Mujadarrah: a healthy vegetarian dinner
FoodDairy or pareve

Mujadarrah: a healthy vegetarian dinner

A perfect dish if you’re following a Mediterranean diet

Mujadarrah (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Mujadarrah (Photo by Jessica Grann)

Mujadarrah is pure luxury in a bowl. It’s made from simple, quality whole grains cooked with onions and olive oil, and it’s perfect if you’re following a Mediterranean diet.

Making this dish is a labor of love because caramelizing the onions takes a solid half-hour and sometimes longer. The upside is that you’ll have a healthy vegetarian dinner that is quite filling — and you can feed a family of four for around $5.

Steer clear of red and light-green lentils because they disintegrate too quickly. Use rounder lentils that will stay al dente, like Greek brown lentils or French dark green De Puy lentils.

You can choose your grain for this dish. I made it with long-grain white rice until a friend suggested cooking the lentils with coarse bulgur wheat. I was impressed with how the bulgur mujadarrah turned out. It only takes a little more water and cooking time for the bulgur version.

I serve this with labneh, which turns a pareve dish into dairy. (If you’re vegan, you can omit the labneh or use a pareve version.) Use full-fat, plain Greek yogurt if you can’t find labneh. The cool labneh melts into the warm bowl and adds a richness to the meal. I often add cumin or lemon zest to the labneh to change the flavor a little, but plain labneh is perfect.

If everyone at your table likes cumin, you can add a teaspoon to the pot before you cook the grains.

The dark caramelized onions top off each bowl — they are well worth your time and patience to prepare. The onions cook down like spinach. You’ll start with a large amount, but you will divide a portion for cooking with the grains, and end up with a cup-and-a-half to share between the bowls for the topping.

This is a weekly meal in my home. It’s a common dish in certain Jewish communities — like Syrian and Lebanese — to eat on Thursday evenings and also before fast days. There is also a tradition not to serve mujadarrah on Shabbat or holidays.

3-4 large yellow onions (about 4-6 cups, thinly sliced)
⅓ cup olive oil, plus additional if needed
¾ cup brown or dark green lentils
1½ teaspoons sea salt
1 cup long-grain rice or coarse bulgur wheat
1½-2 cups water
Labneh or full-fat, plain Greek yogurt (optional)
Aleppo or ground black pepper for seasoning

Peel and thinly slice the onions.

Add the lentils to a saucepan and cover with 2 inches of water.

Put on medium heat to boil.

Once the water is gently boiling, reduce the heat to simmer and cook the lentils uncovered for about 20 minutes.

Strain the lentils with a bowl underneath the strainer to catch the cooking water from the lentil pot. If the lentils soaked up most of the liquid, don’t worry. You need 1½ cups of total cooking liquid for rice or 2 cups for bulgur. So, for example, if you have a half-cup of liquid left, add enough water to measure the appropriate amount that you need to cook whichever grain you’re using.

When the lentils are cooking, add ⅓ cup of olive oil to a large, wide pot.

Put the heat on low and warm the oil for 2 minutes before adding all of the sliced onions.

Stir regularly to get the onions well coated in olive oil. Because I cook with olive oil rather than oils that can handle high heat, I start the onions over low heat and gradually increase the flame over 15-20 minutes. This is when the onions start to turn a nice brown color. The heat should be at medium-high for the last 10 minutes of cooking. Stir constantly and scrape any black bits from the bottom of the pan. It’s OK if some of the onions blacken; some people prefer those bits. If the pan seems dry at any time while you’re cooking the onions, stir in 1 tablespoon of olive oil at a time until everything is well coated and browning nicely.

When the onions are finished, take a bit more than half of the onions from the pot and set them aside to use as a topping.

Add the al dente lentils, rice or bulgur wheat, salt and cooking liquid (water, or mix of lentil broth and water) to the onions in the pot.

Bring the pot to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat. Cook for 25 minutes.

Some people like to add a couple of tablespoons of butter or more olive oil to the pot at this point. You don’t need to stir it in; just lift the lid, add it and cover it again. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.

Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon before serving.

Top with the remaining caramelized onions.

You can garnish with parsley or cilantro. Add spice with Aleppo pepper flakes or freshly ground black pepper.

This dish goes well with a simple salad of green onion, diced tomato, salt, lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.

Optional: To flavor the labneh, add 1 teaspoon of cumin, or ¼ teaspoon of lemon zest to 1 cup of full-fat labneh. If the yogurt is super thick, add a small dash of milk to help it come together.

I hope you appreciate this meal as much as I do. Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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