Many New Yorkers may wake up this morning, take one look at the snowy yet calm street scenes outside their windows, and promptly curse the meteorologists, the journalists and the mayor who whipped the city into a panic yesterday over the unstoppable advance of a “historic and crippling blizzard” that never actually arrived. Sure, the stoops of the brownstones have all but disappeared beneath cottony drifts and a few flakes are still lazily falling to add their numbers to the handful of inches already coating the sidewalks and streets, but was all the hype and hysteria really worth it for this? The subway shutdown, the banning of non-emergency vehicles after 11 PM (even food delivery bikes!), the mad dash to the grocery stores to stock up on wine, snacks, and flashlight batteries — all for what a Michigander would consider a fairly mild Tuesday in January?
Some New Yorkers may wake up peeved and more than a little disappointed by the embarrassing lack of blizzard, but I for one don’t mind a bit. After all, the threat of Storm Juno led me to this recipe. And before we begin, let me assure you that this phenomenon will actually live up to its hype.
I knew I needed to make something warm and cozy and simple, something to stick to my bones while I waited out the storm. I knew I wanted lentils and onions so caramelized they turn chestnut-colored in the pan. I wanted cumin and cinnamon to give it that comforting spice. I wanted fresh parsley and lemony yogurt to brighten my mood. What I didn’t know I wanted — that is, until I spent thirty minutes standing in line at the packed grocery store, parked in the produce section for most of it — was mushrooms. If I hadn’t been forced to stare straight in the face of the packages of cremini mushrooms while the line inched slowly forward, I might never have thought to toss them in my cart. The universe works in mysterious ways.
This combination of lentils, rice and onions is, of course, nothing new. It’s a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, where it is most often called mujadara. While the dish varies somewhat from region to region, it essentially holds true to the first record we have of it, dating back to 1226 when it is described, lovingly, in an Iraqi cookbook as “peasant comfort food.” Depending on who you ask, mujadara’s history could stretch back even further, to Biblical times. Some scholars call this dish “Esau’s favorite,” because it’s believed to be the lentil stew which the feckless brother accepts from Jacob in exchange for his birthright. After tasting mujadara for myself, I think it’s time we cut Esau a little slack; this dish is darn good and– had I been in his sandals — it’s hard to say what I wouldn’t have traded for a bowl of it.
lentils & rice with caramelized onions & mushrooms
Adapted from The Food Network
1 cup brown lentils
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium red onions, sliced very thin
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
salt & pepper
3/4 cup brown rice
fresh parsley, chopped
a dollop of plain Greek yogurt
pine nuts (optional)
Place lentils in a medium sauce pan and fill with enough water to cover the lentils by one inch. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook until tender but not mushy (about 20 minutes). You may need to add more water, so keep an eye on it. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a very large skillet and add the onions. It will look like a TON of onions, but I promise you they will shrink a little. Season with a bit of salt and pepper and cook for 10 minutes before adding the mushrooms, cumin and cinnamon (be as generous as you like). Cook for 10 minutes more, or until the onions are a dark brownish color and smell like heaven.
Add the rice to the skillet and toast for a couple minutes. Add the cooked lentils, three cups of water, salt and pepper (be careful — your skillet will be very full!). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes, or until all the water is evaporated and the rice is tender. Again, keep an eye on it! I had to add about a half cup more water to get the rice to the right tenderness.
If you’re using pine nuts, toast them now on a small skillet over medium heat. I completely forgot to use mine. Do as I say, not as I do.
Now you’re ready to plate this masterpiece and dig in. Top each serving with chopped parsley. In a small bowl, whip Greek yogurt with a few splashes of lemon juice, then add a generous dollop to your lentils and rice. Add pine nuts if you’ve got ’em. Enjoy.
In conclusion, I think there is a lesson to be learned here, one that’s as old as this mujadara recipe: things do not always turn out as we had planned. The city didn’t get hit with its promised 30 inches, I didn’t get to say I lived through New York’s most historic blizzard, and Esau didn’t get to keep his birthright. So when the future unfolds not quite as you’d hoped, may you find comfort in good people and, of course, good food.