Saturday, March 26, 2011

lent...the season for fabulous vegetarian lebanese recipes from alice's kitchen!

naturally, i want to begin with lentils—a staple of lebanese lenten cuisine. in alice's kitchen: traditional lebanese cooking, there's 3 fabulous lentil soup recipes, which i love. but my childhood favorite lentil dish was mjaddrah with salata. i imagined the lentil and rice mixture topped with carmelized onions as the earth, piled with salad that were the vegetables growing out of the earth. indeed, i began gardening with mama at an early age. it's in my blood and the creative mind engaged equally early.
mama's version of mjaddrah is a mixture of two parts lentils to one part rice. mama used faster cooking white rice, which is added later in the cooking process; naturally, i use brown rice probably not so available in the 1950s yet more nutritious. its' longer cooking time allows the convenience of adding it to cook for the same amount of time as the lentils.

in the writing of alice's kitchen with mama, i learned there are two variations of mjaddrah: one made with equal proportions of rice and lentils, called mdardarah; the other is mjaddrah with bulgur or burghul instead of rice. last week having dinner at a portland lebanese restaurant, hoda's with some friends: two jewish and one lebanese—my friend haitham—commented that their mjaddrah was not like his family dish, which was made with bulgar rather than with rice. hoda's mjaddrah looks more like mdardarah (equal portions of rice and lentils, and much drier than mama's more porridge-like mjaddrah). typical to the many discrepancies from region to region and village to village, this does not surprise me. nonetheless, hoda's version was thoroughly enjoyed.

since these words all sound similar, here's a summary of the way i understand it, according to Alice:
mjaddarah—2 parts lentils to 1 part rice, cooked to a porridge consistency
mdardarah—1 part lentils to 1 part rice, cooked to a dry, rice-like consistency
mjaddarah ma burghul—2 parts lentils to 1 part bulgur, cooked to a porridge consistency

the recipe for mjaddrah is on page 132 of alice's kitchen, along with recipes for the other two variations. if you want to wing it, mjaddrah is one of the easiest recipes in the cookbook, and one of the most popular. 

begin by sauteing one large chopped onion in a big pot with olive oil. when the onion is translucent and slightly golden, stir in the rinsed, soaked, and drained lentils and brown rice. after a few minutes, add water or stock to cover by at least one inch, a bit of sea salt, and a dash of cayenne pepper. place lid on the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for approximately an hour and a half, stirring occasionally, and adding water if it begins to dry out.

while this is cooking, chop 3 large onions for what most people would agree is the most scrumptious part of the mjaddrah—the topping of carmelized onions. these are easy to make, and require a lot more onions than you'd imagine, since they cook down to one third of their original volume, and because people tend to scoop them off the top, once they've tasted them. so it's best to have enough!

the onions are simply cut julienne and sauteed in olive oil initially with high heat to get them started, reducing the heat and stirring frequently so they don't burn. instead they become deliciously golden and sweet, and their natural sugars become carmelized. my well-seasoned cast iron pan is a favorite for this.

amazing how much one medium onion shrinks in volume through the carmelizing saute.

this combination of legumes, grains, and vegetables is colorful, nutritious, and enjoyable all year long, from lenten season, through summer, when mjaddrah is yummy served leftover either cold or at room temperature, stuffed into a pita pocket, or simply with salata, and through fall and winter. a favorite for vegans, vegetarians, and those who are carnivorous and merely want a refreshing change.

for salata, i've recently embraced using organic canned chopped tomatoes (drained) in my winter and spring salads instead of buying tomatoes out of season, grown in another climate zone, and shipped north. canned tomatoes are picked and processed when summer-ripened, and are far tastier than winter or hothouse types. and according to my dear lebanese foodie friend, samar, processed tomatoes have more lycopene available, so they provide more antioxidants that our bodies more readily absorb. here's a good article summarizing the lycopene tomato story.

another winter variation to our salata which typically includes cucumbers in season is the addition of extra chopped celery, providing crunch without the sogginess of out of season cucumbers, and the benefit of cooking sustainably.

one mjaddrah story i will never forget is on one of my trips to douma, as a vegetarian, my cousin gloria invited me for ghadda, the main meal served in mediterranean style, at mid-day. she asked me—in the traditional desire to please—what i would like her to cook. i asked for mjaddrah and as much as she wanted to please me, she didn't want to make this. i practically had to beg her, as it is still one of my favorite meals. finally she agreed on the condition that i would not tell anyone what she prepared. the sweet generosity of the villagers and their desire to honor the guest is by the most elaborate meal preparation. and the truth about mjaddrah is that it is peasant food. in fact, it may be something that Jesus ate according to biblical references and food historians. and so my cousin gloria was reluctant because she felt it was too simple. happily, she indulged me with one of my most memorable meals in the village.

the delightful and uniquely memorable version of my cousin gloria's mjaddrah lies in the fact that she used tiny "french" lentils, which i had never before tasted, and her carmelized onions were tiny squares almost minced instead of julienne. sublime, simply sublime. good enough for Jesus, certainly good enough for me!


  1. Hi Linda,

    I know this is off topic, but I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your book! I am from a Lebanese family, but I don't live close to my relatives, so I never learned the family recipes. Your book has helped me rediscover some of my family's traditional cooking, and reconnect with my Lebanese culture. Thank you so much for publishing such an excellent book!

    With love,

    Jackson Howa

  2. hi jackson! what do you mean "off topic"? i am delighted that you appreciate alice's kitchen and that it's helped you rediscover your family recipes!

    thanks so much for taking time to write! do keep in touch! and feel free to ask any questions!
    happy cooking to you and yours!