Tuesday it was about 95 degrees, and despite the heat, I was hungry. Rather than order takeout or eat raw seasonal vegetables like any sensible person, I ended up cooking the plainest of pantry staples. I don’t know why, exactly, but I was craving mujadara. It’s a mixture of rice, lentils and onion, and not much else besides a little salt and olive oil. It sounds dull at first, but the way the sweet caramelized onions slither amongst the rice and lentils melding the flavors, is nothing short of extraordinary. I’ve had versions of mujadara that involve herbs, spices, stock, and vegetables, but when I make it at home, I like to give the stage to the trio of rice, lentil, and onion. This version uses brown rice and red lentils because that’s what I happened to have on hand, but it would be equally delicious with the traditional long-grain white rice and brown lentils or any other rice or lentil you can find. The cooking times for each would just need to be adjusted.
My method of cooking red lentils is a little unorthodox, but it’s necessary for these delicate little lentils. If I cook them like other lentils, no matter how gently I simmer them they always seem to dissolve into a potful of mush. Sometimes that’s perfect, but for this recipe, they need to keep their structural integrity.
I’ve been having this for lunch all week, accompanied by watermelon, juicy apricots, and sunburn. It was totally worth the steamy evening in the kitchen.
For the lentils:
- 1 1/4 c red lentils
- 1 1/2 c water
For the rice:
- 1 c brown rice
- 1 1/2 c water
For the onions:
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 c water (may not need all of it)
- 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
Start with the lentils. Bring their 1 1/2 c water and 1/2 tsp salt to a rolling boil. Stir in the lentils and return to a boil for 2 minutes. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring gently and re-covering after 30 minutes. The key is to let the lentils absorb water at their own pace. The salt toughens them just enough to let them hold their shape.
While the lentils are soaking, get the rice going. Rinse the rice in a fine mesh sieve, then put in a small pot with the 1 1/2 c water. Cover and bring to a boil, which takes about 5 minutes. Reduce to low heat and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat, keeping covered, and let stand 15 minutes.
During that half-hour when the rice is cooking and the lentils soaking, start on the onions. Dice the onion (or slice into half-moons, but I prefer smaller pieces), making sure the pieces are all about the same size. Heat the ordinary olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions once the oil shimmers. Add the salt and stir, then reduce heat to medium. Stir ever two or three minutes until the onions lose most of their moisture. Then turn down the heat keep stirring at short intervals. Eventually, the sugar in the onions will begin to caramelize and stick to the pan. The darker they are, the more flavorful, but be careful not to burn them. Splash a tablespoon or two of water into the pan to deglaze it and pick up the fond (that sweet dark pan-crust). Keep stirring until your onions are a rick golden brown, about 25 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Stir the extra virgin olive oil into the onions. Fluff the rice with a fork and stir that into the pan of onions, too. (If your skillet is getting full, you can transfer the contents to a mixing bowl. Gently fold the lentils into the rice mixture, taste, and add more salt if needed.
Serve warm or at room temperature.