Mar 282013

Mujaddara with Ouzo

I love this dish. I really do. So much so that I thought it would set the right tone as the first post on this site.

I last made it a couple of weeks ago, on a day that found me waiting on a Fed Ex with an all-day delivery window. Knowing that if I tried to dash to the store, I would surely pick the exact 20 minutes that would ensure a missed delivery slip on my front door, I sought answers in the pantry. It’s something I should really do more often, and I highly recommend it. Using whatever ingredients happen to be on-hand to make something delicious is incredibly satisfying. Putting a dent in my stock of dry goods, dried beans, spices and the like channels my inner Caroline Ingalls and almost inspires me to start canning things. (Instead, I typically make a big pot of mystery grain porridge from the unlabeled leftovers from the bulk aisle. That’s something else I recommend.)

Mujaddara (you may also see this spelled mujadara or mujadarah, along with countless other variations, but I think they’re all generally pronounced moo-jha-DRA) is a classic Lebanese dish that has as many versions as spellings. But it’s basically rice, lentils and onions. Sometimes the lentils are pureed, sometimes aromatic spices are included, sometimes garnishes extend beyond the essential caramelized onions to include an array of vegetables and other goodies. There’s nothing hard about it, and the rewards are delightful, but you do have to get it started a couple of hours ahead of time. For that matter, it’s even tastier the next day, so feel free to start really early.

I was first introduced to mujaddara years ago via a guy I barely knew in Austin, Texas. He was gorgeous, smart, and surrounded by admirers. How I ended up stopping by his place with a group of friends is still a little fuzzy in my memory, but I do remember that his apartment smelled amazing. Turns out he had just heated up some of his mother’s home-cooked mujaddara, which looked to me like a gloopy pilaf. But oh, the aromas… Not long after, I began ordering mujaddara in Lebanese restaurants, typically as part of a meze, along with little plates of falafel and fatoush, carrot salad, sliced tomatoes, kibbeh and laban. Eventually I started experimenting with it in my own kitchen.

The formula below is one I really like, including swapping out the white long grain rice for brown. I personally love a hearty dollop of thick Greek yogurt on top, but leave that off for a completely vegan dish. But the key to this dish is the caramelized onions. They must be well-browned, patiently, as long as it takes. Until they are beginning to crisp around the edges and have a deep, intensely toasty/sweet flavor. Even a little burned is okay — better than undercooking them.


Of course, raki would have been the obvious choice, but I didn’t have any. (Note the Fed Ex-imposed housebound situation, above.) But I did have a bottle of ouzo, and these sweet little turquoise glasses, courtesy of my grandmother. (I venture to say she never drank ouzo out of them, but one never knows these things for sure.) Raki and ouzo are the Lebanese and Greek versions, respectively, of an anise-flavored spirit. For some reason, they are both often suffered as shots, when the traditional — and much more pleasant — way to drink them is with water. I do things in this order: a couple of cubes of ice in the glass, then ouzo (maybe 2 ounces here?), then top off with water. You get the most lovely louche effect as the whole thing turns an opaque milky white. Somehow strong and delicate at the same time. Anise, fennel seed, coriander… Very nice for sipping (not shooting) alongside all versions of a meze.

Final note: Mujaddara is also delish for breakfast, right out of the fridge, with that dollop of yogurt.

Recipe: Mujaddara

1 cup brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 quart water
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 medium white onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon allspice

lemon wedges
plain Greek yogurt
scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
radishes, thinly sliced
extra virgin olive oil

Bring the lentils and water to a boil in a large saucepan, then reduce the heat and simmer until lentils are al dente, not quite tender, 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. When the oil is hot, stir in the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened about 5 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove half the onions and set aside. Continue cooking the onions in the skillet, over moderate heat, stirring often, until deeply caramelized and beginning to crisp along the edges. Depending on your skillet and burner, this could take anywhere from about 10 to 30+ minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove onions and place on several layers of paper towels, if desired, to drain off the oil. (See note.)

Drain the lentils, reserving the cooking liquid. Set lentils aside. Measure the liquid. If needed, add water until you have 2 cups of liquid. Return liquid to saucepan. Add brown rice and cook, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer rice for 30 minutes. Then add lentils to the rice, along with the softened onions that you removed first, salt and allspice. Cover and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes, or until rice is completely cooked and tender.

If serving as part of a meze, spread mujaddara on a platter and top with caramelized onions. If serving as a main course, top each serving with a mound of caramelized onions. Serve condiments on the side, including the olive oil for drizzling.

Serves 8-10 as part of a meze, 4-6 as a main course.

Note: I had read a couple of notes here and there about draining caramelized onions on paper towels, so I thought I’d give it a go. The onions take on a different texture — a little sticky and toothy — and I kind of liked it. I’d be curious to hear what anyone else thinks if you try it, too.

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