Mjaddarah with South Indian Spices
I have always been suspicious–some would say insufferable–about fusion-cooking, and after some of the things I’ve seen, I think I have good reason to be. At a fancy restaurant this weekend, I encountered a “Vanilla butter poached lobster with sweet onion risotto and a red curry reduction.” Seriously? Curry and vanilla? How could that possibly, possibly taste good? People in the know say that these kinds of lunatic flavor combos are indicative of the youth of Minneapolis’ culinary scene, but still.
A recent food blog kerfuffle over Pad Thai got me thinking more about authenticity, innovation and fusion. As much as I rail against such atrocities as vanilla flavored curry reductions, I’m not as much of a purist as I pretend; I do mix cultures and flavors in my kitchen and on my plate. I just hope that I can respect and understand my ingredients a little better than Chef Vanilla-Curry, who I doubt knows a curry (whatever that is) from a curry leaf.
I don’t know what Lebanese or Jordanian cooks would say about this spin on Mjaddarah, the Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions. I’ve adapted it by adding the holy trinity of mustard seed, curry leaves and dried red chile. I’ve also increased the proportion of rice to lentils, making this version a close cousin of the South Indian family of flavored rice dishes.
But I hope I’ve kept the essence of Mjaddarah: Thick wedges of onions, slowly simmered in a pool of fragrant, green olive oil. The onions caramelize over the course of half an hour, acquiring the sweet, deep, dark, rich flavor that only comes from slow, gentle heat. The result is a mild, subtly perfumed side dish that still manages to be richly luxurious (it’s all the olive oil). It’s heterodox origins make it compatible with almost everything: Grilled butternut squash, sauteed bitter greens, pan-roasted fish, tandoori chicken, or, as I did this week, with Paula Wolfert’s kefta. But for the love of God, don’t toss in any vanilla beans.
Use good rice. Don’t skimp on the olive oil. Or if you do, don’t tell anyone you got the recipe from here.
1 c. basmati rice
1/3 c. green lentils (I use French Le Puy)
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 stick cinnamon, crumbled a bit
1 small handful curry leaves
1 dried red chile
2 med. yellow onions, sliced thickly
1. Soak basmati rice in water to cover. Set aside.
2. Boil green lentils in 2 1/4 cups water for 10-20 minutes. (Use the longer time if using French Le Puy lentils.)
3. While lentils are boiling, start the caramelized onions: Heat olive oil in wide, shallow pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Mustard seed should spit and crackle. Lower flame to medium and add cinnamon, curry leaves, and red chile. When aromatic, add onions. Lower flame to medium low and let onions simmer 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them, stir occasionally, and remove from heat if they get too dark.
4. Here’s where things get tricky. If you feel confident in your rice cooking abilities, drain rice and add to lentils. Add more water if you think it’s needed. If you aren’t used to eyeballing the rice/water proportion, drain lentils into a colander, reserving lentil cooking water. Measure cooking water and add or drain water as needed to make 2 cups of water total. Return lentils, rice, and water to pot.
5. Bring to boil, add 1 tsp of salt to rice. Cover, lower heat, and leave to cook for 20 minutes.
6. Remove rice from heat and let stand five minutes. Pour caramelized onions over rice, mix gently as not to break the rice grains, and taste for salt.
Sources: Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Vimala Maguire