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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Shakshuka

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This week I’ve been hanging with my dear friend Sara. We met in junior high when we attended different schools but the same youth group. She wasn’t yet my friend when our youth director showed us The Sixth Sense as a treat and I called my parents to take me home (still haven’t seen it). But we became friends in spite of my scaredy-cat tendencies. And we’ve stayed friends for over half our lives. She’s spent the week staying on a nest of sleeping bags in my living room, where we’ve occupied our time taking Buzzfeed quizzes, arguing about movies, and taking long walks around the lakes. And cooking.

Sara, my oldest friend, my penpal for almost 10 years, and owner of a key to my parent’s house, has Celiac’s disease. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen together cooking and eating together. We went out for arepas one night and Italian another. There have been occasional impromptu dances to Earth, Wind, and Fire. She organized all the magnetic poetry on the fridge by type of speech. We made these beans and tomato sauce, threw together a lentil soup, and tried out some earl grey macaroons (verdict- delicious, but not very earl grey-y…). And there was shakshuka. Because what better way to celebrate a close friend’s visit than with tomatoes and peppers and onions and eggs?

Shakshuka is a North African dish that’s essentially eggs poached in a sauce of tomato and peppers. As with all straightforward sounding dishes, there’s a world of variations available. I found my recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s brilliant (and classic) book Plenty, which may be the first cookbook I ever obsessed over. I know I’m not alone in this. I used to carry Plenty around with me in my purse JUST IN CASE someone hadn’t seen it yet. I was insufferable. I still am.

I’ve heard the mark of friendship isn’t liking each other but understanding each other. I think there’s some truth to that. But when you’re lucky you have people who like and understand you. I’m lucky. I have friends like Sara, who doesn’t laugh or roll her eyes when I decide that the perfect writing outfit is leather leggings and Aaron’s sweater. She drags me bra shopping and makes sure to bring backup sizes. We debate what makes Pride and Prejudice a great novel, the love story or the social commentary, and still swoon together when Elizabeth and Darcy touch hands. We annoy each other with our music choices, and then both belt out Backstreet Boys in the car. There are many gifts of friendship, but one of the best is that it can make you more open to your shared joys and sorrows.

And that makes sharing a meal, breaking the (metaphorical) bread together, that much more sweet.

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Shakshuka

The spice and herbs here are flexible- you could up the cayenne pepper, add hot peppers, and change out the herbs. Cilantro, thyme, and chives would all be excellent. The saffron here is optional- the shakshuka will still be fantastic even if saffron runs a bit too dear.

adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

serves 4

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
pinch saffron (optional)
scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
8 eggs

In a large pan over medium high heat add the cumin seeds. Toast them, stirring often, until they start to smell fragrant and get dark, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil and the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onions are soft.  Add both the peppers, the oregano, and the parsley and stir well. Continue to sauté for 10 minutes, until the peppers are soft.

Add the canned tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, and a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the same consistency as pasta sauce. If you need to cook it a bit further to get it there, or add water to get that result, do what you need to do. Add the lemon juice and taste, then adjust seasonings as necessary. It should taste bold.

This can all be done ahead of time. To serve the shakshuka, place a portion into a skillet and warm it. Make as many nests in the tangle of peppers as you want eggs, then crack an egg into each nest. I find it easiest to crack an egg into a small bowl, then slip it into the nest. Season each egg with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and cover the skillet. Cook the eggs until they are set to your liking, starting to check at about the 6 minute mark and then for every 2 minutes after. Serve with a generous sprinkle of parsley.

 

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Easy Quick Pickled Red Onions

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It took restaurant work to learn that almost anything can be pickled.

At the places where I’ve worked I’ve seen cucumber pickles, yes, and giardiniera, but also beets, herring, fresno peppers, cabbage, green beans, radishes, and mustard seeds. And those are only the ones I can remember with absolute certainty.

Pickling makes sense. It’s a way to preserve vegetables through the winter. Fresh winter produce is a pretty new innovation if you, like I, live somewhere where it snows. It’s a way to get something fresh and bright and tart and clean in your food when nothing grows. And it helps that pickles are delicious.

My childhood self has disowned me for that statement. I used to hate pickles- the sharpness on my tongue and the way the acid hit the back of my throat would make me cough. But age and exposure are great cures for all manner of ails, including pickle aversion.

I would be remiss, however, if I made you think that I love the common green cucumber pickle. We’ve come to an understanding. I don’t mind the cucumber pickle, and on occasion I even like them. The worst I can say is they don’t offend me. But I find other vegetables more interesting when pickled. And my heart really sings for the sharp, acidic, and crunchy bite of a pickled red onion.

One thing I love about pickled red onions is that although they are bright and acidic and sharp, they also tame the bite of red onions. They help take red onions from aggressive to assertive, gussying up the red onions with vinegar while the sugar helps bring out the inherent but hidden sweetness of the red onions. I added fennel seeds, coriander seeds, white peppercorns, and star anise to bring in some warmth. The result is certainly a pickle, but a balanced one.  And with what color.

For a long time at work I would end every brunch shift with a sandwich of smashed avocado and pickled onion. It was a happy habit, and one that only ended when the dish using the pickled onions and avocado was taken off the menu. At home I’ll be adding these pickled red onions to tonight’s dinner of red kuri squash, rice, and beans. They make an excellent addition to all manner of tacos, and I’ve plans involving grain salads and these beauties. And I’ve got my current favorite breakfast sandwich coming up later this week, which stars (you guessed it) pickled red onions.

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Easy Quick Pickled Red Onions

This recipe really is a template, and you can take it in a variety of directions, depending on what flavors you want to bring out. These pickles will keep well for weeks at a time, as long as the jar is clean and kept in the refrigerator. Of course, do use your best judgement. If you do smell any off smells, or the pickles become cloudy rather than brilliant, then it’s time to toss them.

Makes 1 quart

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
2 whole star anise

Place the red onion slices into a clean quart jar and set aside.

In a small saucepan combine the vinegars, salt, sugar, and spices. Bring to a boil, then pour over the red onion slices. Allow the vinegar to cool, then place a cap on the jar and refrigerate.

The pickles can be eaten after an hour of refrigeration, but will taste better after hanging out in the brine for over a day. They will keep, refrigerated and tightly capped, for a few weeks.

 

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