There’s and ongoing joke between me and one of my friends about how often I eat lentils. (“Kinsey, what are you eating for lunch? Lentils? I thought so.”) On any given week I’ve probably had lentils for at least five meals. If that sounds boring, I can promise you it’s not. The many varieties of lentils show up in dishes from all around the world that makes for many permutations of this basic legume. Red and yellow lentils form the base for Indian Dal, Castellucio lentils are excellent with Arborio rice and parmesan from Italy, green lentils with Berbere spices are perfect with injera bread from Ethiopia, French lentils du Puy are fabulous with a lemon-dijon vinaigrette and fines herbes, and nearly every variety of lentil can produce a quality soup with some aromatics and vegetable stock. The list goes on and on.
The latest meal that I’ve made with lentils is called Mujadara—a Persian rice and lentil dish with caramelized onions and few spices. A pan of onions are caramelized while the rice cooks so that by the time the dish is finished, the lentils and rice are combined with what becomes almost a thick onion jam or confit, punctuated by subtle notes of cumin and cinnamon.
A few finishing touches of parsley, lemon, and butter finish off this nutritious dish. Cinnamon in savory dishes is a fairly uncommon thing to see in the states, but I really love how it adds a slight sweetness that prevents the cumin from overpowering the dish. I often serve this with a fresh green salad for a simple lunch or dinner, but for a bigger meal Mujadara can be served alongside labneh (yogurt cheese) and warm pita bread.
1 cup long grain brown rice (basmati or jasmine)
1 ¾ cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
½ teaspoon sea salt, plus additional to taste if needed
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons water
2 cups cooked and salted green lentils
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon butter
- Cook the rice: If you have a rice cooker, place the brown rice and the 1 ¾ cups water in the rice cooker, then close and press start. If you don’t have a rice cooker, combine the rice and water in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, 40-45 minutes, then take off heat and let sit, covered for 10 minutes.
- While the rice cooks, prepare the lentils and onions: In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until hot, then add the diced onions. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until softened and reduced in volume, 5-7 minutes. Add the sea salt and reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly for 35-30 minutes, until the onions are a deep golden brown and well caramelized. Increase the heat to medium, Add the cumin, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes and sauté until the spices toast and are fragrant, about 45-60 seconds. Add the 4 tablespoons water and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the caramelized bits of onion stuck to the bottom of the pan.
- Reduce the heat to low, add the cooked lentils and stir to combine so that all the ingredients are evenly incorporated. Add the cooked rice and stir thoroughly, but gently to avoid breaking up the lentils.
- To finish, add the minced parsley, lemon juice, and butter and stir until the ingredients are well combined and the butter has melted. Adjust salt to taste, then serve.
Note: If you do not have access to pre-cooked, seasoned lentils. Place 1 cup of rinsed, dried green lentils in an oven safe saucepan with 3 cups of water and ½ teaspoon sea salt, then bring to a boil. Cover the pan, then bake at 350F in the oven for 40 minutes, until tender.