Thursday’s dinner party was for eight, and four of them had never been to our house before, much less eaten there. I wanted to make something that was interesting yet not too challenging, as I did not know everyone’s fussiness level. I also wanted as much as possible to make things ahead or at least be well in process before people arrived so I would be free to spend time with people. I learned my lesson from the previous dinner party, when my timing was all catty whumpus.
When I plan a menu, it’s equal parts inspiration and perspiration. While on the one hand I am actively thinking about what meets everyone’s tastes/issues/restrictions as well as how easy it will be to make, I allow myself to be inspired by whatever catches my eye.
Two days before the party, we were watching Giada do a series of summer salads, one of which was a lentil-rice salad. Basically, the only thing that separated this salad from mujadara was caramelized onions, so I used it as the base.
When I first discovered mujadara, almost 20 years ago, I fell in love with it instantly. Initially, I pronounced it moo-zha-DAH-rah. Then, a few years ago, I heard it pronounced moo-ZHA-d’rah. But then my foodie friend Julie pronounced it the first way. I don’t know how it’s pronounced, honestly. All I care about now is that I do know how it’s made.
Mujadara is one of those deceptive dishes that fools you into thinking it’s an easy, one-dish meal. I mean, it’s just rice, lentils and onions. How hard could it be? Well, it’s not hard, but nor is it simple. You must cook each thing independently and mix them carefully in order to achieve the contrasting textures and flavors that make this a successful dish.
I served this as a side with Chicken Marbella, one of my favorite dishes. I used the recipe from Elise’s always fabulous Simply Recipes blog. My photos did not turn out as well as hers, so you’ll just have to trust me that mine looked almost as delicious as hers. I did not substantially change the recipe, so I won’t bother to post it myself.
This dish was a bit of a gamble — prunes, capers and olives are not everyone’s cup of tea. I didn’t really expect everyone to eat the prunes, yet surprisingly they all did. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this recipe was that I was able to roast two entire chickens, sectioned, in a single pan, yet both the white and dark meat were tender and tasty. Oh, ok, I’ll indulge one photo:
It’s a "before" shot, but you can see where it’s headed.
Anyway, back to the mujadara. It’s a bit of a bear to make, but on the bright side you can make it well ahead. It keeps well, refrigerated, and can be served the next day at room temperature or lightly warmed.
For the lentils:
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/4 c. dried green lentils
2-1/2 c. chicken or vegetable broth
For the rice:
2 c. chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1 c. long-grain white rice
For the caramelized onions:
2 medium sweet onions, like Vidalia, Walla Walla or Maui, coarsely diced
1 Tbsp butter
For the final mujadara:
1/2 c. chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp finely grated lemon peel
juice of 1/2 lemon
drizzle of olive oil
1 tsp cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan. Add the carrot, onion, and
garlic and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir
in the lentils. Add 2 1/2 cups of broth and bring to a boil over high
heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer gently until
the lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well. Transfer the
lentils to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, bring the remaining 2 cups broth and bay leaf to a boil
in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the rice and return the broth
to a simmer. Cover and simmer gently over low heat until the rice is
tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes (do not stir the
rice as it cooks). Remove the saucepan from the heat and rest for about 5 minutes. Fluff the rice
with a large fork.
Also meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is dark brown. Be careful not to burn it! Remove from heat and let cool.
In a large bowl, add the lentils, rice and caramelized onions. Add the
olives, parsley, thyme, and lemon peel and juice. Toss the mixture with the drizzle of oil to coat. Season, to taste, with salt and
pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.