When my book club met last week we were talking about a book called Day of Honey by Anna Ciezadlo, which partly takes place in war-torn Beirut and Afghanistan. Needless to say, the theme for the dinner was Middle Eastern food and I offered to make Red Mjadara, the recipe for which appears at the back of the memoir.
I made a Mujaddara (there are many ways to spell it), right about this time last year, but this recipe is quite different. This uses bulgar rather than rice, and it makes a much subtler dish, perfumed with spices.
It looks like a lot of work, but it really was quite easy, you just have to be there to pay attention to it while the onions caramelize. It made an absolutely extraordinary amount. There were seven of us at dinner, I sent leftovers home with the others, we had it for lunch the next day, and there was still enough for my daughter to take to a pot luck. Luckily, it improves with age.
2 1/2 cups small brown lentils
2 cups coarse bulgar wheat
2 tbsp salt, divided
8 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups cold water
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 canola oil
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Aleppo pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Cooking the Lentils
1. Rinse the lentils and bulgar separately and drain. Put the lentils in a medium cooking pot with 1 tablespoon of salt and eight cups of water. Bring to a boil and skim off the scum. Cover the pot and turn the heat down to low. Simmer the lentils very slowly, about 40 minutes. Stir the lentils occasionally adding more water if needed.
Cooking the Onions
1. Get two cups of cold water ready to throw over the onions when they are done. Heat the olive and canola oils in a large pot or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to heave and shimmer, throw in a little of the onion; if it sizzles dramatically, the oil is ready. Add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. At this point the onions should be expelling a lot of liquid, almost boiling in a mix of oil and onion juice. Turn up the heat and stir them enough to keep from sticking.
3. After 10 to 15 minutes the onions should have expelled most of their liquid. when they begin to caramelize, developing little flecks of reddish brown at the edges, lower the heat slightly and keep stirring. This is a good time to check your lentils. They should be simmering quietly, soaking up the liquid. If they are bubbling at all, turn down the heat.
4. By now the onions should be golden brown all over and darker brown around the edges. Start stirring them more frequently - you can ignore the lentils for now - and turn up the heat under the onions. Once they start turning reddish brown and crispy, almost burning, make sure your 2 cups of water is ready. Do not stop stirring. The next few minutes are crucial. If the phone rings, don't answer it.
5. At a certain point, usually about 35 or 40 minutes after you put them on, the onions will begin to change very rapidly. They will puff up like Rice Krispies and start turning dark reddish brown, almost maroon. They will start to give off a bacony, almost burn aroma. As soon as that happens immediately pour the cold water over them, take them off the heat and keep stirring. They will continue to keep sizzling for about 30 seconds. Keep stirring until they settle down.
Cooking the Mjadara
1. Check the lentils. By now they should have soaked up most of the water. If they are soft and some of them are beginning to burst, they are ready.
2. Move the onions back over high heat. When they are boiling vigorously, through in the lentils, spices and enough water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring back to a boil and continue to boil for about 10 minutes. Test the lentils. They should be really soft now, almost crumbling. Taste and adjust for salt. Add the bulgar and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let it cook for 10 minutes.
3. Taste the bulgar for doneness. It should be chewy, almost fluffy, without a hint of bite. Adjust for salt again, cover it tightly and allow to sit in a warm place, over a very low heat, or in a warm oven, for at least an hour before serving. Serve with something acidic: pickles, lemon, tabouleh.