Mejadra is an Arab comfort food that is widely eaten throughout the Middle East. It is a pilaf style rice dish that incorporates lentils and wonderful warming spices such as allspice, turmeric and cinnamon. Ottolenghi says this is a childhood favourite of his and he gives his take on mejadra a typical Ottolenghi twist by topping it with crunchy caramelised onions. Mejadra can be eaten as a dish on its own with just some natural yogurt but it also works prefectly as part of a Middle Eastern dinner. I recently served it with two other Ottolenghi dishes, a marinated rack of lamb with coriander and honey as well as a chickpea and okra bake, both of which I’ll post shortly. As with most Ottolenghi recipes the process is rarely quick and easy but the effort is always well worth it and in this recipe it’s the onions which are a tad time consuming but the dish just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Ingredients – Serves 4-6 Adapted from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem: A Cookbook
250 g green or brown lentils
5 medium onions
3 tablespoons plain flour
about 1 cup sunflower oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cups water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.
Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a heavy bottomed skillet or frypan (non stick is best) over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and carefully (it may spit!) add one-third of the sliced onion. Fry for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice golden brown colour and turns crispy (adjust the temperature so the onion doesn’t fry too quickly and burn). Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Do the same with the other two batches of onion; add a little extra oil if needed.
Put the cumin and coriander seeds in a good-sized saucepan which has a lid. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 15 minutes. Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onions.