The Power of the Basics

20 Feb

Sometimes in my pursuit of interesting and exotic flavours, I forget about basic ingredients, the ones I use to bulk up a soup or to form the base for a sauce. I cook with them nearly every day, but I rarely think about their taste. That is, until I ate mujaddara.

Mujaddara
is a Middle Eastern dish that is more than the sum of its humble parts: rice, lentils, onions, and yogurt. But it’s the onions that really make the dish. Caramelised until they’re café-au-lait brown, then swiftly blistered over high heat, they add a deep savoury sweetness and elevate the rice and lentils out of quotidian blandness. The yogurt binds everything together texturally, and its tang combined with the spice mixture make a sprightly melody against the earthy, oniony base.

As well as being surprisingly delicious, this dish is also quite cheap and straightforward to source. I would bet that you have rice and onions in your kitchens, as well as most of the spices in the yogurt. And if you don’t have a bag of lentils in your cupboard, you really should! They’re cheap, healthy, and last forever. If you’re doing it right, the only things you should have to buy at the grocery store are the yogurt, a lemon, and some fresh mint.

Mujaddara with Spiced Yogurt (adapted from Rivka on Food52)

Serves 2

Mujaddara:

72g/0.25 cup + 2 tablespoons green or Puy lentils
1 teaspoon table salt, divided in half
92g/0.5 cup white rice
15g/1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided in half
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced

Yogurt:

60ml/0.25 cup Greek yogurt
0.25 teaspoon cumin
0.25 teaspoon coriander
0.25 teaspoon cinnamon
0.25 teaspoon paprika
0.25 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon zest
juice of a quarter of a lemon
1 small handful fresh mint, chopped

Put the lentils, half the salt, and 480ml/2 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring everything to a boil, then take it down to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for approximately 20 minutes.

While the lentils are simmering, mix together all the yogurt ingredients in a small bowl, and pop in the fridge.

Drain the lentils in a colander and rinse and dry the saucepan. Put the other half of the salt and 240ml/1 cup of water in the saucepan, and bring it up to a fast simmer. Add the rice, cover and turn the heat down as far as it goes, without turning it off. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until your rice is done.

While the rice is simmering, melt together the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a sauté pan on medium-low heat. When the butter is close to dissolving completely, add the onions and stir to incorporate. Fry slowly until onions have started to soften, about five minutes.

Now turn the flame up to medium and cook the onions until they’re soft and light brown all over, stirring very frequently, about 12-15 minutes. If the onions start to stick, add a tablespoon of water to loosen things up.

When onions are browned, turn the heat up to high. Fry them for another three minutes, stirring very occasionally. Don’t be afraid to char the onions a little bit – you want them to be getting quite crispy in parts.

In a serving bowl, combine the lentils, rice, and onions, and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes so the flavours mingle. Taste the mixture for salt – you’ll want to err on the side of undersalting, since the yogurt is also salted.

After the rest, serve up topped with yogurt.

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3 Responses to “The Power of the Basics”

  1. Caity February 20, 2012 at 1:58 PM #

    oh i am excited to make this! i had an indian roommate for a summer and she told me to put cumin and black pepper on top of my yogurt when i put it on the side of an indian dish. i love doing it, but i never thought about spicing up the yogurt even more. thanks Sarah!

    • tomatoesandradiowire February 20, 2012 at 3:56 PM #

      Thanks for commenting, Caity! Spices are indeed great in yogurt, though I think the mint and lemon keep them in balance. Without the acidity and herbal flavours, it might all be a little too musty and earthy.

  2. Lucy February 21, 2012 at 5:13 PM #

    Just made this, and am eating it right now…YUM! Made a few modifications…used brown lentils and brown rice, cause that’s what I had…omitted fresh mint, cause it would’ve cost a fortune in Wisconsin in February…and used a little less salt. This is amazing! Love the plethora of onions.

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