Saturday, 15 February 2014

Even More Cheap Chow

Tomato and cucumber salad, mujaddara with crispy fried onions and a fried egg slathered with chilli sauce.


February, called by Stephen Fry 'the Tuesday of the year', i.e., a kind of temporal no man’s land, is a thin month. The teachers at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) where I work are all reduced to eight hours a week, which puts us temporarily on the national minimum wage. This isn't going to be for long, so I'm not complaining - not too much, anyway - and once again I'm on the lookout for food that's cheap, healthy and above all not boring. So, what have I got in? It must be admitted that ‘economical’ and ‘systematic’ are not words in my active vocabulary. I looked in the kitchen cupboard: half a packet of Puy lentils, a jar of bulgur wheat and various odds and sods such as sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts in olive oil, none of them in the first flush of youth. The fridge had become a kind of gastronomic oubliette of sweaty mushrooms, yellowing parsley, half-used cans and jars of stuff now barely identifiable, and a browning, rubbery cauliflower like a monkey’s brain. All in all, the lentils and bulgur seemed the most promising. I looked on line and found mujaddara, an Arab dish of lentils with rice or bulgur flavoured with onions, and possibly a descendant of the original mess of potage that Esau sold his birthright for. From The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani:


Mojadderah,” writes Khalid, “has a marvellous effect upon my humour and nerves. There are certain dishes, I confess, which give me the blues. Of these, fried eggplants and cabbage boiled with corn-beef on the American system of boiling, that is to say, cooking, I abominate the most. But mojadderah has such a soothing effect on the nerves; it conduces to cheerfulness, especially when the raw onion or the leek is taken with it. After a good round pewter platter of this delicious dish and a dozen leeks, I feel as if I could do the work of all mankind. And I am then in such a beatific state of mind that I would share with all mankind my sack of lentils and my pipkin of olive oil. I wonder not at Esau’s extravagance, when he saw a steaming mess of it. For what is a birthright in comparison?”


Well, that’s quite a recommendation, so I had a look through recipes until I found one I liked the sound of and felt I could pull off, as my main fear was of turning the lot into a sludgy poultice - or having to plough through raw onion and a dozen leeks. You need green or brown lentils, Puy for maximum flavour and expense, bulgur wheat, a fat onion, thinly sliced, a pinch each of cumin, cinnamon, allspice and ground coriander, and some olive oil. Don’t overdo the spices: some of the recipes I consulted warned against the inclusion of any flavouring other than salt, but I thought that sounded a bit dull. Start by frying half the onion very gently for quite a long time, until you obtain almost a savoury-sweet puree. Add the spices and fry for a minute or so longer. Now tip in your lentils and something like twice their volume of water. Keep an eye on them and cop them just before they are completely softened, at which point you stir in the bulgur wheat, some salt and a little more boiling water if necessary. Cover the pan with kitchen paper and a lid (the paper stops the condensed steam from dripping back into the pan and turning the contents into a swamp) and set it aside to allow the bulgur to absorb the gently spiced, oniony liquid. Meanwhile, fry the other half of the sliced onion until it is well browned but not black and bitter. Put the lentil and bulgur mixture on a good round pewter platter if you have one, but I won’t hold you to that. Serve with the caramelised onion on top, and maybe a scattering of open-leaf parley or coriander for pretty. What I particularly like with this recipe is the contribution of the long-cooked onions at the start, keeping the whole thing moist and savoury.  

Mujadarra makes an excellent vegetarian meal eaten with a salad of tomatoes, cucumber and olives, scattered with chopped parsley or mint. A dollop of Greek yogurt on the side is nice, and a smaller dollop of sweet chili sauce on top of the yogurt-dollop is even nicer. Crisp-skinned chicken thighs or drumsticks go well with it too, or cheaper, poached or fried eggs. I reckon one frying pan of mujaddara will do you at least twice and set you back not much more than ninety pence.     

Fry, S. (1997) Moab is my Washpot London: Hutchinson 


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