Cooking has certainly changed throughout the years. My Great Depression-era great-grandmother managed to cook for 13 people everyday from her stocked cellar using only fresh ingredients, yet her eldest son's wife, my grandmother, sometimes added a can of Ragu to her pasta sauce. This, in a span of less than 50 years. So when you feature ingredients that have an even longer history, that have been providing nutrition to civilizations through peace and war and echo of another time, it's compelling to be in this mindset when cooking with them today.
From a cooking after five perspective, you're looking at a perfect pantry meal. Lentils, onions and rice are easy items to store and keep on hand. And as long as you have some yogurt nearby, your spice rack does the rest of the work. But as weeknight-friendly as it is, I also love to think of the history of this dish and its ingredients, particularly lentils that have been around for thousands of years (lentil stew even makes an appearance in the Bible). Quinoa, another powerhouse ingredient, has been sustaining cultures even longer, about 6,000 years.
And don't let the name convince you that this dish is complicated, either. Mujaddara is a popular Middle Eastern dish, specifically for Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. Another one of its virtues, like ratatoullie in French cuisine, is that Mujaddara used to be considered a poor man's dish. It seems like all the best dishes have humble roots, doesn't it?
MUJADDARA WITH SPICED YOGURT
When I was browsing the Food52 website a while back, this dish had just been named the contest winner for "Best Lentils," and it was such a stunner I printed the recipe almost immediately. Although there are a few separate components, none of them are overly complicated, and it all comes together nicely in one pot for the finish. It wasn't added to the dish, but I opted to toss in fresh parsley to brighten things up and served it with warm pita bread.
3/4 cups lentils
3 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
2 tablespoons butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup jasmine rice
1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
Juice of half a lemon
A variety of spices: cinnamon, cumin, spicy paprika or red pepper flakes, chopped fresh mint or parsley
Add lentils to a large pot with 4 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are soft but not mushy, about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Return pot to the stove and add the rice along with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then simmer uncovered until rice is cooked, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork.
While the rice cooks, heat the butter and 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and toss to coat; season with salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, until beginning to soften, then raise the heat to medium and cook 10 to 12 minutes more, until the onions are very soft and light brown. Add another tablespoon of oil and raise the heat to high. Quickly toss to coat the onions then leave them to to cook, without stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottom layer is charred and crisped.
Off the heat, add the rice and lentils to the pan with the onions and toss. If you'd like, add a handful of chopped parsley. Season with salt and serve alongside warmed pitas and a dollop of yogurt.
To the Greek yogurt, add the recommended spices according to your own taste. You may prefer it spicier than some, or want less cinnamon. Taste as you go along and adjust any seasonings accordingly.