This simple dish of lentils, grain and onions is a down home favorite in the Levant. Muslim, Christian and Jewish families of the Middle East all savor it as a humble pleasure fit for kings. It never occurred to me that a "mess of pottage" would be popular in the West, but after my husband reported that his co-workers were crazy for a local deli's mjaddarah, I decided to start cooking it.
The following sophisticated version made with rice and caramelized onions comes from Claudia Roden's Cairo family. Total strangers have raved over this dish at parties. Since it is served at room temperature but doesn't have any particularly volatile ingredients, it is a great candidate for pot luck, especially vegetarian. Recipe appears in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
3 large onions, cut in half and sliced
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups large brown or green lentils
1 1/4 cups long-grain white rice
Salt and pepper
Fry the onions slowly in a large pan over very low heat in 3-4 tablespoons of the oil - covered to begin with, until they soften, stirring often, and then uncovered-- until they turn a rich golden brown.
Rinse the lentils in cold water and drain. Cook in 5 1/2 cups water for 20 minutes. Add half the fried onions and the rice to the lentils. Season with salt and pepper and stir well. Put the lid on and cook over very low heat for another 20 minutes, or until the rice and lentils are tender, watching and adding water if it becomes too dry. Please note that the amounts of water may vary widely. You must watch it carefully!
At the same time, put the remaining onions in the pan back on the fire, and continue to fry them, stirring often, over medium to high heat, until they are a dark brown -- almost caramelized.
Serve the lentils and rice cold or warm in a wide shallow dish with the onions sprinkled on top and the remaining raw olive oil poured all over.
Yogurt and a salad of greens and cucumbers are favorite accompaniments.