Mujadara

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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.

Mujadara

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

serves 4

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
salt

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.

 

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Cauliflower and Brown Ale Soup

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Aaron and I just returned from a long weekend Up North. Up North is the mystical land that exists in the Northern parts of the American Midwest. It’s the land of lakes and woods and hills and rivers. It’s the land of sweaters even in the summer, bonfires, and mugs of tea and hot toddies all day. It’s a location, yes, but mostly a state of mind. I’m convinced that going Up North is a requirement for being a Minnesotan. It was my first time experiencing Up North, so it only took me three years to belong to where I live.

It was a wonderful weekend. We were on the shore of Lake Superior, which Aaron casually informed me is the largest lake by area in the world. It was almost like a sea, complete with tides. The color shifted- here gunmetal gray, here dark pink, here churning blue- by the hour, and the shore was strewn with driftwood. We slept with a down comforter and the windows open. Aaron whittled a walking stick. I read a novel in a day. There was a wood fire hot tub. It was the exact mini vacation we needed.

I did not make this soup on our trip. I left most of the cooking to our friends who were with us, save some cookies and pies made in a truly dicey oven. But this is the soup that I made when we returned, and I spend a good part of our three hour drive home planning it. I’d also like to publicly proclaim my love and gratitude to Aaron, who not only tolerates my endless discussions of whether sage or thyme is better with cauliflower, but offers his opinions.

This is a deliciously easy soup. Onions and leeks form a sweet backbone, and the nuttiness of the cauliflower is echoes in the brown ale. The whole mess is seasoned with nutmeg, cardamom, mustard, and thyme (because that was the eventual verdict). It’s warming and comforting, clean but not bland. It’s the type of soup makes sense whether it’s sipped from tin cups in a cabin or served in china with cloth napkins.

The garnishes are completely optional, as always, but I find that they bring the whole soup together and make it feel like a full meal rather than two-thirds of one. If you’re interested supplementing this soup, it would be fantastic with some crusty bread, good butter, and a bountiful green salad.

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Cauliflower and Brown Ale Soup

Serves 4

When choosing the beer for this soup I’d prioritize malt over hops. I went with Newcastle Brown Ale, because it’s nutty and malty and sweet but not heavy. Any beer with those same qualities should be delicious.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large leeks, thinly sliced
1 large onion, diced
salt
1 cauliflower head, trimmed and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons whole grain mustard
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon (about a pinch) cayenne pepper
2 cups brown ale
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

For serving:

yogurt
crushed walnuts
olive oil
pepper flakes, such as Aleppo

In a large pot warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and onions and a pinch of salt. Let the onions and leeks soften, stirring occasionally, until they are starting to take on a bit of color. This should take about 10 minutes.

Add in the cauliflower, garlic, thyme, mustard, spices, and a teaspoon of salt. Stir well, and let it cook until the cauliflower is just starting to break apart. This should take about 5-8 minutes. Add the beer and 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer, and simmer for 30 minutes, until the cauliflower is soft enough to break apart with a spoon.

Using a blender or an immersion blender blend the soup until smooth. Add the apple cider vinegar, and taste. Add as much salt as it needs, and taste again. It should be creamy and mild, nutty but not  boring. Blend again while slowly adding the last two tablespoons of olive oil.

Serve hot, topped with yogurt, Aleppo pepper flakes, crushed walnuts, and a drizzle of olive oil.

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