Monday, October 3, 2011

A Lentil Surprise

For as long as I can remember I’ve been trying to recreate my favorite dishes at one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in Madison, Shish Café. The recipe is mujadara, deceptively simple from the description on the menu: lentils and bulgur wheat, topped with sauteed onions, served with yogurt.

Yet again and again I’ve tried to make that dish to no avail. In my search to recreate it I learned it was a staple of many countries of the Middle East and had a number of variations, some with rice or groats, and using different spices from allspice to cumin.

First I varied the spices, but all of them seemed to overpower the dish. I began to wonder if a different type of lentil would make the dish. The lentils in the Shish Café’s dish seemed small, but not tiny, and held their shape much better than the lentils I was used to buying. I switched to smaller green, pardina lentils, and found them a better match for the texture, but the taste was still off.

Next I set my sights on the onions. They really are the best part of the dish. They are soft and caramelized with the right amount of olive oil. But try and try as I might I just couldn’t get those right either. I fried them in olive oil and either they were not done enough, or fried to a crisp. Neither matched the perfect soft, sweet combination of the mujadara at Shish Café.

So for a while I’ve given up on trying to recreate the recipe, vowing ordering it at the restaurant instead so as not to ruin my affinity for it. Instead I use lentils in other ways as I was tonight, for a recipe of roasted fall vegetables and lentils.

And that’s exactly where I discovered the secret to to mujadara. It isn’t the spice. It isn’t the lentils or even the bulgur. It is the onions. But not carmelized. Roasted.

The recipe I set out to make was simple enough: roast squash, carrots and an onion and serve them over cooked lentils in a sauce of cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, and olive oil. But when I took the first bite of lentil and onion I discovered a nice surprise. I had finally made mujadara.

Now next time I visit Shish Café I can discover a new favorite. I’m sure it won’t be long until I’m trying to recreate that.