piquant lentils and rice

Piquant Lentils and Rice

We food bloggers are always trying to show you something new. Sometimes we want to tell you all about unfamiliar ingredients or flavor combinations, like the wonders of sumac or the lovely combination of grapefruit, fennel, and pomegranate. But other times we want to share a new technique that will change the way you cook something familiar.

A few months ago, I wrote about the way I learned to make lentils and rice from my mom. The recipe calls for very few ingredients—it's just lentils, rice, olive oil, onion, and salt. And with such humble beginnings, its deliciousness is one hundred percent a product of the way it's made, rather than the fanciness of the ingredients used to make it. These are no imported green puy lentils, but just a simple one pound bag from the supermarket, and you don't need much more to get it just right.

Piquant Lentils and Rice
Piquant Lentils and Rice

Homemade lentils and rice can sometimes turn into something that resembles the gloopy, scummy afterthought served as the one vegan option in cafeterias. But to cook perfect lentils and rice, you simply need to approach the dish with an obsessive amount of rinsing. You par-cook and then rinse the lentils, then you rinse out the pot that they were cooked in, you rinse the uncooked rice, and then you steam everything together. Everything comes out perfectly fluffy, clean, and flavorful, and when you get the timing and measurements right, absolutely nothing melts together, and you end up with perfectly distinct grains, each cooked to the perfect doneness.

Lemon Slices
Piquant Lentils and Rice

To do anything to the original recipe is to gild the lily, but sometimes it can be fun to use a standard as a template to come up with something new. So this recipe is another take on classic lentils and rice. It involves just as much rinsing as the original, but it also introduces some new flavors and colors. For herbs and spices, we've got turmeric, dried mint, crushed red pepper, and saffron. If you've never tried dried mint, I highly suggest that you make or find some because it has a flavor completely unlike fresh mint, and it's an important ingredient in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.

The spices add a wonderful aroma to this dish, but it's the tomato and lemon that give this version of lentils and rice its piquancy. I'm a big fan of whole lemons, so I like to leave a ring of very thinly sliced lemons on top of the lentils and rice, which get mixed in when you fluff everything right before serving. If you aren't a fan of the sour-bitter combination of whole lemon slices, you can remove them before fluffing. In either case, they'll impart a lovely fragrance and tartness while the lentils finish cooking.

Piquant Lentils and Rice

Piquant Lentils and Rice

serves: 6 to 8
total time: 40 minutes
active time: 15 minutes
more lentils and rice:
my mom's classic and mujadara with crunchy caramelized onions
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  • 1 pound lentils

  • 1 cup basmati rice

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 1/2 cup onions

  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

  • 1 1/2 cups diced fresh tomatoes

  • 1 pinch saffron (optional)

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 2 1/4 cups boiling water

  • 1 small or 1/2 large lemon, very thinly sliced

  1. Rinse the lentils and sort through them for little pebbles. Cover with about 3 inches of water in a medium stock pot.

  2. Turn the heat to high. Once the pot of water and lentils comes to a boil, turn the heat to medium and boil uncovered for about 10 to 15 minutes.

  3. While the lentils are cooking, rinse the rice until the water runs clear and set it aside. *

  4. 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.

  5. Once the lentils are ready, strain them and rinse them until the water runs clear. *

  6. 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.

  7. Add the olive oil to the pot, turn the heat to medium and add the diced onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens (about 5 minutes).

  8. Add the turmeric, dried mint, crushed red pepper, and tomatoes, and cook for 1 minute.

  9. Add the lentils back into the pot, along with the saffron, rinsed rice, kosher salt, lemon juice and 2 1/4 cups boiling water. Stir together and shake everything out into an even layer.

  10. Turn the heat to high. Once the water comes back up to a boil, cover, lower the heat to low, and cook for 6 minutes. Do not open the lid while it's cooking.

  11. Once 6 minutes have passed, open the lid, do not stir the lentils and rice, and arrange the lemon slices on top.

  12. Cook covered for another 6 minutes. Once 6 minutes have passed, turn off the heat and keep the pot covered for another 10 minutes.

  13. After 10 minutes of resting, fluff the lentils and rice with a fork and serve.

* To do a more environmentally friendly version of the rinsing steps, you can rinse by adding water to the pot, swishing things around, straining, and repeating a few times. This uses less water than just rinsing in a colander over the sink.

Piquant Lentils and Rice

build your own tabbouleh


My grandmother grew up eating this classic tabbouleh on her family's farm in Syria, and I usually make it the same way she and my mother taught me. But sometimes tabbouleh inspires me to improvise. And in the words of Wynton Marsalis, "improvisation isn't a matter of just making any old thing up." It's important to understand the bare bones of tabbouleh, and to learn more about the tradition, so that you can thoughtfully and respectfully create something new.

Most importantly, tabbouleh must be diced very finely. This means that you should dry your herbs until they don't have a single drop of water left clinging to them (a salad spinner works best), and use a very sharp knife. If there's an ingredient you really want to include, which can't easily be minced (take grapefruit supremes, for instance, which I use in my ruby fennel tabbouleh), I recommend dicing them large and forming a border around the tabbouleh. There should never be large diced veggies floating around in the tabbouleh itself.

Tabbouleh also must include a few necessary ingredients, but I like to think of these ingredients as categories instead of specific foods. A tabbouleh must have a grain, parsley, one or two supporting herbs, some kind of onion, tomato (though this is sometimes omitted), olive oil, acid (usually citrus), salt, and pepper. Sometimes tabbouleh includes another finely minced fruit or veggie, but this is totally optional.

The proportions of these ingredients are also really important. The most important ratio is parsley to bulgur, but there's no real consensus, except that good tabbouleh doesn't use too much bulgur. How to define "too much" is really debatable, and I tend to use a lot more bulgur than Anissa Helou or Yotam Ottolenghi, but still a lot less bulgur than many restaurants. The key is to avoid thinking of parsley as a seasoning for the grains—just remember that it's a core component of the salad, if not the most important ingredient.

I've come up with my own tabbouleh formula, but there are many different schools of thought and cultural traditions, and this is just one way to think about it. So use the guide below to come up with your own tabbouleh creation, or feel free to check out some of my tabbouleh varieties.

tomatillo tabbouleh verde

tomatillo tabbouleh verde

ruby fennel tabbouleh

ruby fennel tabbouleh

tabbouleh margherita

tabbouleh margherita

classic tabbouleh

classic tabbouleh

pomegranate cilantro tabbouleh

pomegranate cilantro tabbouleh

Kathryn's Tabbouleh formula

1/2 cup grain, cooked or soaked
1 cup minced parsley
1/4 to 1/2 cup minced supporting herbs
1/4 to 1/2 cup minced onion
1 cup minced tomato
1/2 cup minced fruits or veggies
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup acid, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

ingredient inspiration


grains: burghul/bulgur, quinoa, farro, fine or pearl couscous, cauliflower “rice,” wheat berries, barley

supporting herbs: mint, thyme, cilantro, basil, dill, fennel fronds, oregano

acids: lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, lime juice

extra fruits and veggies: tomatoes, tomatillos, fennel, cucumbers, grapefruit, hot peppers, bell peppers, zucchini, artichokes, pomegranate seeds

onions: red onion, green onion, white onion