Sunday, April 8, 2012

In search of the real Mjadra

My recent search for an authentic Mjadra was as intriguing as it was frustrating. There must be hundreds of variations online, not just of ingredients but even how to spell the traditional Lebanese dish.

Do I use green lentils or brown? White onion or red? Rice or bulghur? Cumin or not?

I supposed I'd know what to do if I learned my way around a kitchen from a beloved sitti, but my culinary heritage includes a thoroughly Americanized bubbie who was not much of a cook and a mother who did not relinquish kitchen control. To paraphrase the old line about what some people make for dinner - reservations - I started to wonder if this was strictly take-out fare.

Absolutely not, declared a co-worker, who entrusted me with a favorite Lebanese cookbook and explained with sadness how so many traditional recipes are lost as families scatter and younger members lack enthusiasm for grandma's efforts. "You'll take care of it," he said, half asking and half convincing himself that he was not making a terrible mistake leaving this treasure in my eager hands.

Not unlike a family Bible, the pages of his dog-earred copy of Lebanese Mountain Cookery are inscribed with notes and calendared accomplishments. Indeed, one of his favorite recipes, for broiled kefta, was marked with a 1999 N.C. State University football ticket. A winning game, no doubt.

His favorite Mjadra recipe, however, came from an unnamed book that - from a photocopied page that reveals the shadow of a coiled plastic binder - looks to have the homegrown provenance of a community cookbook. It offers two variations of the porridgey dish and, while I was encouraged to take liberties, was assured that the first option was the real deal.
I did make a few tweaks, such a brown rice instead of white - or bulghur, which is common to variations  developed in more arid regions. It gave no advice on what type of lentils to use. In my first batch, I used the dark green du puys, which retained a slightly firm bit and delivered an appealing contrast in colors. Next time I decided to be bold with orange lentils, but was disappointed when their vivid color later all but disappeared into the rice.

The first batch was topped with a dollop of warmed tomato sauce mixed with savory homemade caponata. I opted for a more subtle but full-flavored twist the next time by poaching a large, bone-in chicken breast and using the resulting stock to boost the simmering water. Shreds of moist meat joined the tender onions for a simple but luxurious finish.

While Graham, an avowed onion hater, would disagree, I've learned that a key element of a successful Mjadra is the glistening mound of sauteed onions that serve as its crowning glory. As someone who grew up in a household where the aroma of frying onions was far more common than baking cookies, this made me feel an instant kinship with the dish.

I can't boast that my Mjadra is authentic, but it is delicious. I found that a fat sweet onion and bulbous Spanish one worked equally well, but I'm told that a Lebanese cook would favor the former. Don't skimp on the fat when you caramelize the slices and, if you like lot of onion, cook even more if it makes you happy.

Mjardra (Lentil Pottage)

1 cup uncooked French lentils
4 cups water or stock
1 1/2 large onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2-1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
Maldon sea salt, to taste

Coarsely chop 1/2 onion and sautee over medium heat in 1 tbsp. olive oil with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper and desired amount of cumin until tender but not browned, about five minutes. Rinse lentils and brown rice, then add to onion and stir to coat. Add water or stock then cover and simmer about 30-35 minutes, or until rice and lentils are tender.

In medium skillet over low heat, sautee the remaining onion, sliced, in 3 tbsp. olive oil. Season with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Stir occasionally until well browned and tender. Allow yourself a bite of candied goodness, but do save the rest for serving.

Spoon portions of Mjadra onto plate and top with generously caramelized onion slices and a pinch of Maldon.

Optional: Dollop equal parts warmed tomato sauce and caponata over Mjarda, or top with shreds of poached chicken.

1 comment:

  1. none of these pics look like what I grew up eating