Mujadara for your Heart, Wallet, Health, and the Earth

Mujadara is a Levantine dish, meaning it’s from the Western countries in the Middle East, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. It has four basic ingredients: rice, lentils, onions, and cumin. There are versions of mujadara using different grains other than rice, and different spices other than cumin, but I like the simplicity of this recipe. Nicknamed “the dish of the poor,” Mujadara ingredients are all affordable. A similar dish was often prepared in the US during the Great Depression, (don’t just take my word for it, check this out). Relying on pantry staples that you’ve probably already stocked up on, it seems like the perfect dish for these uncertain times. Plus, the sweetness of caramelized onions and the richness of cumin are heart-warming, comforting sensations that I think we are all craving right now.

Not only is this recipe a win for our hearts and wallets, but it’s also a climate and health hero. As I’ve written before, legumes, like lentils, are packed with the protein we need to stay healthy and the fiber we need to stay regular! Like magic, as they grow, legumes provide their own fertilizer. This nitrogen-fixing property of legumes reduces the amount of chemical fertilizer used to grow them, which in turn reduces nitrogen runoff that can lead to algal blooms and eventually dead zones in our waterways. If you want to read more about lentils, in particular, check out this short article by chef Kim O’Donnel on why lentils are “the training wheels of the legume world.”

Now, mujadara can be a test of patience because you have to caramelize onions to make it, and that takes time. There aren’t that many shortcuts you can take, but our friends over at America’s Test Kitchen came up with two tricks. Check out the video below to see what they are, or just follow my recipe, since I’ve incorporated them. In this recipe, I use brown rice, but white rice is typical in mujadara. I think brown rice works best, because brown rice and lentils take the same amount of time to cook, so you can cook them in the same pot, eliminating extra steps and reducing cleanup. This recipe makes a big batch, which you can eat at room temperature on a picnic, or warm back up and enjoy for lunches throughout the week.

America’s Test Kitchen tips to caramelize onions.

Mujadara

Makes about six servings.

Ingredients

RICE AND LENTILS

  • 1 cup brown rice, rinsed
  • 1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed
  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Crispy onions (optional, see note)

CARAMELIZED ONIONS

  • 4 onions
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 2 teaspoons water

Steps

  1. Slice the onions. First both ends, then in half, then into strips. Heat your largest, non-stick skillet (that has a lid) to medium-high heat. Pour in the olive oil and throw in the onions. Sprinkle the salt on top and pour in the water. Cover the pan. Lower the heat to medium or medium-low and set timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, rinse the lentils and rice and place them in a pot over medium-high heat. Pour in the 4 cups of water, the cumin, and salt. Stir and let the mixture come to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and set a timer for 30 minutes. Do not stir.
  3. Once the onion timer rings, remove the lid and stir the onions. Push them down to cover the surface of the pan, and let them cook. A minute or so later, mix and push down again. Repeat this process for about 15 minutes, until the onions are very soft. Raise the heat and keep a closer eye on them. Once they begin to turn color, mix in the baking soda and water. Cook for another five minutes or until perfectly golden in color.  
  4. The rice and lentils should be ready at this point. Take them off the heat and let them sit, covered, until the onions are ready. Once the onions are caramelized, pour them into the rice and lentils. Stir and add freshly ground black pepper. Taste and add salt if needed.
  5. Serve with store-bought crispy onions on top.
  6. Great accompaniments are tomato/cucumber salad, hummus, tahini beet dip, and/or bread.

NOTES:

  • Try to find crispy, fried onions in your grocery store; the texture and taste really finish off the dish. If you can’t find them at the store, you can set aside some of the caramelized onions to serve on top as garnish.  

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