How often do you try something new? Like new new? We all get stuck in our day to day routines and dare I say, ruts. I’m guilty of just grabbing the same-ish groceries week after week and making my same go-to meals or going out to dinner at my usual spots and ordering my favourite thing. It had been a while since I actually tried something that tasted new. And then, I went for Middle Eastern food and tried mujaddara, rice with lentils and caramelized onions and my tastebuds woke right up. They went ‘ZING. That’s new’ and you know what? I really liked it. I mean LOVED it. And then I became a little obsessed with figuring out how to make it so I could eat it all the time.
Somehow in a span of a couple of weeks, this dish has become my new favourite comfort food. It has a lot of winning qualities that I look for, like being naturally gluten-free, healthy, flavourful, and easy to make. It’s got this amazing blend of warm earthy spices blended in carb-y good rice, and protein-packed lentils for a complete meal. And can we discuss the merits of fried onions for a minute? Caramelized onions make EVERYTHING taste better. It’s universal. From French onion soup to biryani, those brown, slow cooked, flavour packed onions are definitely a thing. My mom always told me that was the secret to delicious food, and my mama knows what’s up. Just be patient and don’t rush the cooking of the onions. You need to get them deep, dark golden brown but not burnt. Trust me, it’s worth every minute.
Oh yeah, this dish is also vegan and dirt cheap to make. Gluten-free grocery shopping can cost a pretty penny so meals like this can really help offset those $8 loaves of bread and $9 bags of cereal. Seriously, a little rice and a few lentils go a long way. I like to have this dish with a green salad on the side and / or with grilled vegetables and some yogurt raita on the side. I made this over the weekend and will be enjoying throughout the week. I’m not a huge meat eater but my hubby D definitely likes meat and he said this dish was so tasty that he didn’t miss the meat at all. That’s kind of a big deal.
Fun wikipedia fact: mujaddara is the Arabic word for “pockmarked” because the lentils among the rice resemble pockmarks. Sometimes the ‘ugliest’ food is also the tastiest.
Lebanese Rice with Lentils and Caramelized Onions (Mujaddara) Adapted from Aarti Sequeira
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed and debris removed
3 onions thinly sliced
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon cayenne powder
1 stick of cinnamon (about 3”)
1 ¼ cup basmati rice
2 ½ cups water
Chopped parsley and lemon to serve
1. Add lentils to a small pot and cover with about one inch of cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, covered. Lentils should be cooked, slightly firm and not mushy. Drain and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, heat a heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil and let warm slightly. Add cumin seeds and black peppercorns and fry for about 1 minute or until fragrant. Add onions, one teaspoon of salt, and stir to combine. Keep cooking and stir with a wooden spoon occasionally until onions are deeply browned and caramelized, about 25 minutes or so. Don’t rush this part and be careful not to burn the onions. Make sure to stir and scrape browned bits off the bottom of the pan. If onions stick, add a teaspoon of water and stir.
3. Once onions are browned, remove half the onions and set aside. Add ground cumin, allspice, garlic powder, cinnamon stick, and cayenne and stir, cook for about 1 minute. Add basmati rice and gently stir to coat with onion mixture, about 1 more minute being careful not to break the rice. Add water, lentils, 1 and ½ teaspoons salt and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 9 minutes. Remove from heat and keep covered for 15 minutes, letting residual heat continue to cook rice. The water should be completely absorbed and rice should be tender.
4. When ready to serve, gently stir rice and lentils together. Garnish with reserved onions and parsley. Serve with yogurt raita and a squeeze of lemon.