Awhile ago I glanced at a big 25 pound bag of lentils we had downstairs as I was bringing down laundry. In the spirit of stocking up, I had purchased this bag of lentils and yet here it stood, more than a year or two later, still about 3/4 full.
I like beans and rice. It's not something we eat every day, but we can actually go through a 10-lb bag of pinto beans in 4-6 months. But for some reason, when I think of lentils, all I can usually think of is soup, and as the weather warmed, and I didn't really want to eat 25 lbs worth of lentil soup, I began to search the Internet for other recipes.
One recipe began to pop up in many different versions. It was mujadara, a Lebanese dish that consisted solely of lentils, onions, rice, oil, and a few spices, depending on the version of the recipe. For some reason it seemed to be a good thing to try one day in the middle of school and dealing with my kids since we were low on bread for lunch. I wasn't sure it would turn out great, or if it would be bland and mushy, but what I was pleasantly surprised by was the result of these four or five simple ingredients - a fluffy, savory mixture that had a deep complexity of flavors and texture. I followed the suggestions to add a yogurt sauce as a condiment which provided a tart counterpoint to the salty-sweet caramelized onions and spiced earthiness of the lentils.
In other words, it was delicious, and it wasn't just me who devoured them. One of my sons went back for seconds that day, and as I continued to experiment with spices in a second and third version, all of my sons would sneak bites as they passed through the kitchen while my toddler made motions for her own dish.
I love the flavors of the dish, but even more so, I love the way four simple, humble ingredients like lentils, onions, rice, and oil can be transformed into a dish that stands on its own. That said, it is also a good side paired with some grilled chicken kabobs and a mango lassi :).
Lebanese Lentils and Rice (inspired by this recipe by Aarti Sequeria)
recipe notes: this recipe uses only two onions, but because they are caramelized and break down to a much smaller amount, if you have a third or even a fourth onion, use it - you won't be sorry, and you'll have less guilt when you eat half the bowl of caramelized onions before you add them to the dish!
Also, I like to use a skillet that is large enough to both sautee the onions as well as hold the entire dish in and that has a good lid to seal it as it cooks the rice and lentils later.
1 cup of brown lentils, washed and picked through for stones
1 cup of white, long grain rice
2 medium onions, sliced into 1/4 inch half-moons
1/3 cup of vegetable or olive oil
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp turmeric (optional, mainly for additional golden color)
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 cups of water
Cover the lentils with two inches of cold water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, cooking until almost done for about 25 minutes, then drain.
While the lentils cook, saute the onions over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes until they become golden-dark brown (but not burnt) and sticky. Remove the onions from the pan and set them in a bowl. Add the rice to the pan over low heat and saute for 2-3 minutes along with the spices, being careful not to burn the spices. Add most of the onions back in, reserving a few tablespoons for garnish, and then the lentils, stirring well to combine. Add 3 cups of water and salt, again mixing everything well. Give it a taste to see if the salt is right - it should be slightly on the too salty side before cooking as the lentils and rice will absorb some of the salty flavor. Bring the pan to a boil, and the lower the heat to low, cover with a tight fitting lid, and cook for about 30 minutes or until the rice is finished. Stir to fluff up and serve.