Tag Archives: Middle Eastern

Hybrid Cuisine: Mjaddarah travels

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.

Heterodox Mjaddarah

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

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Filed under gluten-free, Middle Eastern/North African

Feels like Home (almost)

Mezze

Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of the summer, I lost the ability to cook. Everything I made was off in some way. I overbaked my clafoutis, I burned a batch of banana bread, I undercooked caramelized onions for Mujadrah so that they remained crunchy and harsh tasting. My new stove cooked flank steak to an unappetizing grey, the accompanying tomatillo sauce was bitter, and I ate the whole disaster with stale, tasteless corn tortillas from the corner Mexican grocer. Nothing tasted right; nothing felt right.

Pack up all your worldly possessions, move them across the country, and start life anew in a new city where you know no one and can’t find the grocery store without getting lost. No wonder I felt so dispossessed, no wonder the one pleasure I could always count on wasn’t available to me.

But life continued, and things slowly improved. I ate dinner every night at a local South Indian restaurant where the food tastes as if it had come from an auntie’s kitchen. My pots, pans, and spices arrived from Boston, and in the act of putting things in their place, I made friends with my kitchen. My loneliness abated as I met people, and made a few friends. My neighbors, Kassie and CJ came by with a housewarming present, a dinner invitation, and advice on what to do in the not-entirely-unlikely event of finding a needle in my yard. They had a wealth of information on the many Minneapolis farmer’s markets, a good vegetable market, and a great meat market. With the routines of shopping, picking produce, meeting farmers and butchers, I began to put down roots, however shallow. The butchers at Clancy’s now know my name. I’m a familiar face at Farm in the Market and the Produce Exchange as well. And with knowing the people who have grown and raised my food comes a connection to this place that makes me food come alive. I’m not home yet, but I’m getting there.

Here are three ingredients that I used as the basis for mezze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of antipasti. They are certainly not indigenous Minnesotan foods, but I was very pleased to find all of them in my neighborhood.

1) Mâche. Who would have thought that you could find this French salad green at the MacheProduce Exchange? I couldn’t find it when I lived in Geneva last summer. It’s the the freshest, most spring-like taste you can imagine. I ate mâche by the shovelfuls in France, thinking I could never find it once I came home. Now I can eat it all summer long.

2) Egyptian Double Cream. Despite my interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, I had never heard of this rich, tangy cross between feta and cream cheese. I first tried it at the Holyland Deli, then found a more feta-like version at Bill’s. Both are delicious.

3) Giant Beans. I don’t know why this humble bean tastes so good; something about its meaty texture and full taste. I only know that it wasBill's Beans always worth paying $2.50 for a quarter cup of “Giant Bean Antipasto” at Whole Food Market. Whole Foods never carried the dried beans though, but I found them at Bill’s Imported Foods on Lake Street. I’ve remade this salad with harissa paste and lemon.

I’ve been eating these little snacks while on the run this week; I’ve been too busy and exhausted to cook, and they are great to have on hand for a quick tea time snack. I have these with whole wheat pita, a holdover from my health nut days, but I’ve grown to prefer the wholesome, nutty taste of the whole wheat over flatness of white.

Obviously, you don’t need to live in Minneapolis to make these dishes. You can substitute regular white beans (even from a can in a pinch—just be sure to rinse them), feta cheese and any salad green.

Mezze Table

Giant beans with harissa and lemon
Egyptian Double Cream Feta with Herbs
Mâche Salad
Olives
Whole Wheat Pita Bread

Giant beans with harissa and lemon

Be sure that the beans are completely soft before you salt them. Judi Rodgers recommends chilling one or two briefly in the freezer before checking for doneness. I try to mash one on the roof of my mouth with only my tongue.

1 c. dried giant beans

salt
2 tsp. harissa (recipe follows)
½ lemon
1 scallion, green part only, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
olive oil

1. Cover beans with water and soak overnight. The next day, bring beans and water to rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook beans for 1.5-2 hours. When beans are completely soft (you should be able to mash one on the roof of your mouth with only your tongue, when in doubt, cook longer), salt water generously and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.

2. Remove beans from heat, drain, let cool and mix with other ingredients. Drench with olive oil—this is not the time for a timid drizzle.
3. Let stand overnight in the refrigerator. It will allow the flavors of the dressing to better penetrate the thick bean. Let come to room temperature before serving.

Harissa

2 oz. dried red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground coriander
salt
Olive oil

Soak dried chiles in boiling water to cover for 1 hour. When rehydrated, process in blender with other ingredients, adding olive oil to facilitate grinding. Store in refrigerator, covered in olive oil.

Egyptian Double Cream Cheese with Herbs

½ lb. Egyptian Double Cream Cheese or Feta
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
2-3 tbsp. fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, sage, oregano, cilantro)
freshly ground black pepper

Process all in food processor. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sources: Claudia Roden, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Paula Wolfert, Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Judi Rodger, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook

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Filed under gluten-free, Middle Eastern/North African