I wish I could tell you a warm and fuzzy story about how mujadara has always been a special dish in the family. Truth be told, mujadara was far from my favorite growing up. Lentils don’t hold a lot of kid-appeal, which is why I’m always astonished when my friend Rebecca tells me her children eat a lot of lentils and love them. For me and my siblings, lentils were to be avoided; we walked far away from the table when lentils were on it, like my little nephew does whenever he sees a dog nearby. You wonder where he’s going and then realize he’s circling the park, walking far out of his way to avoid that dog. It might bite.
I try to remind myself of my childhood aversion to mujadara whenever my nephew looks in terror at something I’ve placed before him on his plate. Usually I beg him to at least taste it, or I ask him if he’s read Green Eggs and Ham? And he usually has a response like “eggs are NOT green.” It’s not like I’ve tried to feed him mujadara; we’re just talking about mashed potatoes, or green bits of anything in anything, or any scoop of one food touching another—and he goes kind of crazy, as though a huge, fierce dog is going to sink his teeth in and never let go.
During my graduate school years, I was enamored with my first apartment and most of all with having a kitchen to call my own. I got into some heavy thinking about all kinds of things, and for a short time, swore off of meat (religion too). Mom was concerned, mostly about my ability to maintain good nutrition, especially knowing my propensity at that point to skip meals in favor of candy or nothing at all. But her response was one that I’ve never forgotten. Instead of asking me in disbelief how I would survive without kibbeh, or her all time favorite, a hamburg, she gave me a vegetarian cookbook. This was the first cookbook to don my bookshelf; it was beautiful, and I was mesmerized. It was from this book that I first made the divine smoothness of pureed leek and potato soup, and I’ve been making it ever since.
She also gave me the recipe for mujadara, and told me about why it’s so good for you. The combination of lentils with rice or coarse bulgur forms a perfect protein, along with the fiber and other nutrients much needed in a diet that doesn’t include meat. Her approach to my swearing off of meat (we won’t go into what my parents thought about me dumping on my religion, which was also short-lived) charmed me into walking right up to the big bad doggie of lentils and putting the back of my hand in its face.
My first tries at mujadara were just ok, producing a mush that still tasted fine but giving off an aroma from the deeply caramelized (or in my case, burnt) onions that was so strong it permeated the woodwork. I think I can still smell those early batches in my hair today. I’ve since discovered that in some areas of Lebanon, mujadara is in fact pureed, so my mush could probably have passed for something other than a mistake. And Aunt Rita casually mentioned recently that she caramelizes her onions in vegetable oil because with the olive oil, the onions burn easily and the whole house smells of it for days. A revelation.
One of the great things about mujadara is that you can make it on a whim with ingredients you likely already have in the pantry. This is peasant food, food that developed out of need. But in the hands of the Lebanese women who throughout history have known instinctively how to make all food taste good, the ingredients were transformed into a beloved dish that, approached with a little gentleness and charm, could coax even the most stubborn (albeit adult) palate into submission.
- 1 cup whole brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 4 cups diced yellow onion (½-inch)
- 1 cup long grain rice OR coarse cracked wheat (#3 grade)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- For fried onion garnish (optional):
- 1 large onion cut in very thin rings
- canola oil for frying
- Place lentils in a small saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until lentils are par-cooked, 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Be careful not to overcook here; the idea is to par-cook the lentils.
- In a large, heavy sauté or sauce pan (with a lid), heat the canola oil over medium high heat. Add the onions and cook until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt as the onions cook.
- Take the onions off the heat and add 2 cups of water. Place back on the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. The liquid will take on the deep golden color of the onions and the onions will continue to soften.
- Add the rice and par-cooked lentils (and their liquid) to the onion mixture. Cover and bring to a boil. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice and lentils are cooked through. The texture of the rice and lentils is somewhat al dente. Take care not to overcook or the mixture will become mushy. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature drizzled with olive oil.
- For fried onion garnish, heat canola oil over high heat in a small saucepan (the small saucepan reduces the amount of oil needed for depth). When a small piece of onion dropped into the oil floats to the top and bubbles vigorously, the oil is ready. Fry the onion rings in batches until golden brown, reducing heat as needed to prevent burning. Remove and drain on paper towel. Place the onions on top of the mujadara on a serving platter or individual plates.