This week, my belly needed a rest. After a few Ottolenghi and Cotter recipes, literally bursting with flavour, as well as a potluck dinner that left me in pain, I knew I needed some tummy down-time. I didn’t even want to cook, it was that bad.
Thankfully, Rob was eager to make me a nice, simple Nepalese lentil and rice dish (recipe to come!).
When I finally had the motivation to turn to the kitchen myself, I still didn’t want an elaborate meal. I wanted something homely and comforting. I didn’t want too many flavours. I wanted something simple. Enter another spin on lentils and rice, Middle Eastern-style.
In Olive Trees and Honey, Gil Marks outlines the progression of lentil and rice dishes from different cuisines. Apparently, the traditional version of lentils and rice with caramelized onions from Turkey is called Mengedarrah, whereas Mujaddara (which is what I thought I was making) is from the Levant and spiced with allspice. Then you have the Indian khichri/kitchree with cumin and garam masala. Or the Egyptian version, koshari, with noodles such as macaroni or spaghetti with tomato sauce. The book actually has a map that chronicles the name changes as well: kichree in Iraq, ados pol in Iran, mejedra in Greece, enjadara in Yemen and jurot in Uzbekistan. I wonder how my bastardized red lentil and quinoa kitchari fits into this?
There are a few ways to tackle this dish, and I think I’ve discovered my favourite way. You could cook your lentils and rice separately, although in my case the rice cooker was already in use and we all know I have trouble cooking rice on the stovetop. More traditionally, though, some recipes, including the one in Olive Trees and Honey, recommend partially cooking the lentils, then removing all of the cooking water, then returning the proper amount of water to cook the rice with the lentils. This is necessary when using white rice since the rice would be finished before the lentils. However, brown basmati rice and green lentils take nearly the same amount of time to cook, which lends to a perfect match and less fuss.
So, I simmered my brown basmati rice and green lentils with a cinnamon stick. In a separate skillet, I caramelized my onions. You could start the lentils and rice after the caramelized onions are finished so they can get added to the cooking liquid, but I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to cook my onions, low and slow, to get the perfect caramelized onions. Since I had to wait 40 minutes for my lentils and rice, this timed out perfectly. I threw in some onions into the lentil-rice mixture before it finished and kept half for the garnish. Using Rob’s large non-stick wok helped me get perfect caramelized onions, much better than when I added them to my socca with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.
Now, I know this is a deceptive bland looking dish: lentils, rice, onions, cinnamon, smidgen of oil and salt. But it is so much more than that. It is a comforting bowl of lentils and rice with sweetness from the onions. The cinnamon is optional but it adds a little depth of flavour. Next time, I may try the Syrian version with allspice, as I have a feeling this may become another potluck favourite – made from pantry items, simple to prepare, tasty, healthy and great as leftovers and served at room temperature. While this seems like a daunting meal with the long caramelization process, it is a simple meal to prepare. This is a great emergency meal to have under your wings, both when you have nothing in the fridge and when you are not feeling well.
While I have had a few flops, most of the recipes I try are very good. It helps that I know which ingredients I am more likely to enjoy, and I also try to choose tried-and-true recipes that others have praised as well. Am I the only one that scoots down to the bottom of the comments to see if anyone else actually made the same recipe? It is the first place I go, and another reason why I love browsing people’s recipe archives.
Aromas of Aleppo is a gorgeous cookbook featuring recipes from the Jews that formerly lived in Syria. But gorgeous photos does make a great recipe. One of the recipes I was immediately drawn to was the vegetarian kibbeh recipe, which are bulgur patties with red lentils, minced tomato, bell peppers, scallions and seasoned with cumin and chili flakes. This recipe had everything going for it except one thing – the amount of oil. Kibbeh is common in the Middle East, and can be baked, grilled, fried or as in the this case, none of the above. After the bulgur and red lentils are cooked, they are chilled and then eaten as-is.
I have adapted the original recipe. First I halved it because the recipe made a TON of food. Second, decreased the oil. The original (doubled) recipe called for 2 cups of oil, which is outrageous. I almost put it all in, as I wasn’t really thinking straightly at the time. Must. Not. Follow. Recipes. Blindly. My version still had too much oil, so I plead with you not the make the same mistake I did. You can definitely work with less, but feel free to experiment with the amount of oil to get a texture you prefer.
These are very flavourful patties, but I will admit to only forming the torpedos for the photos. Otherwise, I just used a spoon to scoop out the mixture. Serve with tamarind concentrate, tahini, or alongside other appetizers.
This is my submission to Tobias’ 14th Mediterranean Cooking Event, featuring dishes from Syria.
One of my goals is to try every single vegetable and fruit at Bestwin, a local grocery store that has tons of ethnic food spanning India to Japan to Thailand. I oftentimes have no clue what they are, nor what to do with them, so it will definitely be a challenge. I stopped by this week and noticed okra was on sale, so I picked some up to start my cuisine challenge. Thankfully I also had 2 cookbooks in my trunk so I quickly looked for an appealing recipe with okra and made sure to get all the ingredients.
Okra is native to Africa but is used in Middle Eastern, Indian and African cuisine. While okra is commonly served with tomato, I adapted a Syrian Jewish sweet and sour recipe with okra, prunes and apricots in a tamarind sauce from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck (the original recipe has also been posted here by the Jewish Book Council). There is some tomato paste as well, so the classic tomato flavour is there as well. I thought the sauce was fabulous with the sweet apricots and prunes, with the sour tang from the tamarind. The bit of tomato pasta also added a bit of homeliness to the dish. The sauce worked well with the delicious okra.
The sweet and sour sauce took a while to prepare but the long cooking meant there was no need for any additional sugar as the sweetest was entirely from the fruits. I served this with a bed of rice as a meal, but I think next time I’d love to add a bean like chickpeas to the mixture. It can also be served as a side dish to an elaborate meal.
I was a bit worried about the okra after reading about its acquired tasted and its gooey characteristics if opened, but I didn’t have any problems. The try to minimize any mucilaginous texture, quickly spray with water when washing and quickly pan-fry them with a bit of oil. Keeping them intact while cooking is also important, and shaking the pan instead of stirring helps. A few of my larger okra where a bit tough and stringy, so I should have heeded Dweck’s advice to purchase the smallest okra possible. When I was in Turkey, they were each an inch or two long and I hear in Syria they are even smaller. Here in Canada, they were much longer but still good. Frozen baby okra could also be an option.
To be fair, I don’t normally travel with cookbooks in my trunk, but I was enroute from buying them. I couldn’t be more happy with my purchases. This was the second recipe I have tried from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck, and I was not disappointed (the first was Eggs Scrambled with Rhubarb). Aromas of Aleppo is a unique cookbook featuring Jewish Syrian cuisine.
As the last Jews left Aleppo in 1997 and took their cuisine with them, this makes the cookbook a treasure trove of historical dishes. Dweck is keeping the Syrian Jewish culinary traditions alive through recipes pulled together from the expatriated community, a project which began over 30 years ago. Syrian Jews separate themselves from other Sephardic Jews through their flavourful dishes, with their unique uses of tamarind, cherries, and spices such as allspice, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom. What’s not to love?
People eat not only with their mouth, but also with their eyes. If something looks hideous, will it taste any good? Of course! I have faith in the power of the underdog, but I know that all our senses go into how food tastes. The perfect meal includes fresh, great-tasting ingredients cooked just slightly to let their colour and flavours shine through. This is coupled with the food perched in perfect balance, as the presentation and warm plate go a long way. And, obviously, the most important part of the meal is who you are sharing it with, with the fantastic flutter of your heart, while enjoying your quiet environment and quaint ambiance.
That is the perfect meal and I rarely go all out for the consumption of food. I try to master part 1 and 2, with fresh ingredients and cooking them nicely. Sometimes I utterly fail in the presentation department and oftentimes I eat in front of my computer by myself (fail, yet again). This brings me to this dish, which I swear is utterly unphotogenic but tastes great. I think scrambled eggs are hard to photograph on the best of days, but theses light and fluffy eggs are scrambled with allspice, which turns their typical golden yellow an unappealing brown. The rhubarb pierces through, though, as little red jewels. Topped with dried mint, this savoury dish is a feast for the tastebuds, but not a masterpiece for the eyes.
I am hoping the allure of soft rhubarb with the homeliness of allspice within fluffy eggs will entice you to try this lovely Jewish Syrian dish, courtesy of Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck. The photos are not likely to win me any new friends. :P Due to its savoury nature, I thought this was great as a vegetarian main, but the scrambled eggs has me screaming breakfast and brunch. Another fabulous cookbook, Olive Trees and Honey, explains this breakfast or lunch meal is typically served alone, with toast or rice, along with Syrian white cheese and apricot jam. Enjoy!
This is the last of my savoury rhubarb recipes (my others were tofu in a zesty rhubarb sauce, a lentil and rhubarb stew with Indian spices and a raw rhubarb, cucumber and mint salad) and I was incredibly surprised at rhubarb’s versatility. I can’t wait for next year’s crop to provide me with more inspiration. This is my submission to this month’s Breakfast Club featuring eggs.