When I was young(er), I used to visit my aunt, uncle and cousin regularly in Miami, and we would frequently order take-out from a local Lebanese restaurant. While there was so much I loved about visiting Miami, the Lebanese take-out and visits to the Trish McEvoy makeup counter at Neiman Marcus were always highlights, both second to the quality family time. Lebanese was the first Middle Eastern cuisine I had ever tasted, and the exotic flavors resonated with me. Of the two menu items I always requested, one was “that rice and lentils dish.”
Many, many years later, I was flipping through Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s brilliant Jerusalem cookbook, and saw a photo of the said rice and lentils dish beckoning me from page 121. In that moment, I learned that the exotic rice and lentils dish was named mejadra. Jerusalem was all the rage in 2012, but I was too busy slaving away at work and spending the little free time I had figuring out how to move to Italy, so I didn’t actually own the book until I lived here. Soon after this “discovery”, mejadra became my ultimate comfort food and dish of choice to make regularly. Yes, even more than risotto alla milanese.
So, I did some Googling on this Middle Eastern dish and learned that many, many alternative spellings exist (mujaddara and moujadara to name a few), as do different recipe variations. The word itself is Arabic for “pockmarked” as the little lentils resemble pockmarks among the rice grains. The dish itself is super old…a mejadra recipe was found in a cookbook that dates back to 1226! (Needless to say—I took care to eat mejadra when I was in Israel!)
While my connection to mejadra isn’t as seemingly exotic as Tamimi’s (his family would prepare a large pot to bring to family picnics in Jericho…how amazing is that?), it’s no less personal that his as those visits to Miami were always very special..for many reasons besides cherishing that rice and lentils dish. Nowadays, anytime I eat Middle Eastern, I have to get mejadra (sometimes it’s just nicer to have someone cook it for you!), and I really do love making it. Here’s Ottolonghi’s recipe so that you can try it yourself (if you haven’t already).
The recipe has something I don’t recall as much from my younger years, but I’m sure they were there: Fried onions. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t start to truly appreciate onions until adulthood. Anyhoo, I always fry at least an extra two onions, as I find fried onions to be just as addicting as paprika-flavored Pringles, and I kind of enjoy snacking on the onions as I cook. However, I find the frying time for each batch takes longer than 5 to 7 minutes specified in the recipe (perhaps my batches are too big?), so I do these first, a couple of hours before I intend to prepare the mejadra as a way to break up the preparation time. Needless to stay, I always snack on the onions during the layover.
Lastly, I have found the water quantity isn’t enough, so I add more and keep an eye on it until it seems just right. Something I learned the hard way…if you’re adding more water, you have to add more spices as the flavor from the spices will be watered down/diminished, so I always add a little extra…anywhere from a quarter to a half of tablespoon more than the recipe calls for.