Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mejadra (Middle-Eastern Spiced Rice and Lentils)

Included on my holiday gift wish list for my husband this year were two books by the same author, Yotam Ottolenghi. The first, called Plenty, is all vegetarian. The second, called Jerusalem, is co-written with someone of Arab descent (Sami Tamimi), and the recipes are from Jerusalem. Well I couldn’t wait for Chanukah and went out and bought both books for myself back in the fall (first Plenty and then Jerusalem). I wasn’t sorry, as we were able to make several dishes from Plenty over the holidays and they were very well-received and quite delicious. 

Yotam Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born chef who came to cooking late in the game (started culinary school at age 30). Ottolenghi owns and operates (with Noam Bar and Sami Tamimi) four restaurants called Ottolenghi, in England (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/). The restaurant has been an amazing success which doesn’t surprise me at all since every recipe we have attempted has been unbelievably delicious. The King of Soup’s cousin Paul, who lives in Amsterdam, has been to Ottolenghi and raved about it to us. He was the first person to recommend the cookbook Plenty to us. Since then we have recommended it to countless people including my brother (and sometimes blog -contributor Jonathan), the King’s brother Simon, and the King’s Auntie Barbara – all great chefs in their own right.

Ottolenghi also writes a column for the Guardian and that’s where I first discovered him – I was looking for vegetarian recipes online and came across his recipe for parmesan and panko-encrusted pumpkin wedges. I asked the King of Soup to make them for me for my birthday dinner – we used squash instead of pumpkin (because we are the King and Queen of substitutions) and it was amazing and delicious. I kept checking the Guardian Saturday column for more good eats from Ottolenghi – and then cousin Paul informed me that he had published a book.

Although I have been looking at the recipes in Jerusalem, I hadn’t tested anything until now. Yesterday was a holiday in Ontario, Family Day, and we spent the day playing with the kids, building Lego, cuddling the dog, and cooking. I decided to make a dish called mejadra – mostly because we had all the ingredients in the pantry and most stores were closed yesterday. This particular dish is one that is “...popular throughout the Arab world...”, and the authors labelled it as comfort food. I have to say that I agree with them – I just had a steaming hot bowl of mejadra for lunch and I was indeed comforted on this cold, wet, Toronto winter day.

It was easy to make and there are not too many ingredients, although there are several spices that some might not have handy in their spice rack. Nice to note is that this dish is completely vegetarian, and also gluten-free (as long as your lentils don't have anything added to them - check the packaging). Here is the recipe and my comments/edits as usual.

1 ¼ cups green or brown lentils (I used one 14 oz can of brown lentils)
4 medium onions (I used 2 large sweet onions)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
About 1 cup sunflower oil (I used between 2/3 of a cup and ¾ of a cup of vegetable oil)
2 tsp cumin seeds (I used 2 tsp of ground cumin since I didn’t have seeds)
1 ½ tbsp coriander seeds (I used 1 ½ tbsp ground coriander since I didn’t have seeds)
1 cup basmati rice (I used brown basmati which increased the cooking time)
2 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 ½ tsp ground allspice
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1 ½ cups water (I used more than this to help cook the brown rice – I will describe in the methods below)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

If you are using dried lentils, the authors direct you to put them in a small saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 – 15 minutes (until they have softened a bit but still have a little bite to them). Drain and set aside. Since I used canned lentils, I didn’t do this. I just drained them and set them aside.

For the crispy onions, slice them very thinly. Then place them on a large plate or tray. Sprinkle them with the 3 tbsp of flour and 1 tsp salt. Toss them well with your hands.

You’re going to cook them in 3 batches. Heat a medium-sized saucepan on high heat and put about one third of a cup of the oil in the pan. 


Toss in one piece of onion and wait for it to start sizzling – this tells you when the oil is ready – you want the onion to really sizzle when you drop it in. Once the oil is ready, place one third of your sliced, tossed onions into the saucepan, reduce heat to medium-high and fry for 5 – 7 minutes. Toss it around a few times while cooking and keep a close eye on it so they don’t burn.

Once they are crispy enough, scoop them into a paper towel-lined colander and toss some sea salt on top. Cook the remaining 2 batches of onions using the same method (add oil each time and sprinkle salt on them in the colander). I ended up using between two thirds and three quarters of a cup of the oil – definitely not the full cup.

The next set of instructions tells you to wipe out the saucepan and toss in the cumin and coriander seeds. On medium heat toast the seeds for 1-2 minutes. Since I didn’t have seeds, I just dropped the ground spices in a stirred them for a minute or 2. I switched pots for this step – I had used a frying pan for the onions (because I really like this particular pan) but I needed a pot with a lid for the remaining steps.

After you toast the spices, add the rest of the spices, the sugar, the rice, the olive oil, ½ tsp salt and plenty of freshly-ground black pepper. Stir it all up to coat the dry rice.

Then add the lentils and the 1 ½ cups of water. Bring it all to a boil and cover it with the lid, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. 

15 minutes is enough to cook white basmati rice. If you are using brown basmati rice, you will need to open the pot at this point and add another 1 ½ cups of water. Stir it up, put the lid back on and leave it for another 10 minutes or so. Check the texture. Repeat these steps until the rice is to your liking.

Then quickly remove the lid, cover the pot with a clean tea towel, put the lid back on, remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for 10 minutes.

Remove the lid and the tea towel and taste your creation. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then take one third to one half of the crispy onions and toss them in with the mixture. Fluff it up, and place it on your plates. Top with some more of the crispy onions.

Serve hot! 

P.S. It tasted even better the day after. I had two helpings for lunch today (and yes, now I have a belly ache).

Links to both books below:

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