The menu at the Lebanese restaurant didnt do the dish any favors. Vegetarian brown lentils and rice cooked with onions, the description read. It sounded like a dreary incarnation of 1960s hippie cuisine: salubrious, drab, bland.
We were in need of a meatless main course, though, so we ordered it anyway. And thats when I fell in love with mujadara.
The menus description of the dish was technically correct, but the lentils and rice were headily perfumed with cumin and allspice. The onions were fried in olive oil until burnished and crackling, adding texture and a gentle sweetness to the mix. We all devoured it, vegetarians and omnivores alike.
Cookbooks will tell you that, in the Middle East, mujadara is the essence of comfort food, a humble dish made from pantry staples. To that I will add how easy it is to make.
The only part that needs some attention is the frying of the onions (or in this case, leeks). To get them crisp, you have to cook them until they are deeply brown and darker than you might be comfortable with. Without the deep color, though, you dont get the crunch. Just make sure to take them off the heat before they burn. You want the majority to be mahogany, not black (although a few black strands would be OK).
While a pot full of mujadara is satisfying enough to be a whole meal, I always yearn for vegetables alongside to round it out. A leafy salad, maybe one adorned with orange segments and olives, often fills that void.
When I made mujadara recently, however, I took another tack and added an entire bunch of spring mustard greens directly to the pot. The greens were tender things, delicate enough to eat raw. I very coarsely chopped them up, and then, during the last five minutes of cooking, added them to the pot. They wilted in the steam while the mujadara finished cooking.
The mustard greens lightened the rice and lentils and turned the dish into a one-pot meal rich in vegetable matter. You could use any tender greens: spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens. Kale would work, too, although you might want to chop it more finely if it seems tough.
The greens also help the visual appeal of the dish, which may still be healthful but could never be bland.
To see printable version of the recipe, click on the link below:
PLACE lentils into a large bowl and add warm tap water to cover by 1 inch. Let soak.
HALVE leeks lengthwise; run under warm water to release any grit. Thinly slice leeks crosswise.
HEAT oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crispy, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer half the leeks to a bowl to use for garnish; sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt.
STIR garlic into the pot with the remaining leeks and cook for 15 seconds until fragrant. Stir in rice and saute 2 minutes. Stir in cumin, allspice and cayenne; saute 30 seconds.
DRAIN lentils and stir into pot. Add 4 1/4 cups water, 2 teaspoons salt, bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Rinse greens in a colander and spread damp leaves over lentil mixture. Cover and cook 5 minutes more, until rice and lentils are tender and greens are wilted. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Serve sprinkled with reserved crispy leeks. Yield: 6 to 8 servings