Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Have you eaten the food of the Old Country?

Mujadarrah is the dish that made me a cook. It's the one I first took an active, creative interest in, the first one I made, was dissatisfied with the results and resolved to try again, and is a dish that I have continued to make and tinker with every year. It has gotten better and better, then worse with new experimentation, then even better again; it is still short of my memories of that glorious first taste of it at the Old Country Inn in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mujadarrah, or megadarra, or M'jdara, or perhaps one of any number of other spellings and pronunciations, is a middle-eastern dish of rice, lentils and fried onions. When I first encountered it, it was a steaming, fluffy dish with a slightly sweet, aromatic scent, topped with black, crispy slivers of onion. It was incredible, and kind of blew my top off with its simple yet deeply-rooted implications. I think at that time in my life I had encountered americanized Chinese food and mall-style Mexican combination plates, but no other types of 'non-american' foods. This would have been early college.

I was also nothing of a cook at that time, having only ventured so far as hot dogs, ortega-style tacos and my college staple of macaroni and cheese (mueller's elbows, kraft singles, milk and lots of black and cayenne pepper). After tasting the heavenly dish of mujadarrah in that dimly lit restaurant, I resolved to try and make it. I didn't try and seek out recipes - this was pre-internet and pre-my long-standing addiction to cookbooks, and I didn't really expect to be able to find it anyway, so I did what I rarely do nowadays: I experimented.

In classic beginning cook style, I started by boiling lentils and rice together until mushy and then dumping in enormous quantities of salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric (?). I fried slivers of small onions until golden-brown and mixed them up. It's funny how I either overlooked a fairly obvious procedure (I didn't cook the onions nearly long enough - maybe in the dim lighting I didn't really understand how black they were). It was terrible, but by college standards, perfectly edible and something of a triumph for myself and my housemates, even if I recognized that it wasn't anything like what I had eaten before.
So I began an erratic, long journey to perfect it. The first key step came quickly: fry the onion slices in olive oil until black, and don't stint on the amount of oil. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to realize the second key - stop tinkering with the types and amounts of spices used and just get rid of them altogether (except for salt and pepper). I will admit, I occasionally try a little cumin, but usually regret it, even though I like cumin a lot. The deep, sweet smoky flavor of the onions, the onion-flavored olive oil, the light but meaty taste of the lentils is all you need. The third key was a little trickier, and a tip I got from Paula Wolfhert's recipe, which is to fry the onions first and cook the rice and lentils with a good portion of them (so make sure you cook enough to have plenty for topping) and all the remaining olive oil.

The final key was the trickiest - achieving that light texture, pilaf-style almost, instead of sludge, glop, porridge, whatever. This seems to come from three things - saute the rice and lentils for a few minutes before adding the water, don't use too much water (pre-soaking the lentils helps with this), and have a tight seal (use aluminum foil PLUS a tight lid if possible).


Soak 1 cup of lentils in water for a couple hours and drain. Soak 2 cups long-grain rice as well, for at least a half-hour (soaking is not strictly necessary, but helps the texture). Slice two medium-large onions into thin half-circles. Fry in a half-cup of extra-virgin (top-shelf is not necessary - extra-virgin is) until dark-brown to near-black. Remove 2/3's of the onions with a slotted spoon (try to keep as much olive oil as possible in the pot) and drain on paper towels. They will crisp up nicely. Add the drained rice and lentils to the pot along with 2 teaspoons of salt and as much freshly-ground black pepper as you like. Saute briskly for about five minutes (try not to break up the rice grains too much) and then add 4 cups of water (maybe another ½ cup if you haven't soaked the lentils). Bring to a boil, cover tightly (use foil if necessary) and cook for about 25 minutes over very low heat. When done, fluff it up with a fork and serve, sprinkled generously with the crispy onion slices.

In the summer, a simple tomato salad is a great accompaniment. In the winter, try some pan-roasted cauliflower. In all seasons, a spicy yogurt raita is a perfect match, as well as a mint lemonade or a juicy, mineral-ly rose.

1 comment:

Meghan said...

Boy I tell you, my first and only experience trying to make Mujadarra was so gloppy and mushy that I couldn't ever really face the idea of trying agan. Perhaps I'll consider your recipe, but I tell you, that was one horrifying gray glop that I had to eat for quite a few days!