One day, I was up at the University of Utah, waiting around for someone to get out of class. I had NPR on and was listening to a neat program called “The Splendid Table”, which focuses on answering cooking questions. The day I was listening, one of the ladies on the show took a caller who had made something called mujadarrah and was complaining that it was very bland.
First, she explained what a mujadarrah is. Mujadarrah is a very simple, satisfying Middle Eastern comfort food. In its most basic (and most likely traditional), it consists of salt, broth, lentils, rice and fried onions. It’s often served with a bit of tangy yogurt or sour cream to mix in.
The problem, she explained in her smooth, melodious voice, is that lentils, like boiling potatoes, can take a lot more salt and water than you might expect. The other problem is that when you’re used to foods with a lot of spices, a dish without any spices can be very bland by comparison.
The answers were as follows: Use more salt. Add cumin, maybe some other spices you like. And check the water level to make sure there’s enough liquid.
I couldn’t wait to go home and try this recipe out. I made some changes and it came out beautifully. I’ve been making it ever since, but it’s continually evolving. Tonight, I made it as follows:
Mujadarrah [printable recipe]
- 4 cups vegetable broth or water
- 3/4 c pink lentils (see note)
- 3/4 c rice
- 2 medium onions, sliced
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp thyme
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- olive oil
In a large, lightly oiled skillet over moderate-low heat, fry onions with a pinch of salt until golden brown and soft, about 20 minutes. (This will take at least as long as the rice/lentils, so get it started then move on.)
In a medium, preferably nonstick pot, drizzle in a scant tablespoon of olive oil. Add rice and lentils, stirring to coat and cook for about 2 minutes. Add spices, a couple of healthy pinches of salt, and about 1/2 cup of broth. Stir well and cook for 1 minute. Add 2 1/2 cups of broth, reserving 1 cup for later, cover and bring to a boil before reducing to a simmer.
Cook for 20 minutes or until rice and lentils are tender, adding the remaining cup of broth about halfway through.
Serve, topping with fried onions and sour cream or yogurt (if desired).
- Most recipes call for the larger green lentils which must be cooked for about 20 minutes before adding the rice in for an additional 20 minutes. I used the smaller pink lentils because I prefer the shorter cooking time.
- Lentils and rice will take a surprising amount of salt before they taste “right”.