Cookbooks will inform you that, in the Middle East, Mujadara is the essence of comfort food – a humble dish made from pantry staples. However, not only is it delicious, but it’s extremely easy to make as well.
The only part that needs some attention is the frying of the onions. To get them crispy, you need to cook them until they are deep brown and darker than you might be comfortable with. However, without the deep color, you won’t get the crunch. Just make sure to take them off the heat before they burn – you want the majority to be mahogany, not black.
1. Throw the lentils into a medium saucepan. Fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about an inch. Bring to the boil over a medium-high heat, then let it simmer until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. As the lentils are cooking, grab a large skillet. Pop it over a medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm up for a minute, then drop in the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns and cook, shaking the pan every now and then until the cumin seeds darken, about 1 minute.
3. Add the onions, sprinkle with a dash of salt and cook until they turn dark caramel brown, stirring often. This should take about 15 minutes. Splash the onions with a bit of water if they start to stick to the bottom of the pan. You’ll know they’re done by their deep chestnut color and by the slight crispiness that develops on some of the onions.
4. Using a spatula, remove about half of the onions and place on a paper towel-lined plate; these are for garnish later. Sprinkle in the ground cumin, cayenne, and then add the cinnamon stick; sauté for about 1 minute.
5. Add the rice and cook, stirring often, until some rice grains start to brown. Quickly, add the cooked lentils, 3 cups of water, and 1 teaspoon of salt; bring to the boil. Turn the heat to low so that the pan is at a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes. The water should completely evaporate and the rice should be tender.
6. Turn off the heat, put the lid on, and allow the rice to steam undisturbed for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts, if using, in a small skillet over medium-low heat, shaking often, for about 5 minutes.
7. Taste the rice for seasoning. Serve with the reserved caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, if using, and a little squeeze of lemon juice. Serve with a few dollops of Greek yogurt if you’re using.