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Lebanese Comfort Food: Mujadara

2010 March 18

So here we are, in that uncertain space between seasons. It only lasts a few weeks, but I am easily frustrated by it. The sunshine (it’s back!) makes me want to throw open the window and run around in a tee-shirt. But when the window is open, it’s a cool breeze that seeps in, tinged with the scent of earth and cold rain.

It’s in-between time for food, too. The sun and warmth and budding trees makes me long for fresh summer vegetables, but it’s only time for planting them, not eating them. And I’ll admit it, I’ve never been that into the first tastes of spring — you can keep your fiddlehead ferns and your ramps. To me, they always taste more bitter and wintery than springy and fresh.

Maybe that’s because when I was little, spring and Easter meant Lebanese food, not foraged weeds. When my family, immediate and extended, all lived in Cleveland, holiday hosting duty rotated among the homes of relatives, mostly on my mother’s Italian side. There was Wedding Soup on Christmas Eve at Mrs. Citino’s house (the mother of my uncle’s wife), a “side dish” of lasagna at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. But Easter was different. That was at my aunt and uncle’s house, and Uncle Eddie took the Lebanese half of his heritage very seriously — at least when it came to the food.

The Easter I remember best from my childhood featured an inordinate amount of lamb in all kinds of Lebanese preparations — lamb stew with preserved lemon and garlic, kibbeh balls fried to perfection, the more exotic kibbeh nayyah with little wells of olive oil, lamb kabobs grilled with pomegranate molasses and spices — plus plenty of lebneh and laban and tahini to slather on things at will. I ate so much kibbeh nayyah and bulgher, I gave myself a stomach ache. My uncle just laughed, happy to have a niece who gobbled up raw lamb without even blinking.He was very much the Lebanese link in our family. My mother and her younger brother grew up with much more influence from their mother’s big Italian family, especially after my grandmother and Lebanese grandfather divorced. The food from both heritages is something to get excited about, but it was the Middle Eastern spices and a million things to do with lamb I remember most about Uncle Eddie in the kitchen.

Before I was old enough to chop, he would pull a stool over to the stove so I could make myself useful stirring. Or I would be perched on the counter top to watch and learn and maybe measure something if I was lucky. Lebanese food wasn’t that complicated, he would tell me with a laugh, because nothing grows there so people had to get creative with what they had. Looking through recipes as an adult, I see the truth in that: the lists of ingredients look repetitive, but there is deliciousness in the simplicity of only having a handful of ingredients at your disposal.

There is a little more time before Lent gives way to Easter and spring is officially here. So before breaking out the Peeps and the lamb stew, let’s turn to the cupboard and some simplicity. Lentils. Rice. Onions. Water. And memory.

When I told my mom I was writing this post, she first claimed she had no idea what I was talking about.

“Mom. Seriously. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“What is it called again?”

“Mujadara,” I said. “MOO-jah-drah. Mom. Come. On.”

“I have no idea what that is. What’s in it?”

“Mother! With the lentils and the rice and the onions!”

“Oh, yeah!” There was a long pause. “Is that what that’s called? I didn’t even know it had a name.”

And so it goes with family recipes sometimes. It took me a few tries to get the proportions right, but the methodology was burned in my brain. From the ages of probably 5 to 7 or so when I stayed with my aunt and uncle, I was allowed to make this almost entirely by myself atop my stove-side stool (with extreme supervision and my uncle chopping the onion, I am sure. But in my memory, I am a master chef with a tall hat and an army of sous chefs). That a 7-year-old can do it should tell you there is very little worry in terms of messing this one up, too. Caramelize the onions as much (burnt!) or as little as you like. Throw in some cumin or cardamom if you like, a cinnamon stick, even. Make it yours. But this is how I remember it, and a tribute to my uncle, who died unexpectedly and far too young. Simple, filling and tasting like winter about to give way to spring. I think he’d be happy I remembered it.

Mujadra

This recipe is for probably more than two, even if you are both terribly hungry. It’s incredibly filling. But lucky for you, it’s even better the next day. Even when you don’t feel like cooking, you can caramelize a pile of onions and feel like you’ve accomplished something. And the house will smell like it, too.

While the directions might seem a little vague, a lot really does depend on the stove and the pan you cook it in. Just keep tasting and you’ll get to where you want to go.

Future Mr. Kitchenette likes it with a little feta sprinkled across the top. I like a little laban (the Lebanese yogurt with which my grandfather wooed my Italian grandmother) or a side of labneh (a kind of Lebanese cream cheese. Bonus “recipe” for that below).

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 1/2 lbs)
1 cup brown lentils (Green are okay. Red are not.)
1/2 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
2 teaspoons Kosher salt
lemon wedges (optional, for serving)
sea salt (optional for serving)
laban (optional for serving; see below)

Method

In a large (12-inch) sauté pan or skillet or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stiring occasionally, until they are caramelized (this could take anywhere from between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on the stove, the pan and the onions).

While the onions are cooking, place the lentils in a medium saucepan, add enough water to cover by an inch and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook undisturbed and uncovered for 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

When the onions are ready, stir in the rice, then 2 cups of water and the salt. Stir well to mix and get the onion bits off the bottom of the pan. Then add the partially cooked lentils. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook until the rice is done (again, this time varies. For me, it’s about 20 minutes in Dutch oven on a gas stove).

Serve with a sprinkling of sea salt, a squeeze of lemon, maybe some chopped fresh parsley if you’ve got it.

Labneh

Please don’t pay money for this stuff if you see it in a grocery or specialty store. Labneh is just strained strained yogurt. No, that’s not a typo; I make mine from already-strained yogurt, or what they’re selling as “Greek” in the megamarts these days. If you can get your hands on good quality, fresh raw-milk yogurt, you can strain it twice or for twice as long and get the same result.

It’s really just as easy as mixing two cups of strained or “Greek” yogurt with half a teaspoon of Kosher salt, lining a sieve with cheese cloth, putting a bowl under it and parking the whole thing in the fridge overnight. The longer you leave it there, the thicker your labneh will be.

Use it instead of sour cream or cream cheese. Roll it into little balls and store it indefinitely in a jar of olive oil in the fridge. Mix in some herbs and garlic and dip vegetables in it. There are a million uses for this stuff. Once you taste it, you’ll think of plenty on your own.

Some people save the whey that drains off but I never know what to do with it. Some people twist the cheesecloth, wrap a rubber band around it to make a little pouch and suspend that from the kitchen tap to make it go faster, but I would probably knock it off or something. In fact, when I don’t have cheesecloth, I cheat and use a coffee filter.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Linda permalink
    March 19, 2010

    LOVE everything about this post – the story of your childhood and your Lebanese uncle, the photos, and the recipe! I used to have a dear friend who was Lebanese, and she made wonderful tabbouleh, kibbeh, kafka(sp?) and baklava. She passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, and I really miss her. Your story brings back wonderful memories of her! Thank you! Can’t wait to try this recipe!

  2. Babara permalink
    March 19, 2010

    What a lovely post! My favorite Easter dinner memory is the wonderful marinated, boned leg of lamb Eddie made on the grill one year. I wish I had that recipe! He was a wonderful cook and made many more Lebanese/Middle Eastern dishes than I did. I did make Moroccan chicken the other night — thewarm, wonderful smell of cumin, coriander, cinnamon and ginger filled the house. Thank you for bringing back lovely memories. I know Eddie would be delighted that his niece/goddaughter remembers him so fondly. I miss him.

  3. Barbara permalink
    March 19, 2010

    Good grief! Times are tough when you misspell your own name!

  4. Linda permalink
    April 14, 2010

    I made this last night because I really needed some “comfort” food. Hubby is out of town and I have a cold, and this tasted SO good… It’s even better today!

  5. Ohiogirl permalink
    January 16, 2012

    Years ago, when I was just starting out, I worked for a Lebanese family, and they would make this dish. I LOVED it. So comforting, so good, they ate it with a spoonful of yogurt.

    Now with your post – maybe I can have it in my life again!

    • Gayle permalink*
      February 3, 2012

      Ohiogirl,
      (I’m an Ohio Girl, too!) I’m so glad that this little blast from my past can help you recapture one of your own fabulous food memories!
      I’ve been thinking about Lebanese-style pickled turnips (and felafel sandwiches) a lot lately, so come back soon,
      Gayle

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