My mom taught me to cook lentils and rice with lots of rinsing and careful par-cooking, so that everything ends up perfectly al dente, rather than mushing together into a lumpy porridge. Not that I have anything against lumpy porridges—it's just that when it comes to this dish (and rice more generally), I prefer separate grains. My mom usually makes her perfect lentils and rice as an easy weeknight fasting meal, which means that it's a staple this time of year. But while our standard is a delicious weeknight savior, sometimes you want to make something vegan that's a little more celebratory and special-occasion-worthy, and that's where mujadara with plenty of caramelized onions comes in.
This mujadara, in particular, is totally over the top. When I made this stockpot full of lentils and rice, and garnished it with a heap of fried caramelized onions, they peeked out over the edge of the dutch oven like an iceberg. Perhaps this was just an overcompensation after the test batch from the day before, which did not have enough onion flavor, nor enough chewy, crunchy ones on top. But in any case, this overreaction turned out to be just the thing, as every bite is packed with flavor and crunch.
Since you slowly caramelize the onions until they're literally the color of salted caramel ice cream, and then fry a bunch of them until they're deeply golden brown, this dish is a great way to show someone how much you care. These little extra steps set this dish apart as "company food." If your guests are experienced home cooks, they will immediately understand the love that went into it, but even if they are clueless, they will enjoy it so much that the message won't be lost on them.
Writing about caramelized onions has become a bit of a fraught issue for recipe-developers after Tom Scocca's takedown of what might be described as the caramelized onion conspiracy of 2012. To sum it up real quick, he claims that recipe writers have been deceiving us about the amount of time it takes to caramelize onions (perhaps yielding to editorial pressures to fit the 30-minute-meal format); they all seem to say it should take 5 to 10 minutes, when we all know it takes a lot longer than that.
One thing's for sure—he started a conversation that has made many of us think more critically and specifically about the particular ways we describe onion caramelization. I loved Sarah Jampel's response in particular, where she points out that the problem might have less to do with cooking times, and more to do with "our lack of specificity in regards to just how those onions should look, taste, and behave. What does caramelized mean?"
So I'll just say that in this recipe, I don't just mean that the onions should take on a bit of brown color on the surface. They need to become totally soft and golden brown all the way through, like the above photo of the onions in the bottom of the pot. Then some of them will get fried and turn even darker brown and crispy-chewy, sort of like a really good chocolate chip cookie. I first learned this trick from Maureen Abood's wonderful recipe, and then went way overboard with my own (but, like, overboard in a good way). However much you use, it's nice to have a little bit of exciting crunch in such a comforting dish.
caramelize the onions
1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds 12 ounces sliced onions (from about 3 large or 4 medium onions)
1 teaspoon salt
Heat a wide pot (like a large dutch oven) over medium or medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Once the pan is hot, add the oil, followed by the sliced onions and salt. Stir to coat, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 2 or 3 minutes.* They should be loudly sizzling, but not browning or burning on the bottom.
Reduce the heat to medium-low or medium, and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring and scraping once every 5 minutes or so. They should still be audibly sizzling, but more quietly than before.
Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring and scraping about every 10 minutes. You should still be able to hear a faint whisper of sizzling.
Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring and scraping constantly for 5 to 10 more minutes. The onions are done once they have significantly deepened in color.
cook the lentils and rice
a 16 ounce bag of green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
1/3 of the caramelized onions
1 cup basmati rice (rinsed)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 3/4 cups water
Par-cook the lentils: Cover the lentils in a couple inches of water in a stock pot. Bring everything to a boil over high heat. Once they’re boiling, set a timer for 10 minutes, and reduce the heat to medium to maintain a good simmer.
Start testing the lentils for doneness around the 10 minute mark. The lentils are ready once they are unpleasantly al dente. You should be able to chew one (it should be somewhat soft), but it should still be gritty and mealy. If they still have a hard center, continue to cook for a few more minutes (they shouldn’t take longer than 15).
Once the lentils are ready, strain them and rinse them until the water runs clear. *
Use a damp paper towel to wipe down the sides of the pot that you cooked the lentils in until the scum is completely gone.
Add the lentils back into the pot, along with 1/3 of the caramelized onions, rice, salt, and water. Stir together and shake everything out into an even layer.
Turn the heat to high. Once the water comes back up to a boil, cover, lower the heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes. Do not open the lid while it's cooking.
Once 15 minutes have passed, turn off the heat and keep the pot covered for another 10 minutes (up to 30). While you’re waiting, fry the rest of the onions.
fry 2/3 of the caramelized onions
1 cup olive oil (plain, not extra virgin; or use another neutral-flavored oil)
the other 2/3 of the caramelized onions
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers (about 4 minutes). Carefully add a scoop or two of the remaining caramelized onions and use tongs to spread them out into a single layer on the bottom of the pan.
Cook for about 5 minutes until crispy-chewy and deeply golden brown. Before they burn or become too brittle (perhaps with your stove, before 5 minutes), remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and add a couple more scoops of the onions to the pan, working in batches until they're all done. Discard the remaining oil.
Once it's rested, fluff the lentils and rice with a fork.
I like to stir some of the crispy onions into the mujadara, stir it together, and then top it with the rest (this results in a lot of different textures, which I like). But you can serve them all on top, or even on the side, to give everyone a chance to include as much onion as they prefer.
* At any point while you're cooking the onions, if they look like they're browning too quickly, reduce the heat a little. At any point, if there is a lot of fond that's developing on the bottom of the pot, and you can't easily scrape it up, simply deglaze with about 2 tablespoons of water, scraping up the bits. If either of these things happen, your onions might be a little on the dark side, but as long as you don't let them burn, they'll taste delicious.