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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Farro and Lentil Salad with Currant and Pine Nut Relish

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Hi! It’s good to be back.

I wasn’t planning on being gone for so long, but the combination of celebrating Christmas/ being with my family/ having 5 consecutive days off/ turning 27 made me reluctant to open my computer. This past week has been packed full of good things, from a 2 hour game of Clue with my family to late night drinks with friends to finally finishing the book I was reading. I hope that whatever you celebrate, your week has been similarly refreshing.

Two weeks ago I wrote about our date nights. Last week, right before my family came into town, I made a version of this salad for a light, pre-holiday date night dinner. And now I’m here to share it with you. The inspiration for this recipe came from The A.O.C. Cookbook by Suzanne Goin, an inspiration of a chef and owner of one of the restaurants I most fantasize about visiting.

But something happened when I was making this salad- I was reminded of work.

Last year there was a meat pie on my station. It was a relatively straightforward dish- meat, potatoes, gravy, pastry. And making everything from scratch was a 4 day process. Even if the recipe was mine to share, I would only share it with the most ambitious of home cooks. And then only with plenty of caveats. A lot of restaurant recipes are like that. Your eye is towards consistency of result. You’re making a huge amount of food. You’re not shying away from sub recipes. And you’re relying on the person who is making the recipe to know how to adjust it.  That makes following any recipe from a restaurant a slightly fraught proposition. My first few weeks cooking at a restaurant I couldn’t stop asking the most annoying questions- I didn’t understand how restaurant recipes differed from the ones I was used to following.

Aaron and I devoured the salad. It was delicious- hippie chic, if you will. And it’s lovely in an earthy way- blacks and browns and greens. But as tasty as it was, I still had some qualms. There were some steps that made little sense. Goin had you reduce balsamic vinegar by half before you added it to the salad, making it thicker and sweeter, but it was so sweet that I spiked the salad with additional vinegar before serving. Farro and forbidden rice were paired together, and they were delicious, but they were cooked separately with almost the exact same ingredients and very similar cooking times. And despite the gorgeous ingredients- sweet, plump currants, toasted pine nuts, peppery mustard greens, gently cooked onions- the salad tasted little flat. If I had been at work, I would have added more salt, but I was wondering if there was another way to bring that spark in.

While eating it Aaron and I started to make notes on how we would change it. It became pretty clear quite quickly that those changes might make it easier. It might be suitable for the home cook who doesn’t possess an infinite amount of pans, a walk-in full of fresh herbs, and an employee whose job is to wash dishes. I swapped the forbidden rice, which can be difficult to find, in for lentils, which also make the salad more filling. I added capers to the relish. Lentils and farro were cooked in the same pot, with the same aromatics. Sweet balsamic vinegar was changed out for slightly less sweet sherry vinegar. The tartness could sing, and finally the sweetness came from the currants and onions alone. Capers rounded everything out. Mustard greens provided a sharp relief. Aaron told me he liked the second version even more. I agreed. I had to order him to stop eating it so I could save some for work on New Year’s Eve (hello, double).

This complex restaurant dish didn’t magically turn into a 30 minute, 1 bowl meal. It still takes time and a few components. But by my account, I halved the pans used and streamlined the process, turning it from a special occasion meal to a leisurely weeknight dish. And isn’t that what we want from a hippie chic salad?

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Farro and Lentil Salad with Currants and Pine Nut Relish

adapted from The A.O.C. Cookbook by Suzanne Goin

This salad is highly adaptable. If you can’t find mustard greens or Aleppo pepper, I would replace them with kale and red pepper flakes, respectively. This salad makes a great light meal. Goin mentioned pairing this with white fish if you’d like a restaurant quality dish, but I found adding a soft boiled egg to the leftovers is a great way to make it more hearty.

Serves 4-6

Salad:

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 an onion, diced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
salt and pepper
1 1/2 cup farro
3/4 cup French green lentils
2 big handfuls of mustard greens, chopped

Relish:

1/2 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup dried currants
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 an onion, diced
2 tablespoons drained capers in brine
1 small rosemary stalk
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1/4 cup sherry vinegear
salt and pepper

In a medium pan over medium heat warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, the bay leaves, the chopped rosemary, the Aleppo pepper, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onions have softened and smell incredible, about 8 minutes. Add the farro and lentils, and stir well. Cook, stirring often, for about 3-4 minutes- just long enough so that the farro and lentils start to toast a bit. Add 8 cups of water and a generous pinch of salt. Bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until both the farro and lentils are cooked through- about 35 minutes. (I started checking at 20 minutes, then checked every 5 minutes after that.) Drain the farro-lentil mixture, then spread it out on a sheet tray to let it cool and dry. Remove the bay leaves.

While the farro and lentils are cooking, place the pine nuts in a small pan over low heat. Stir often, until the pine nuts start to smell fragrant and take on some color. As soon as they’re golden but not dark, tip the pine nuts into a medium bowl. This will only take a few minutes, so make sure to give the pine nuts your undivided attention- they will burn quickly. Add the dried currants to the same bowl.

In a sauté pan, warm 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the onion, the rosemary stalk, the capers, Aleppo pepper, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are just starting to color. Add in the sherry vinegar, and immediately turn off the heat- you just want to warm the sherry vinegar through. Pour the whole mixture onto the pine nuts and currents. Remove the rosemary stalk. Let it all sit and infuse together while the farro and lentils cook.

Once everything is ready, warm the last 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. It can be the same one that you cooked the onions and capers in. Add the farro-lentil mixture, and stir with a wooden spoon. You want to stir often enough that you can scrape up the brown bits on the bottom before they burn, but not so often that the farro and lentils can’t crisp up. Once everything is warmed through and crisped (this took me about 5 minutes), add in the mustard greens. Stir them to combine well, and let them wilt down. Once they’ve wilted down, add the pine nut-current-onion mixture and stir well. Taste, and adjust seasonings as necessary.

This is one of those rare dishes that’s as good warm as it is at room temperature. And it’s even better after it’s sat a bit, and allowed all the flavors to mingle.

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Creamed Lentils with Tomato Paste and Ginger

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This lentils are not glamorous. They aren’t beautiful. There’s no clever flavor combinations and no personal backstory to these lentils. But I’ve made them three times in the past week, and it seems selfish to keep them to myself.

The inspiration for these lentils comes from The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, which I was browsing for ideas for a different dish. In a tidbit next to black lentils there was a quote from Hemant Mathur, a highly accomplished chef in New York. He describes learning in Delhi to cooking black lentils, then season them with ginger, garlic paste, tomatoes, chili powder, butter, and cream. They were so popular at the restaurant he them worked at that they’d make 50 pounds a day. With that promise I had to go about finding a way to make them myself.

In the interest of making the lentils immediately without a trip to the store I swapped the garlic paste for gently cooked onion, ginger for powdered ginger, and tomatoes for tomato paste. I made these first with black lentils, the beautiful jewels of the legume world. They are stunning, keep their shape when cooked, and are as expensive and rare as lentils come (which is not to say that they are expensive or rare, but more so than the common green lentil). When I ran out of black lentils, I substituted the common green lentil, and found that while the finished dish is less lovely, I liked the soft earthy notes green lentils bring even more.

This is a rich dish. There’s no two ways about it. But it’s such a lovely way to eat lentils. They are creamy and soft, cloaked in savory tomato, bright ginger, and warming chili powder. I’ve been making them for lunch, and then scraping the sauce pot clean with my spoon once the lentils are gone. They’re that good.

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Creamed Lentils with Tomato Paste and Ginger

I just discovered slow-simmering lentils, and I don’t think I’ll cook them any other way. You simply soak the lentils overnight, bring to a boil, and then cook them (without salt!) on the lowest setting your stove can manage for an hour or two. The lentils end up perfectly tender and have yet to burst on me. Of course, these creamed lentils would still be excellent with lentils cooked according to any technique.

adapted form Hermant Mathur via The Vegetarian Flavor Bible

Serves 2

1 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 an onion, diced
1 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
pinch salt
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 1/2 cup cooked lentils, drained
3/4 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a sauce pan over medium heat melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring often until the onions are soft and have taken on some color. Add the tomato paste, powdered ginger, chili powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir well, and cook for another minute or so, until fragrant.

Stir in the cooked lentils and the cream. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any flavorful dark bits on the bottom. Let the cream cook, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced and saucy. This should only take 5 minutes or so, so pay close attention.

Taste the lentils, add more salt as necessary, and then stir in the final half tablespoon of butter. Serve hot.

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Lentil Minestrone

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I had another recipe all queued up ready to go. It was a salad I had thrown together for a lunch that was pretty tasty. Aaron deemed it, unprompted, blogworthy. The photographs were beautiful, among the best that I’ve taken yet. It was simple and fast, two categories that my recipes are admittedly lacking in. But when I went to write about it my words felt dry. I struggled for an hour before dashing off to work. Over the past few days I’ve tried to find my angle in, but eventually I realized that I just don’t feel strongly enough about it to share with you here.

There’s a lot of advice floating out there on the internet about blogging and how to do it best. Find your niche, some say. So you blog about dessert? Try writing only about chocolate!  Put out content quickly, others say. The more content you have, the more google-able you are. You want to be google-able, don’t you? Use less words! More photos! Promote more on pinterest! Do giveaways! Everyone loves free things! Don’t fall in love. Perfect is the enemy of good. Don’t put anything up that you wouldn’t want to follow you around for the rest of your life. Have your site design ready before you start. Don’t worry about site design yet, just start. Always measure out the amount of chopped vegetables you need. One medium onion is not one medium onion. Never measure out the amount of chopped vegetables you need. We know what one medium onion looks like. The advice is interesting and useful, until it’s not anymore.

I’ve been trying to be more present here than I have in the past. I’ve also been trying to make sure I’m not putting out content for the sake of putting out content. There’s a tension inherent in these two ideas. There may be some bloggers who could just document their dinner every night, but I am not that person. Not everything I cook fits neatly into what I do in this space. After working in restaurants, sometimes the last thing I want to do is cook on my night off. And sometimes I have a good idea that’s not quite ready to be released.  I’m trying to find the middle ground, between doing good work and allowing myself to not always be working.

So I threw together this lentil minestrone before work last week. I had some vegetable broth that I made earlier in the week that was begging to be used. It was a chilly sort of morning, so I wanted something hearty and warming. I also wanted something nutrient dense and filling, and just slightly different than my normal lentil soup. I found my answer in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, one of my favorite all-purpose, can’t-go-wrong, encyclopedic references.

It’s easy, comforting, and you may already have all the ingredients in your pantry. If you omit the cheese, it’s vegan, and if you want it to be gluten-free, it’s easy enough to switch out the pasta. I ate this soup for three days in a row and each day I ate this soup I felt a subtle but significant energy boost. I couldn’t wait to come here and share it with you. Some days there’s no tension- just a recipe screaming to be shared.

Lentil Minestrone

adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

You could make this soup with either vegetable broth or water. I split the difference, using three cups of homemade broth and six cups of water. You could also cook the pasta and kale in the soup themselves and save a pot, but I wouldn’t- the pasta kept its shape much better being cooked separately.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup beluga lentils
9 cups vegetable broth or water, or a combination of both
3/4 teaspoon tamari
4 ounces small pasta, such as fusilli
1 bunch of tuscan kale, stems removed and thinly sliced

Olive oil, to serve
Parmesan Cheese, to serve

Heat a large pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and warm. Add the onion and stir well. Let cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are starting to take on a golden color and smell wonderful. Add the carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of salt, and the crushed red pepper. Stir well and cook for another 3 minutes or so. Add the lentils and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Add the tamari and then season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the soup is simmering bring another pot of water to boil. Salt generously, then add the pasta. Cook according to package directions or until tender. This changes depending on the type of pasta and the brand, but is usually somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. Scoop the pasta out using a slotted spoon or a spider and place into a large bowl. In the same boiling water add the kale. Cook for two minutes, until tender and bright green. Drain the water.

To serve, combine the pasta, kale, and soup. Drizzle with olive oil and top with shavings of parmesan.

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Lentil Bolognese

 

“You eat too healthy,” my chef says. “If you never eat junk food you’ll ruin your immune system and get cancer.”

I try to eat healthy at home. I throw kale into everything and stock cases full of canned beans. My fridge is full of root vegetables, fermented condiments, and organic dairy products. And while I’d never go so far as to ban white flour, sugar, and pasta in my kitchen, there’s a quota.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. We’re drinking beer after our shift, engaging in the mockery that builds a kitchen. “I eat here, after all.”

I have to eat healthy at home, because our work meals are not healthy. Mayo fried rice. Philly cheese steak poutine. Mac and cheese that’s one part cream cheese to two parts velveeta. They’re quick, efficient meals that are meant to replenish the calories burned from eight hours on your feet. I’ve devoured them all.

It often feels that I’m inhabiting two worlds, especially in regards to food. It’s a strength, certainly. I can look at dishes from multiple perspectives. I know how good vegetarian food can be- a fragrant curry, a comforting pot pie, a really good pot of beans. I also know how good an oozing, melty burger can be. Because of this I’m less inclined to be impressed by a dish solely because it’s vegetarian, or because there’s bacon in it. There’s more tricks in my wheelhouse because of this duo identity, and I can apply them in all the places I cook. And I love picking dishes apart and figuring out how they work and then rejiggering them at home.

Like this lentil bolognese. This bolognese is everything that’s right with vegetarian food. That’s a big claim, I understand. But it’s true. It’s earthy and rich and savory, thanks to the long cooking time and the savory ingredients used. It’s hearty enough for a meal at home, and would take a stunning turn at a dinner party. It’s filling, but doesn’t leave you with that burst gut feeling that can happen after a plate of meat sauce. It’s pretty hands off, so you can start it and leave it be. There’s no funky ingredients to hunt down across town and pay twenty dollars for. And it’s fantastic. Aaron put it at mac and cheese level for how good it is. To put that into perspective, there’s nothing that ranks higher than mac and cheese for Aaron.

This is a dish I would feel confident enough to serve to my health-conscious vegetarian friends and burger eating, dorito loving coworkers. It’s that good.

Lentil Bolognese

Serves 4-6

There are two tricks to this sauce. The first is to make sure that all the vegetables are cut quite small- around the size of a lentil. That allows more surface area for flavor to develop, and makes sure the vegetables are integrated in the sauce. The second is to make sure it cooks low and slow, to get tender lentils and a deeply flavored sauce. I used crimini mushrooms because they were cheap at my local grocery store. Button mushrooms would work as well, I would just cook them a little longer.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 medium celery stalk, finely diced
salt
pepper
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, finely diced (you can use the stems as well)
1 cup earthy red wine (I used an Argentinian malbec)
3 cups water
1 twenty-eight ounce can whole tomatoes, juices retained and tomatoes crushed
1 cup beluga lentils
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 pound fettuccini, for serving
Pecorino romano, for serving

In a medium saucepan, warm together the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, toss in the oil and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the onions translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and season again with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft and have started to give off some juice. Add in the red wine and stir well to bring any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. These are very flavorful, so get all you can. Add in the water, tomatoes and juice, lentil, bay leaf, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Let the sauce simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are almost tender and the water is mostly cooked away. This will take at least an hour, possibly two.

Once the water is cooked away add the milk and stir well. Let the milk reduce in the sauce until it is almost gone. Taste to make sure the lentils are tender, and that the seasoning is correct. If the lentils are not at the desired state of tenderness, add more water, a little at a time, and cook out. If the seasoning is not correct, adjust the salt, pepper, or nutmeg to desired state. Remove the bay leaf.

Cook the fettuccini according to package directions.

To serve, top the fettuccini with the lentil sauce. Sprinkle with grated pecornio romano.

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