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.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Working with Music

It’s funny how you learn little things about yourself sometimes. Little things that kind of seem obvious, to you, or to anybody else, maybe, after learning them. But we can only muddle through life at whatever pace the combination of mind, matter and luck give us. I learned a little something about myself this week, and I hope the preceding sentences haven’t implied that this is something momentous or of great import. Or of any interest to anybody.

This little mundane thing I learned is that I work better to music. Not all jobs in all situations, of course, but jobs that require me to plow through something, where I’m in my own space, not interacting with others, not too creative but possibly challenging or intellectual…The reason this is interesting to me is because of my distractable, ADD’ish nature – you might think that having music on would be quite distracting, and I always thought so too. But I underestimated the power of distraction. I find that if I’m sitting at my desk slowly working through some kind of project that is not exactly a thrill a minute, my mind goes kind of crazy looking for input, some kind of stimulation, so I get up and pretend to do something else, try and think of questions to ask a co-worker, muse endlessly on what I want for dinner, look something up on the internet, goof off, and so I work in fits and starts. I work quickly and well when I apply myself, so I do get things done. But if I put music on…then there’s that little input, stimulation, there, present, for me to dip into for a few moments, to occupy that unused back portion of my brain as I move through the pages…so yes, the music distracts me, but I stay at my desk. Giving me the chance to be mildly distracted in kind of an ongoing, ambient manner allows me to keep myself from the greater distractions resulting from utter boredom and the need to fill a silent void, and I get more done.

Does this make sense? I don’t know. I’m mostly speaking of my experience of the last few weeks when I’ve been working on a large task of a repetitive nature involving hundreds of pieces of paper, shuffling them and writing things down on them, then transferring those thoughts to some sort of numerical/inventory computer jobbie. I started bringing in CD’s, mostly classical chamber works, and it’s been a lifesaver.

Okay, enough of this rambling. Have I told you I love my new violin? I really do, and I love feeling motivated to practice, and to listen and understand new music. I’ve been listening to Bartok’s 44 Duos for two violins, written in large measure as a pedagogical work, starting from simple and moving to difficult, covering many types of rhythms and melodies, tempos and forms. Many of these duos are under a minute, and few are longer than two minutes. Despite their teaching purpose, these are wonderful character works, covering an immensely wide expressive range, and compressing wonderfully developed musical thoughts and emotions into these incredible little snapshots. Furthermore, listening to them has not only inspired me to play them, it has inspired me to venture again into a bit of composition. Works like these would be a great place to start and experiment. I know the violin, duos would give me greater range, small pieces would allow me to experiment with an easier sense of commitment, trial and error, and I’ve always wanted to explore ‘real’ new music for students and amateurs, a niche extremely undeveloped in the twentieth-century plus world of classical music.

Okay, I’m moving on now. These are just some idle thoughts on a Saturday night. For those who have enjoyed my bird postings in the past, my apologies. I haven’t done much birding recently, but will certainly do some again. Maybe I’ll head up to Plum Island this weekend.

Then again, maybe I’ll stay home and practice my violin.

Friday, February 02, 2007

thank you, George Bryant

Well, I bought a violin. It was made by George Bryant in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1916. I have posted some pictures of it, though predictably, I don't really feel the pictures do it justice. Though its tone is certainly the main thing I fell for, I can't deny a certain appreciation for its appearance and its local New England genesis. Instead of describing it, I'll quote from my appraisal: "The faint to medium flame of the one-piece, quarter-sawn American maple back is horzontal, and is irregular and narrow in width. The flame of the ribs and head is similar to the flame of the back. The golden brown varnish is evenly applied." To my eyes, it glows, but with a subdued, earthy light. It looks its age, yet is in excellent shape, only sporting the odd weathered scratch or irregularity in the wear to its finish.

Falling for this instrument has been an interesting experience. I do mean falling for it, and it really has been similar to the way I have fallen for women before, if considerably less fraught with emotional ups and downs and various insecurities.

I fell for it instantly. In my job I regularly play violins of all sorts of makes and prices, from $100 dollar ebay instruments to antique and modern-made violins up to $25,000 or so (I have yet to play a stradivarius or another of that ilk) - and many of the pricier of these are objectively better than this one - richer, louder, more projection, finer craftsmanship, more expressive versatility - but this one just grabbed me in a completely unpredictable yet natural way within two seconds of picking it up and playing it. I realized very quickly I liked it a lot. A couple co-workers walked into the room where I was playing it and I looked at them and smiled, asking "What is this?" One of them, Vicky, smiled and said "It's nice, isn't it?" I think it was really over at that moment; it just remained to be seen whether we would go the distance or my heart would be slowly be broken. Continuing this rather heavy 'relationship' analogy, I must tell you that we, my violin and I, got married yesterday.

But seriously, folks, I really like this violin. It's very warm and open, with a bit of a dark character to it, a touch of the viola, and a very consistent tone from string to string. It's not loud, but not quiet either. It feels easy in my hands and has a voice like mine - I feel like myself when playing it, while its depth challenges me to develop as a player and a communicator.

I'm hoping that it will motivate me to take my playing to another level. I've been exploring the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas recently, and have been jabbing at a couple movements that I've never attempted before, and still may never be able to pull off, but have always been favorites, such as the first two movements of the first sonata in g minor, the Adagio and the Fuga, and the wonderfully beguiling Andante from the second sonata (perhaps my favorite movement of all). Also, the second movement from Beethoven's violin concerto, which holds some of the most beautifully serene passages, where it seems all the love in the universe is balanced perfectly, comfortably, on the head of a pin.

Anyway, I hope that many of you will get a chance to hear it someday.