AN EASY METHOD FOR FRYING ONIONS TURNS RICE AND LENTILS INTO A MEAL
Essentially the rice and beans of the Middle East, mujaddara is an excellent example of how a few humble ingredients can add up to a dish that’s satisfying, complex, and deeply savory. Unlike Cuban black beans and rice, this dish is vegetarian and doesn’t rely on a variety of sautéed aromatic vegetables for flavor. Lentils, rice, and spices, plus crispy onions—that’s it.
Though the particulars differ, the basic approach is fairly consistent: Boil basmati rice and lentils together until each component is tender but intact and then work in warm spices such as coriander, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, and pepper, as well as a good measure of garlic. But the real showpiece of this dish is the onions—either fried or caramelized—which get stirred into and sprinkled over the pilaf just before serving. Their flavor is as deep as their mahogany color suggests. Finished with a bracing yogurt sauce, this pilaf is pure comfort food.
As with other rice and bean dishes, getting the rice and lentils both perfectly cooked is a challenge. Invariably, one element is either too firm or mushy. Cooking the lentils before they are combined with the rice is the best way to solve this problem. Tender lentils won’t absorb any of the water needed to steam the rice so the two elements (cooked lentils and raw rice) can steam together without harming each other.
The onion garnish is the most important part of this recipe and the step that gives cooks the most trouble. The key is to drive off excess moisture in the onions so they can crisp quickly. A very modern tool—the microwave—turns out to be the ideal tool for the job.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Know Your Lentils
Many lentil dishes benefit from the firm, distinct texture of the French variety known as lentilles du Puy. But in this dish, the softer (but still intact) texture of green or brown lentils is best because it pairs well with the tender grains of rice.
Getting the Rice in Sync
Toasting the rice in oil brings out the grain’s nutty flavor and is an opportunity to deepen the flavor of the spices and garlic by cooking them in the fat as well. But once the water and cooked lentils are added, it’s a race to the finish—with the lentils still soaking up most of the liquid before the rice can cook through. Adding more liquid is a nonstarter. But soaking the raw rice in hot water (do this while the lentils simmer), softens the grains so that they can absorb water more easily. Plus, this step loosens and washes away some of the excess starches, helping the rice cook up fluffy, not sticky.
Remove Moisture in the Microwave
This dish calls for frying 2 pounds of onions, enough so that a portion can be stirred into the pilaf and the remaining sprinkled over the top as a garnish. That’s a lot of onions, a lot of oil, and a lot of frying time (about an hour). Simply salting the onions removes some moisture, but salting and microwaving for just 5 minutes before rinsing and draining them does so much more effectively. The benefit is twofold: Removing much of the moisture shrinks the onions so they can all fit into the pan at once and the smaller volume of onions requires less oil.
Upcycle the Oil
Once you’re finished frying the onions, don’t discard the onion-infused oil. Use a few tablespoons when sautéing the rice and spices, where it will boost the savory flavor of the pilaf even further. So, yes, make the onion garnish first, before starting on the lentils and rice—the onions will stay crispy enough.
Soaking the rice removes excess starch and microwaving the onions helps them fry faster.
Rice and Lentils with Crispy Onions (Mujaddara)
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 5 minutes to make yogurt sauce
- 40 minutes to microwave, dry, and fry onions
- 20 minutes to simmer lentils and soak rice
- 30 minutes to cook rice and lentils (mostly hands-off)
- 5 minutes to finish dish
- Microwave to precook onions
- Salad spinner for removing liquid from microwaved onions (otherwise you will need many, many paper towels)
- Dutch oven for frying onions and cooking rice
- Colander for draining fried onions and simmered lentils
- Fine-mesh strainer for draining soaked rice
Substitutions & Variations
- Leftover oil from frying the onions can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to four weeks; use this oil to lend flavor to salad dressings, sautéed vegetables, eggs, and pasta sauces.
- A creamy, garlicky Yogurt Sauce makes this dish even better. Simply whisk together 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, ½ teaspoon minced garlic, and ½ tea spoon salt in a bowl and refrigerate the sauce while preparing the rice and lentils. Making the sauce first gives the garlic time to mellow and allows the flavors to blend.
Do not substitute smaller French lentils for the green or brown lentils. Make the Crispy Onions before starting this recipe. Serve with Yogurt Sauce, if desired.
- 8½ ounces (1¼ cups) green or brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
- Salt and pepper
- 1¼ cups basmati rice
- 1 recipe Crispy Onions (recipe follows), plus 3 tablespoons reserved oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- Bring lentils, 4 cups water, and 1 teaspoon salt to boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are tender, 15 to 17 minutes. Drain and set aside. While lentils cook, place rice in medium bowl and cover by 2 inches with hot tap water; let stand for 15 minutes.
- Using your hands, gently swish rice grains to release excess starch. Carefully pour off water, leaving rice in bowl. Add cold tap water to rice and pour off water. Repeat adding and pouring off cold tap water 4 to 5 times, until water runs almost clear. Drain rice in fine-mesh strainer.
- Heat reserved onion oil, garlic, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and cayenne in Dutch oven over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until edges of rice begin to turn translucent, about 3 minutes. Add 2¼ cups water, sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to boil. Stir in lentils, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 12 minutes.
- Off heat, remove lid, fold dish towel in half, and place over pot; replace lid. Let stand for 10 minutes. Fluff rice and lentils with fork and stir in cilantro and half of crispy onions. Transfer to serving platter, top with remaining crispy onions, and serve.
CRISPY ONIONS MAKES 1½ CUPS
It is crucial to thoroughly dry the microwaved onions after rinsing. The best way to accomplish this is to use a salad spinner. Reserve frying oil for cooking rice.
- 2 pounds onions, halved and sliced crosswise into ¼-inch-thick pieces
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1½ cups vegetable oil
- Toss onions and salt together in large bowl. Microwave for 5 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, transfer to paper towel–lined baking sheet, and dry well.
- Heat onions and oil in Dutch oven over high heat, stirring frequently, until onions are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain onions in colander set in large bowl. Transfer onions to paper towel–lined baking sheet to drain further.
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