A Taste of the Near East
By Sarah J. Hall,
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Director
Many years ago, when I met my husband I discovered that while his Polish last name reflected his father’s heritage, his mother was the youngest of nine children born to Syrian immigrants.
When I first visited his family, every meal included as much Syrian food as American food, and Thanksgiving was double-the-food in both variety and quantity. There were always pans of kibee, and grape vines growing right outside the door for stuffing and making dolmas, or simply using as a convenient vehicle for tabouli. A particular favorite were the small dried eggplants my mother-in-law would stuff and cook in tomato sauce. (My husband periodically craves these.) If he wants comfort food, he wants riz and beans—rice cooked with vermicelli (and sometimes chicken) and green beans cooked in tomato sauce (sometimes with beef).
We would go to the market to buy cases of olives. Watercress was prized for salads. And sticky amerdeen (apricot paste) was a treat. Of course, my mother-in-law always sent me home with boxes of baklava for my mom. (And that’s just the most well-known of the panoply of sweets that household produced!)
In those days, every Sunday the kitchen at his family home would be busy with two of his aunts and his mother all working, chatting, and sometimes arguing. (Each had a different and very strong, opinion of how much lemon should be in tabouli.) They made the best salads—generous with lemon juice in a way my household wasn’t. And his mother could fry eggplant—plain slices in olive oil—into an incredible, tender delicacy. Those days are long gone; today, we’re more likely to do the cooking and deliver it to his mother. But the memories are incredibly precious—as are the connections that food makes, between families and cultures.
I still try to make Syrian food occasionally (and so does my husband)—particularly because I want my son to connect to his family history, and maybe even more importantly, I want to honor those Sundays in the kitchen. So here, in honor of all the days we had together (and the days we haven’t) and with love and gratitude to matriarch Martha and daughters Naomi, Lida, and Josie, I share with you a recipe for one of my favorites—mujadara (lentils and rice with browned onions).
(about 6 servings)
¾ cup brown lentils
1 ¼ cup water
2 cups thinly sliced onions
½ cup olive oil
1 cup long grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
- Combine lentils and 1 ¼ c water in a large saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to simmer and cook uncovered about 15 minutes. The lentils should still be slightly firm.
- While lentils are simmering, sauté the onions in olive oil over medium heat. To get them the deep brown, and partially crispy/nearly burned texture that is an important part of this recipe, do not stir too often. (This was a challenge for me until I told a Lebanese friend I never could get the onions right, she told me—“just leave them alone and cook the hell out of them!”)
- When the lentils reach the al dente stage, drain the liquid into a measuring cup and add sufficient water to bring to 1 ½ cups of liquid. Add back to saucepan with rice, salt and a scoop or two of the onions. Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce heat for 30 minutes.
- Add butter and taste for doneness. It might need up to 10 minutes more.
I love the texture of rice and lentils in this dish—and the deep flavor of the onion, which is sometimes sweet and sometimes a little crispy and burnt. It’s delicious with a dollop of labneh (yogurt) and warm pita bread.
For a downloadable PDF of the recipe, click here Mujadara