Occasionally when I’m feeling stuck, uninspired or in a kitchen rut, a little food angel arrives on my doorstep with a dose of inspiration.
This can happen in the form of a new cookbook (thank you, Love and Lemons) or a delicious restaurant dish (thank you, Los Angeles). But like many crumbs from the universe these days, the idea for this mujadara recipe came via facebook (thank you, Zuck).
I’ve had the entire country of Lebanon on my culinary to-do list for some time now. And like kohlrabi and gluten-free donuts, I’m talking 4+ years. Enter my college friend Christen.
Christen and I hadn’t spoken since I attended her wedding 5 years ago, around the same time, coincidentally, that Lebanese cuisine came on my radar. My boyfriend and I were deep into the first season of Homeland, and our inability to pass up “just one more” episode, resulted in our walking down the aisle with the bride. Though I’m still mortified by this, my tardiness was not the reason Christen and I hadn’t seen each other since. Rather, just a result of living far away and getting old. And, probably, facebook.
So I was thrilled when a direct line landed in my messages folder, containing a fresh spark from the past and my favorite type of life update: what she’s been cooking for all these years. Christen confessed that she suffers from the same gripe that many new parents share. And that is, how do you feed your family healthy meals when your son cries himself to sleep screaming “apple juice!!!!”
That is a special pain that I have yet to feel. But as much as I can, I get it girl.
Since I don’t yet have all the answers for new parents, and probably still won’t once I am one, I took this opportunity for a little culinary anthropology. I hope that the more crumbs I collect from mommy friends on what’s worked for them, the less likely I will be to end up crying myself to sleep later in life with a crumbled Juicy Juice carton in my hand.
Christen reported that she’d been making a lot of Lebanese food as of late, particularly this one recipe for Mujadara. “It is kind of poor man’s Lebanese food,” she wrote. “But it’s basically (almost) burnt onions, rice, and lentils with lots of seasoning. My family loves it and it’s incredibly cost effective and healthy.”
It was just the push I needed to finally tackle a dish from this region of the world. And though I procrastinated for a few months, it was only because I knew it would be the perfect recipe to feature during #SpringPantryPurge month (!!!).
Despite it being the land of avocados and kale, between the sushi, poke bowls and Kyeritos, I ended up gorging on a lot of white rice while I was in Los Angeles. So when I got home on Sunday and went to face my pantry and recipe to-do list, I decided to go rogue on this Mujadara and use quinoa instead of the usual basmati rice.
Using Melissa Clark as my guide, I tried to make this easy dish even easier by doing everything in one pot (minus the roasted asparagus, which I couldn’t help but add later). Soaking the lentils for 20 minutes or so helps plump them slightly, which brings the cook time down to around the same time it takes to make quinoa (or rice for that matter).
Instead of the usual fried onions, I used shallots. Since they’re more delicate and sweet, it takes a lot less time (and oil) to render them crispy and caramelized. You start by sweating them in the pan. Once brown, reserve half for the topping, and continue by adding the garlic and spices.
As I say in every cooking class I teach, it’s SO important to give your spices a few minutes of quality time with the bottom of your pan. This “toasts” them and unlocks the full potential of their flavor. In the name of easy, I only used a few jars: cumin, cayenne and a cinnamon stick. But if you want a more nuanced seasoning, you should add a dash of turmeric and allspice as well.
The dish continues by adding the quinoa and drained lentils, along with some water or broth. Pop the lid on as you would any grain preparation and simmer until they are tender. If you wind up with excess moisture, you may want to cook it for a few minutes with the top off at the end to get rid of it. But otherwise, fold in your asparagus and some herbs, plus a splash of lemon juice for brightness (important for poor man’s pantry food from any country), and you’re DONE! Boom.
Now that I’ve finally broken the seal, I’m excited to see what other affordable dishes Lebanon has to offer. And in the name of my continuing mommy research, if any of you out there have tips I can relay to the next friend who writes me on facebook about healthy meals the whole family can enjoy, I’m all ears in the comments section!
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
Spring Quinoa Mujadara with Asparagus
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Place the lentils in a bowl and cover with room temperature water by 1 inch.
Remove the woody part of the asparagus by gently holding both ends and snapping the stalk in half. The spears have a natural breaking point and you’ll be able to tell where it is (about ¾ of the way down). Save those woody stalks for another use (like a stock!).
Cut the trimmed asparagus into 1-inch pieces. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, combine the asparagus with 1 teaspoon olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt. Roast in the oven until browned and caramelized, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium Dutch oven or lidded saucepan. Sauté the shallots over medium-high heat until crispy and browned, about 7 minutes. Remove half of the shallot mixture to a bowl.
To the pot, add the garlic, cumin, cayenne, and cinnamon stick. Cook for another minute until fragrant. Stir in the quinoa and cook one minute more.
Drain the lentils and add to the quinoa along with 3 cups water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook until the lentils and quinoa are tender, 15 minutes. If there’s excess water, remove the lid and return the heat to high until the moisture has burnt off. Remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon stick.
Stir in the lemon juice and half the asparagus and herbs. Transfer to a serving platter and top with the remaining asparagus, crispy shallots and herbs. For a main course, add a fried egg!
To make this recipe with regular rice, increase the water to 4 cups.