2 c. boiling water. (This will make the lentils expand to 1 c.) Drain, wash, place back into bowl, & set aside. Next wash the rice several times (to remove the starchy coating), drain, & place into a separate bowl to dry. (I actually skipped this step because the long-grain Basmati brown rice I use isn't very starchy.)

Heat the olive oil & butter on medium-low heat in a large, deep sauté pan. Add onions & fry on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until onions have caramelized & are a deep, golden brown color. (I like mine slightly burnt & crisped around the edges.) Reserve 1/2 c. onions (place in a small bowl) & set aside. Turn down heat to medium-low, add carrots, celery, garlic, & all dried spices except for the salt & pepper, & cook for about 4 more minutes. By this point, garlic should be golden-brown but not burnt. Next, add rice & cook for about another minute, to crisp & seal the grains so that they don't become mushy when the water is added. (Do not let rice burn.) Quickly pour in lentils & then 4 c. water, so that all ingredients are fully submerged, & stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to medium-high & cook (uncovered) for 40 minutes (to an hour), or until water has been completely absorbed & the pilaf is no longer hard & crunchy. (If you cook the pilaf longer than 40 minutes, you'll probably need to add some more water to prevent it from burning on the bottom.) Remove from heat, cover, & let it pilaf rest for 15 minutes. This will allow it to steam & become fluffy. Season with salt & pepper, add lemon juice (if desired), and stir a bit to combine & also fluff the pilaf. Allow pilaf to cool to room temperature, then top with remaining caramelized onions & parsley, and serve. (The pilaf will keep for about a day, but of course, it's better served on the same day it's eaten.)

Yield: Serves 3-4 as a main course, or 6-8 as a side dish.

Serving Suggestions: Top with a dollop of yoghurt sauce (nonfat plain Greek yoghurt, shredded cucumbers, lemon juice, salt, & pepper) or labneh, and serve with toasted pita &/or a traditional side salad (mezze) of chopped cucumbers, tomatos, & red onion, marinated in olive oil, vinegar, & lemon juice, & seasoned with fresh mint & parsley, salt, & pepper. Or, alternatively sprinkle a little Parmesan cheese on top while it's still warm to slightly melt the cheese.

If you're serving this recipe as a side dish, it tastes particularly good served alongside chicken.

Chef's Notes: Some people also like to add cinnamon to this dish; I didn't add it here because I felt that there were enough spices as is (& didn't want to overspice the dish). Plus, cinnamon drastically alters the flavor: After I'd made the dish in my test kitchen, I first tried without the cinnamon, & then with to compare. I didn't really like the addition of cinnamon in combination with the other spices for this particular dish. It just tasted "off" somehow. However, if you'd still like to try/add it, I'd recommend adding 1/4 tsp. cinnamon, or to taste.

Also, another creative addition to this dish would be orzo, about 1/8 c. (2 Tbsp.), &/or mushrooms, about 1/2 - 3/4 c. Alternatively, you could also add toasted pine nuts, about 1/8 c.

To make this recipe vegan, replace the 1 Tbsp. butter with 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or simply omit the butter all together.

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