“Do I really feel like chopping up two pounds of onions and sauteeing them for nearly an hour? Do I really?”
I posted this mostly-rhetorical question on Facebook awhile ago, as I stared down a craving for one of my favorite foods.
The first time I had this amazing Middle Eastern dish was on a between-class lunchbreak in downtown Lansing. Looking over the delicious-sounding vegetarian menu, I settled.
“Hi,” I told the pretty girl behind the counter. “I’d like an order of muja….dara?”
She smiled and corrected my pronunciation – “mujad’ra.”
Once I tried it, I was hooked: Firm lentils, cracked wheat, caramelized onions, side of hummus topped with plenty of paprika. Wow. Delish.
After the whole “no gluten” thing started, I stuck with other lentil dishes… until I realized I could probably substitute rice for cracked wheat. Bingeaux!
The rub is this: Mujadara requires a metric honkload of onions to be thinly sliced into rings, and then caramelized – a process which alone takes over an hour from start to finish.
Having been taking care of Mom full-time for three days now, I’m kind of exhausted. Ok, I’m completely exhausted – mostly mentally. Slicing and endlessly sauteing onions doesn’t sound like a great deal of fun. Still, the heart wants what it wants, right? Right now, mine wants fricking mujadara, man.
Off we go, then.
This is a fairly dry dish – there is no sauce. It’s a great as a main course, and also as a side dish to something like chicken shwarma. Serve with hummus and pita, maybe a salad with feta.
If my actual life actually depended upon adhering to a recipe, I might possibly to able to pull it off. However, as that situation has yet to arise, I tend to riff. Here is my best guess at what’s in this delicious dish.
A note: Mujadara revolves around the caramelized onions. Don’t skimp, don’t rush for best results. Let the sweetness evolve low and slow as you patiently stand and watch and stir.
The Engineir is not a fan of onions, not really. The initial recipe called for three pounds of onions. The first time around, I only used perhaps a half a pound. It was tasty, but I was left wanting more oniony goodness. This time, Mike Neir will have to compromise. 😉
Because I like recipes to flow in chronological order, I’m listing ingredients at the top, but will also list them out again in the text. I find the list at the top useful for prepping and planning, but a pain in the ass to refer back to.
Vegetarian, Gluten-Free Mujadara Recipe
(Vegan if you sub the butter)
If you prefer not to multi-task when cooking, it’s no problem to prepare each part of the dish separately, and then reheat everything together at the end.
Also, this recipe makes a pile of food; if you’re feeding one or two people and don’t want a lot of left-overs, halve the recipe.
If you want to jump off the “authentic” boat entirely, saute a package of flavorful mushrooms with some garlic and throw that into the finished product. Yum.
- 2 pounds white onions, thinly-sliced into rings (use more or less to taste)
- 2 T. butter
- 2 generous glugs olive oil
- 1/2 cup white wine or vermouth (optional, can also use veggie broth)
- 1.5 c brown or green lentils (not red lentils or french lentils – we want firmness)
- 2.25 cups of water (all or part can be veggie broth)
- 2 c. brown rice, plus 4.5 – 5 cups water (part can be veggie broth)
- 1/4 t. ground cinammon
- 1/4 t. ground cumin
- salt and pepper
- splash of fresh lemon juice
- hummus and flat leaf parsley for serving
Tonight, I just didn’t have it in me to spend twenty or more minutes manually slicing up onions with stinging tears streaming down my cheeks. I cheated. I threw two large onions into the food processor and chopped them up. I’m sorry.
When you’re done chopping/slicing, you’ll be staring at this immense pile of onions, thinking – “Holy crap. This is a lot of onions.” And it is – in its raw state. Once you get them all caramelized down, though, that mess o’goodness will have reduced to about 1/3 or 1/4 its original volume.
In a large skillet or saucier, heat up 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 generous glugs of a full-bodied olive oil over medium heat. When the fat is hot, place 2 pounds thinly-sliced onions into the skillet and stir to coat.
Over medium-low to medium heat, slowly saute the onions until they are very soft. Stir occasionally, making sure they all get to know the heat. Doing this bit slowly is key, as it helps to develop the sweet, roasty, caramelized goodness that is the foundation for the dish.
This process can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending upon a.) how patient you are, and b.) how many onions you’re using. With my two pounds of food-processed onions, they began to dry up a bit after 25 minutes, gained a tiny bit of color and began sticking to the pan slightly after 35.
Once the onions are merrily on the heat, it’s time to begin the lentils and rice.
The Lentils and Rice
While you can ostensibly cook both the lentils and the rice in the same pot for convenience’s sake, experience dictates it’s nearly impossible to get the texture right; one will be over-done, the other under-done. For tastier eats, use two pots.
The original recipe called for me to cook the rice and lentils “in my usual fashion.” I find this presumptive and unhelpful – what if the aspiring mujadara cook doesn’t have a “usual method?”
I cook lentils like this:
1.5 cups of liquid to 1 cup of lentils – I use half gluten-free, organic veggie broth and half water.
Thus, we’ll need 2.25 cups of liquid to cook our 1.5 cups of lentils. I used 1.5 cups of broth and 3/4 cup of water.
Put the lentils into the liquid in a medium-sized pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and allow to simmer until the legumes are tender, but still firm. We’re not aiming for mushy and substanceless. This may take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, but I start testing their doneness after 30 minutes to make sure they’re not too soft. If they run dry before they’re done, just add a bit more water as needed, perhaps 1/4 cup at a time.
Unless you are a compulsive stirrer, you needn’t stir the lentils as they cook.
I love brown rice, but you can use white rice for this recipe. For the brown rice, though, I saute the two cups brown rice in a small glug of olive oil for about one minute. This gives the grains a nice nutty, toasty flavor. Then, I add five cups of water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until it’s done – usually about 45 minutes.
Conventional wisdom says, “for the love of everything holy, do not under any circumstances ever OMG lift the lid of your rice pot whilst the delicate grains are cooking. If you do, a baby duck will cry and your rice will be ruined.”
Bah. Perhaps my rice is less awesome, but I lift the lid to check and see if it’s done. I’m not psychic.
If the rice is done before the water is gone, you can either strain it or take the lid off and toss the heat up to Thermonuclear to boil it off, stirring often. The grains should be plump and firm, not crunchy or overly chewy.
Back to the Onions
While it’s important to stir the cooking onions periodically, don’t totally overdo it; otherwise, they’ll begin losing structural integrity and get mushy. Tonight, mine are doomed to mushiness, because I chopped them in the evil food processor. But yours needn’t suffer the same fate! Be patient, stir slowly and only as needed.
For a long while, it’s going to appear as if nothing is happening. The onions will get a bit translucent, and there they will stay for oh, twenty to thirty minutes. Once they begin coloring up though, things can happen somewhat quickly. Reduce the heat if you feel like you’re losing control of them or if they begin to burn instead of brown.
Be sure to scrape the stuck-to-the-pan bits as they stick; that’s good, tasty stuff, and we don’t want it to actually burn.
At this moment, my two pounds of mushy onions have been on medium heat for one hour and ten minutes. They’re browning nicely. Also, I have pulled a chair into the kitchen, because my feet and knees were registering their unhappiness quite vociferously. A good part of cooking tasty food is making sure you’re not utterly miserable whilst you’re doing it. If you’re always uncomfortable in the kitchen, chances are you won’t want to spend a great deal of time there.
If you’re absolutely out of time, or just over standing and stirring and watching, up the heat to medium-high and accelerate the process. Be vigilant, stir and scrape often. At an hour and twenty minutes, this is me.
When the onions are a magnificent, deep and golden brown – you’re done.
Tonight, my onions look like ass. Their taste, however, is divine.
Putting It All Together
When the onions, lentils and rice have all reached their peak doneness, it’s time to assemble the dish.
Transfer the onions to a small holding dish and pour the vermouth, white wine, broth or water into the still-hot pan on the burner. Stir to remove the browned bits from the bottom – this is called “deglazing the pan.” It gets all the flavorful niceness scraped up and dissolved. Pour the liquid into the onions and stir until it’s combined.
In an enormous serving bowl, fold half the onions into all of the rice and lentils until combined. Keep the other half in the small bowl to decoratively top the dish.
Into the onion, lentil and rice mixture, stir sea salt and ground black pepper to taste. Honestly, trust yourself. Start small, stir it in, taste a little bit. You’ll know when you get there.
Next, gently stir in the 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, and perhaps a generous dash of paprika. The cinnamon flavor will stand out, and I don’t like a strong cinnamon flavor in savory dishes. The original recipe called for 1/4 – I cut that down.
I’m usually tempted to add more spices to this dish – I love spicy and aromatic food – but this dish is all about the onions. Their deep, rich smoothness pulls things together beautifully.
Squirt in just a touch of fresh lemon juice, if you’re feeling zesty – not too much, just enough for a little acidity.
Mound the remaining onions on top of the dish, garnish with parsley and place hummus on the side.
Although, given it’s an hour and 45 minutes after I started, I’m not sure a “voila” is really appropriate. Still, this is a delicious, awesome dish worthwhile of the time invested.
Next time, I’m going to up the lentils to rice ratio – I want more legume-y goodness.