I have mixed feelings about taking pictures of the food I eat. On the one hand, photography is really fun and I’ve enjoyed having a camera for the last eight months. On the other hand, taking pictures of food still feels a little weird to me. I don’t know. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it; it just doesn’t come naturally to me the way that taking pictures of trees or the skyline does. Also, I find that food invites a certain level of fussiness that turns me off. I don’t want to spend a lot of time faffing about with the food to get a nice photo. Mostly, when I’m cooking, I want to cook, and when I’m about to eat, I want to eat. I’m very focused that way.
You’ll notice that I’ve never posted a photo of a restaurant meal, even the lovely meal that Matt and I ate together at Veritas, a meal that still makes me smile when I think about it. I’m glad I wrote about it when the memory was still fresh because it was such a nice evening. I had been going through a hard time and taking our relationship along for the ride. That evening made me feel much better about things.
That’s the thing about words, you see. Words capture feelings in a way that is different from how photos capture feelings. With my words, I can describe for you the textures of the food, the way it smells and tastes and lingers in my mouth. I can tell you how happy I feel in the kitchen, transforming those lentils into something delicious and nourishing. I can tell you who ate the meal with me, or what I read while eating by myself. If I ate outside, I can tell you about how the breeze tickled my face and how my hair got stuck in my mouth while I was trying to take a bite. With my words, I can tell you a story.
Photos can tell a story too, but in my heart of hearts, I’m a word nerd. So forgive me when I tell you that today, that photo above is all I have for you visually. The rest is just words, telling you about a really lovely recipe for mujadara, a Middle Eastern dish of seasoned lentils, rice, and caramelized onions. The secret, I think, is in the seasonings, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.
I first heard of mujadara while reading Molly’s beautiful post, which you really should read if you haven’t already. I was so inspired by her tale of mujadara lost and found that I dragged out my cast-iron skillet and got some onions cooking right away. (To be fair, it doesn’t take much to make me caramelize an onion or two.) I chopped some onions, rinsed some lentils, and I was well on my way to making my first batch of mujadara…until I got lazy and said, “To hell with the rice! I’ll just eat onions and lentils!” Which I did. Then I did it again because it was such a simple, sublime combination: the onions sweet and rich, the lentils earthy and dark. Top it with some feta cheese, and you have a dreamy lunch, composed of just a few humble ingredients.
But then I met a new recipe, and it intrigued me. I had been going through my old issues of Vegetarian Times by season (a la Nicole), when I found the issue that arrived in my mailbox when I was in the thick of packing up my old apartment to move to Texas. The issue made me smile because I had clung to it with the hopes that yes, I would again have a kitchen and my home life would return to some degree of normalcy. I had made the Curried Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, and the leftovers sustained me through the hours and hours of packing, a thought that fills me with gratitude right now, remembering how hard those final weeks were. The soup was part of a “1 Food 5 Ways” article about lentils, and one of the 5 recipes was for mujadara.
This recipe is quite different from Molly’s. The basics are the same: onions, lentils, rice, but whereas Molly’s recipe uses nothing but salt and olive oil for seasoning, this Vegetarian Times recipe goes to town with the seasonings: parsley, thyme, cumin, and lemon zest. And I have to say, the combination works. The thyme and cumin add earthy, herbal notes while the parsley and lemon zest lighten and brighten the whole dish. All the flavors just come together, and wow, it is delicious.
And the best part? The leftovers make for wonderful weekday lunches, tucked away safely in the fridge until they get packed into lunch bags. I wish I had some for tomorrow, which makes me think it’s time to make another batch of mujadara. Have a happy week, friends. Make some mujadara and eat well!
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
I tweaked this recipe a bit, using my favorite recipe for baked rice instead of the stovetop version they suggest. Also, I followed the recipe’s suggestion to double the onions because there are fewer things as delicious as perfectly caramelized onions. I swoon just thinking about them!
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 cup long grain white rice, such as basmati or jasmine
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 tsp. salt, divided, plus more to taste
1 1/2 cups cooked brown lentils
1/2 cup parsley leaves, or the leaves stripped off a big handful of parsley
1 tsp. dried thyme
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 tsp. ground cumin
Ground black pepper to taste
1) Over medium-high heat, heat 2 tbsp. olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet or other NOT non-stick pan. Add the onions and a big pinch of salt. Let them cook for a few minutes until they have softened and started turning a bit translucent.
2) Turn down the heat under the onions to medium or medium-low and let them cook for a long time (at least 30 minutes—longer is even better) until they are deep brown, perhaps even a little bit charred. The browner your onions, the more flavor they will have developed. Stir the onions frequently.
3) While the onions are going, make your rice. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and pour 1 tbsp. olive oil in an ovenproof Dutch oven. I use my 5-quart Le Creuset here, but I’m sure you could use something smaller, like a 3-quart Dutch oven. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the rice, stirring until it’s coated with oil. The rice will look glassy and smell toasty.
4) Add the water and 1/4 tsp. salt to the rice, and bring it to a boil. Stir the rice once, then cover the pot, tuck it in the oven, and bake it for exactly 13 minutes.
5) After 13 minutes, remove the rice from the oven and let it stand, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice.
6) When the onions are done, scrape them into the pot with the rice. Add the cooked lentils, the remaining 1/4 tsp. salt, parsley, thyme (crumble the thyme into the rice), lemon zest, and cumin. Stir everything together gently. Taste, and add more salt or pepper if you desire. Serve warm or at room temperature. I imagine this would be tasty topped with some feta cheese, too!