With lentils as their base, these simple dishes are the perfect antidote to winter menu fatigue, and can be made without consulting a cookbook.
This is the time of year when menu fatigue sets in — at least in the North, where the snow is still retreating and there is little hope of locally grown vegetables for at least six weeks. Have you thought about expanding your lentil repertoire to bring new flavors to the dinner table?
Lentils?, you say. New life? Aren’t lentils boring?
Hardly. I recently taught a cooking class called “Lentils in Many Languages” because there are so many cuisines to draw from when it comes to making them.
Lentils originated in the Middle East at least 8,000 years ago, maybe even 13,000 years ago. They spread throughout the Middle East and South Asia soon thereafter. So of course, there are some delicious Middle Eastern dishes, like Mujdhara, which a Syrian friend taught me to make. All it takes is rice, lentils, onions, and buttermilk, and it becomes one of those dishes that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Mujdhara is one of the many, many lentil dishes that is believed to be the porridge for which Biblical firstborn Esau (a hunter) sold his birthright to Jacob (a farmer). Whether the story is true or not, the dish is good enough to make the story credible.
There are some 200 varieties of this legume to choose from, not that your local grocer is going to stock them all. Earthy green or brown lentils are the most common. Red, yellow, and pink lentils tend to cook to mush, making them good for soups and purées, like dahl, that staple of Southeast Asian cooking. The round French green lentils (lentilles du Puy) and black lentils (also called beluga) hold their shape well, making them perfect for salads.
Although I love to try out new recipes from time to time, dishes that don’t really require following a recipe precisely are the building blocks of my meal repertoire. Both Mujdhara and dahl are excellent for that purpose — simple dishes that are so foolproof, they can be made without consulting a cookbook. This may be an odd confession from someone who writes cookbooks, but we are all full of contradictions like these lentil dishes — simple to make but complex in flavor.
A Syrian rice and lentil classic, this dish has as many variations as it has spellings (which include mjudra, mujadra, and mejadra).
- 1 cup dried green or brown lentils, rinsed
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
- 1½ cups brown rice
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 large onions
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1¼ cups buttermilk
- Freshly ground black pepper
- In a medium saucepan, cover the lentils with water by about 3 inches and add ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and boil gently, partially covered, until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape, about 25 minutes. Drain and rinse the lentils with hot water.
- Meanwhile, combine the rice, ½ teaspoon salt, and 3¼ cups water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the water absorbed, about 30 minutes.
- While the rice and lentils cook, heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 10 minutes.
- Add the cooked lentils and rice to the onions. Add the buttermilk to moisten and bind the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This dish can be made with red lentils or yellow split peas, also known as channa dahl.
Serves 4 to 6
- 2 cups red lentils or yellow split peas
- 6 cups water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons safflower, peanut, sunflower, or canola oil
- 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- Hot cooked rice, for serving
- Combine the lentils, water, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and boil gently, covered, until the lentils are completely tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and cumin, and sauté until the onion is golden, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.
- Stir the onion mixture into the lentils and continue stirring until the lentils are creamy. If the mixture is too loose, increase the heat and boil until the mixture thickens to a pleasing texture. The lentils are done when they have the consistency of creamed corn. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve hot with rice.