Friday, September 21, 2012

Rice and Lentil Pilaf ~ Creamy Lentils, Fluffy Rice, Warm Spices & Caramelized Onions

Mujaddara, mejadra, moujadara, mudardara, and megadarra.... There are many names for this aromatic, delicious, humble rice and lentil dish that's eaten throughout the Middle East. It’s ancient peasant food which dates back to Biblical times, specifically the book of Genesis. It’s referred to as Esau’s favorite, although I'd guess he probably ate his lentils with cracked wheat instead of rice. 

Lots of caramelized onions are what make this dish so special. Their sweetness complements the earthy taste of the lentils. My recipe has both golden caramelized onions and darker caramelized onions for a contrast in taste. The spices are also key. I use cumin, both whole and ground. A cumin seed infused oil is drizzled over the pilaf at the end of cooking for more warm, spicy notes.  

Creamy lentils, back-notes of cumin and a finish of fresh lemon juice make this dish one of my favorites. As you're cooking it, the aroma of frying onions will fill your kitchen. It's deliciously intoxicating smell. 

Rice and Lentil Pilaf Recipe

Some Notes:
Don't stress about the spice-infused oil. You can make this dish without it. I just happened to love it. 

I like the acidic hit that the lemon provides. A finish of fresh lemon juice lifts all the flavors of this pilaf. 

Rice and Lentils is the Middle Eastern version of comfort food. It reheats well. Store in the refrigerator in an air tight container. Warm it up in the microwave. This recipe makes a whole lot, so you’ll have leftovers. It’s great to take to work for lunches.

You'll Need:
  • 1 cup of regular brown or French green lentils, rinsed and drained  
  • 4 cups of cooked rice (recipe below)   
  • 2 large or 3 medium yellow onions, chopped 
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cumin 
  • 1/2 teaspoon of whole cumin seeds (optional, see notes) 
  • A drizzle of honey or a pinch of sugar to help caramelize the onions  (optional)
  • 2 dried bay leaves, torn. Remember to remove the bay leaves before serving.
  • Sea salt or kosher salt to taste
  • Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
  • Olive oil for cooking 
  • Serving Suggestions: ground Aleppo pepper or red chili flakes, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, lemon wedges, yogurt and mint sauce (see below), Greek yogurt, light or regular sour cream, fresh parsley 

The Rundown:

Place lentils in a pot with enough water to cover(about an inch or so over the lentils). Add the torn bay leaves. Turn up heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer on low, partially covered, until the lentils are cooked and tender but still holding their shape. Don't overcook them into mush. Adjust the heat as you go, keeping a gentle simmer. Add more water if needed. Drain the lentils in a colander, discard the bay leaves. Set the cooked lentils aside and toss them with salt and pepper.    

STEP TWO: (optional)
Make a cumin seed infused oil by putting a small fry pan or small pot on the stove with one tablespoon of olive oil and a 1/2 teaspoon of whole cumin seeds. Toast the seeds on medium heat in the oil until they become fragrant being careful not to burn them. Set the pan aside.  

Put a large nonstick pan on the stove. Saute the onions with salt, pepper and olive oil. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring them occasionally. Keep an eye on them. To help them caramelize, add a drizzle of honey or a pinch of sugar as they are starting to become very soft. This will help them become golden brown. Again, keep an eye on the onions and add a little more oil or a little water if they start to burn. Adjust the heat as you go. Occasionally cover the fry pan with a lid. With the right pan and a drizzle or two of honey, they should brown without much effort. Once they're golden brown, add the ground cumin, saute it a little to release its flavor. Set about half of the onions aside. Continue to cook the rest of the onions until they are a richer darker brown, being careful not to burn them. 

Once they are darker brown, add the reserved golden onions and the cooked rice back to the pan. Stir in the reserved cooked lentils, a cup at a time until you reach your desired preference. I like a lot of lentils and generally use all of them. Warm everything together and season with salt and pepper. 

Add as little or as much of the reserved cumin seed oil, along with some cumin seeds as you wish. I use most of it. Lentils and fresh cracked pepper are the perfect pairing. I use a generous amount of fresh cracked pepper and maybe a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper. Serve and enjoy with the above suggestions.

Yogurt and Mint Sauce
A nice addition to my rice and lentils, grilled chicken kebabs, Greek burgers, lamb dishes, Moroccan and Indian food, stuffed grape leaves and much more..... 

You'll Need:
1 cup of full fat or 2 percent Greek yogurt. I like Fage brand. 
1 teaspoon or more of dried spearmint(see note). I like to use Penzeys brand. 
Sea salt or kosher salt to taste

The Rundown:
Place the yogurt in a bowl. Add the mint by rubbing it between your fingers as you sprinkle it into the yogurt to release its flavor. Add salt to taste and serve. It can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 days. 
Note: You must use dried spearmint in this recipe. It's used all over the Middle East in salads, tabbouleh etc. Do not use peppermint. Peppermint has a different flavor and is used mostly for candy making and baking.  

Perfectly Steamed Basmati Rice Pilaf Recipe

Some Notes: 

Oh how I love fluffy, fragrant basmati rice with all sorts of pilafs and curries. I have several Indian grocery stores by my apartment, where I can find all sorts of brands of rice. I tend to go with the best my budget can afford. I like Tilda brand which can be viewed here:

This recipe makes approximately 2 cups of cooked rice

You'll Need:
  • 1 cup of basmati rice
  • 1/ 1/2 cups of water
  • drizzle of olive oil or a little butter
  • sea salt to taste

Rinse one cup (measured with a dry measuring cup) of basmati rice in several changes of warm water. I do this in a large bowl. Rub the rice between your fingers to release the starch. Strain the rice and set aside. Heat 1 1/2 cups of water (measured with a liquid measuring cup) in a pot with a tight fitting lid, add some salt and a small amount of oil or butter. Bring to the boil. Add the rinsed and strained rice, bring back to a boil, cover. Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting. Simmer, covered, for 15- 20 minutes. Once the rice is cooked, turn it out into a large bowl, add a little more oil or butter and gently fold it into the rice. Fluff with a fork and serve.   

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