Some moments in time are perfect.
When everything around you was just so; understanding, even then, that you are most likely going remember the time for eternity. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic or even noteworthy, it’s just a time when everything was ‘right’ – and you felt like you were where you should be. I don’t know how else to describe it and I don’t even know if it will translate to paper, but I guess I won’t know until I try, eh?
Mujadara brings it back to me, every time. This simple dish of lentils, rice, and caramelized onion spiced with salt pepper and cumin, is, for me, laced with memories of an ideal moment during my life (and delicious to boot – in a way that I never expected with just lentils & rice but it’s the caramelized onion that does it).
It’s Sunday morning at the restaurant. Winter is just starting to nudge you a bit and let you know of its coming. The back room, bakery, where we bake and prep is warmed from the huge double hearth ovens, yet the bakery still has an invigorating chill from the big open windows.
The bakery is typically populated with two bakers, one prep cook, and the bakery prep cook (to this day I don’t know where this title came from – that person made soups, quiche, lasagna, salsa & cut fruit – which in no way benefited us bakers). Sundays were a little magical. Sundays were the days when a couple of the line cooks came back to our area to make cheese sauce and fry tortillas. The best Sundays featured a visit from Kamil and Osama. Both men hailed form the Gaza strip in Palestine and we benefited not only from their wisdom but their mad cooking skills.
Kamil was a very gentle, soft spoken man; slender in build, dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair (what was left of it anyway) and the sweetest smile going. His heavy, but beautiful accent and soft voice required an extra attentive ear. Osama was an altogether different package, sturdily built, light caramel skin and sea green eyes. Yes, sea green eyes. He had more of an Egyptian look to him, but he was fiercely Palestinian and missed his family in Gaza. His name means “Lion” and t’was apt for him. He was a man of extreme emotions at times. Ninety-nine percent of the time he was mellow, with a smile and laugh, but on the rare occasions when he was angry, he was fierce. Not violent, just passionate.
On this particular Sunday, Kamil decided to make us all some STRONG Turkish coffee (as if there’s another intensity for Turkish coffee). He set about with his small metal cezve
making us each our own coffee served in beautiful demitasse cups he’d brought with him from his homeland. And after we each had one cup, he made us another and possibly another. It was so delicious and we were so hopped up on coffee. We buzzed around like little bees – all of us laughing and enjoying each other’s company. While Kamil made cheese sauce and coffee, Osama had put on two pots of water to boil, getting ready to make some Mujadara for our lunch.
It was the first time he’d made us this particular dish. He told us, that day, he was homesick for his mother and that Mujadara was one of the typical day-to-day dishes she’d prepare for his family. He told us that it was not an entrée you’d see on a menu in a typical Middle Eastern restaurant as it was a very ‘peasant-y’ dish – not much to look at. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much – I’m not a fan of rice and lentils have to be highly spiced for me to enjoy them. SURPRISE – it was fabulous. Those three main ingredients had a lot to offer.
When the Mujadara was prepared, Osama plated up a portion for each of us, warmed up some flat bread and we all ate together. It was a perfect Sunday. I felt like I was in the right place at the right time – surrounded by people that I cared for very deeply all sharing in a meal made with love and warm memories.
After we gorged ourselves and the caffeine wore off, I think we were all ready for a nap. We crashed hard.
And that, my friends, was a perfect moment in my life.
And this, my friends, is the recipe for Mujadara, prepared in the manner of my friend Osama’s mother.
- 1 cup uncooked rice – I prefer basmati – choose your favorite kind
- 1 cup uncooked lentils – green variety is the best, red will dissipate
- Enough water to make both rice and lentils
- 2 large Onions – red or vidalia are best – sliced in half moons and somewhat wide (in other words not thinly sliced)
- Olive Oil
- Cook both the rice and lentils according to the package directions (I actually will cook them both together because I’m lazy)
- Whilst the rice/lentils are cooking heat up the olive oil in a large heavy cast iron pan or a deep sauce pot (you need enough room to add the rice/lentils later on) – Medium heat
- To caramelize onions: add the sliced onions and begin to sauté them on low heat for 20-25 minutes, until the onions have turned a deep brown. Stir the onions around during the process
- For the last 10 minutes of the caramelizing, add the cumin, salt & pepper (I have no measurements to offer – you want them highly spiced but not too salty). I also like to add a little water to the onions and cook it down – this helps to soften them and it will also deglaze the pan adding to the rich flavor of the caramelized onions.
- Once the lentils and rice are cooked, add them to the onions. Mix well on low heat. taste and re-season as necessary.
- Serve warm. A little plain Greek Yogurt is delightful. Some people like a squeeze of lemon as well.
And that is all there is to it. Mujadara tastes even better the 2nd day, after all the spices have infused in the rice and lentils.