I first made mujadara in college. I spent senior year living with friends in a run down house half a mile from campus. When my dad came to help me move into the house he just looked at me and shook his head. It was dirty, but more than that it was rickety. It felt vaguely illegal to live there, even with paying rent and electricity. The landlord had no interest in maintaining something that he felt that college students would just ruin. Our roof was damaged by hail the year before. When my friend Hannah signed the lease he promised, on his word, that he would fix it. Conveniently written into the lease was that he was under no obligation make any repairs that were not written into the lease. It was a disappointingly adult lesson in the perils of promises.
But I loved that house. I loved the small yard where we strung a laundry line between two trees and our neighbors who allowed us to use their compost pile. I loved the front porch where we’d sit on summer nights and eat dinner, drinking wine out of mason jars. I loved my room, the first and only space I’ve ever had to myself with its mint green walls, sloping ceilings, and countertop where I kept my very own electric kettle. I didn’t love the creepy cellar underneath the house, but I loved the night when we invited all our friends over, got drunk, and painted the walls of the cellar.
We had one small kitchen between six girls. There were always fights about dishes and who used up the milk and didn’t replace it. But it was also a place where we’d study and catch up and share meals. Meals like mujarada were always on the stove- easy and cheap and delicious, and ideal to prepared while studying.
Mujadara. It’s a musical name for such a simple dish. Mujadara is made up essentially of four ingredients- olive oil, onions, lentils, and rice. It’s cheap and easy and mad delicious. I first heard of mujadara during that magical year of college from Orangette by Molly Wizenburg, whose elegant and clever writing paved the way for the abundance of food blogs we have today.
When I was in college I made mujadara much the way Molly describes. Now that I’m an adult and share my space with one person, not five and have a slightly larger grocery budget I add spices to the mix. Cumin, cardamamom, and cinnamon all accentuate the rich sweetness of caramelized onions. Bay leaves layer the earthy taste of lentils. Kept the same are the deeply caramelized onions, soft lentils, and tender rice. It’s comfort food in a deep way- you keep watch over a pot on the stove and just let it work its magic. I still use the same two and a half quart dutch oven and the same burnt wooden spoon. Across the years mujadara still is a celebration of things good and simple.
The base of this dish is the deeply caramelized onions. Don’t be afraid here- just keep an eye on the onions and stir occasionally. The color is where all the flavor lies. Ideally you’ll take these just to the teetering edge of burnt.
adapted from Orangette
1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, picked through for rocks
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
In a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid warm the olive oil over medium low. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook, stirring as often as necessary, until the onions are deeply caramelized. If they start to brown on the bottom of the pot make sure to scrape the brown bits up- that’s where all the flavor is. Depending on a whole gauntlet of features from your onions to your pot to your medium low heat, this could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.
While the onions are cooking add the lentils and the bay leaves to a pot and cover generously with water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then cook for twenty minutes. They should be tender by this point. Drain, remove the bay leaves, and set aside.
Once the onions are dark amber and soft stir in the cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Add the lentils and rice and a half teaspoon of rice. Stir well, then add in 2 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with the lid and reduce the heat to a simmer.
At twenty minutes, check the mujadara- you’re looking for the water to be absorbed without the pot being dry and the rice to be tender. If it isn’t there yet, return the cover and and continue cooking. If the water is absorbed and the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and continue cooking and checking periodically.
Once the rice is tender and the water absorbed, taste your mujadara and add salt as necessary. Serve warm.