There’s only so many ways you can stretch your dollar – with fuel and food prices all creeping steadily upwards – I find I’m looking for more and more ways to create tasty, healthy, inexpensive meals.
More to the point, it’s always fun to try out new flavours, and I suddenly remembered how much I enjoyed this dish when I was first introduced to it many years ago at a superb lunch created by Marieke Brugman, formerly of Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat.
If my memory serves me, Marieke’s version was a deliciously fragrant blend of aromatic spices, caramelised onions and a distinctive mix of nutty brown and wild rice.
So, after some research, I’ve come up with about three other similar versions of this traditional rice and lentil dish.
Greg Malouf, a chef known for his expertise in Middle Eastern food, refers to a Turkish version of a lentil pilaf; there is (Persian) addas polow, megadarra (Egypt), or mjaddarah (Lebanon and Syria). Another recipe clipping I had spells this dish m’jadra – but no matter the spelling, the one constant is that very slowly cooked, sweetly caramelised onions are the one key ingredient.
Another reason I wanted to bring this dish to your attention is that it really is comfort food which could well appeal to young people, such as uni students who are trying to eke out their weekly budget with healthy, nutritious and cheap food.
They should be encouraged and taught wherever possible to make seriously yummy, healthy food without too much bother – rather than the heavy reliance on buying take-aways and other pre-prepared meals. It is with this group in mind that I’ve made a small concession to the way the rice is cooked.
I’m impressed with the sachets of smart brown rice that requires only 90 seconds in the microwave oven. Yep, I know it is cheating, and a for a 250gm serve, it’s not the cheapest way to buy rice – but cut me some slack here – I’m trying to win over a group of people who might not necessarily enjoy the whole ‘thing’ of cooking.
I’m hoping by bending the rules a little, and trying to minimise the clean up time, I just might get a few more budding cooks out of the starting blocks!
So there you go – a packet of aforementioned smart rice, to which I add about 1 teaspoon of olive oil and freshly ground pepper, after it has been ‘zapped’ in its own (open) packaging. Therein is one part of my cheat’s version of m’jadrah, and the other ‘cheating’ bit is to use a can of brown lentils – simply drained and rinsed under cold water, but you can soak and cook dry lentils for this dish.
Let’s jump back a step or two. Firstly, you’ll need two large brown onions, peeled and sliced thinly, and sautéed gently until translucent and a rich golden brown. The natural sugars in the onions will ‘caramelise’ them – you’ll only need a scant tablespoon of olive oil, a bay leaf if you have one, and let them cook for 15-20 minutes, or more. (If you love garlic, you could add a clove or two to the onions.) I actually like the flavour of the slightly charry edges of some of the onions, as this adds another depth of flavour. Meantime mix together a teaspoon ground cumin, ¼ teaspoon allspice, ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon – dry roast these spices for a few minutes until fragrant.
Now it’s a simple step to bring these elements together by heating the rice, the rinsed lentils and spices together gently in a pan. Just before serving, fold in the onions, reserving some to scatter on top. A final grating of lemon zest and a shower of finely chopped parsley helps to fulfil the Egyptian proverb which is “first you eat with the eyes”, because I have to admit – this is not the prettiest dish you’ll see – but whilst it doesn’t look very special, I think you’ll find it quite addictive. It makes a great accompaniment to grilled meats or chicken, or a hearty medley of roasted winter vegetables. Mmm – magic m’jadrah!
M’jadrah, Greg Malouf’s version (Arabesque, Hardie Grant, published 1999)
80ml olive oil
1 medium brown onion – finely diced
185gm brown lentils
4.5 cups water
80gm long grain rice – washed well
½ teaspn cumin
2 medium onions – sliced
Heat half the oil in a pan and sauté diced onion until soft. Add lentils and half the water, cover and cook for 15 mins – until lentils are just cooked.
Add rice, mix well and continue cooking a further 15 minutes, stirring every now and then and gradually adding more of the water as it is absorbed.
The dish is ready when the lentils have broken down almost to a puree and the rice grains have swelled and almost burst. Greg describes this as looking rather like a brown porridge.
Add cumin and stir well. Heat the remaining oil and cook the sliced onions over a very low-medium heat until they have caramelised (5-8 minutes).
Serve onions on top of the mjaddarah at room temperature, garnished with the onions.