I first made mujadara when I lived in Taiwan.
Although I cooked in college, I didn’t really start to experiment with cooking until I moved to Taiwan and lived by myself. My tastes had really opened up since I started traveling and living abroad. No longer was I the picky Midwestern girl; place almost anything in front of me, and I would at least try it (as long as it wasn’t meat).
But I still cooked pretty simple dishes: pasta, salads, and stir-frys. Then I moved to Taiwan and lived alone. A whole new world of fresh produce was just a walk away, and, if I made something that tasted awful, well, nobody would know but me.
I found an Indian food store in Taipei, with whole spices, curry pastes, and many varieties of lentils (all of which were nearly impossible to find at a standard Taiwanese grocery).
By this time, I had started to feel more confident about my cooking and often had friends over for dinner and wine. I would prepare most of the food, and they supplied the wine. It seemed a fair trade, since I enjoyed cooking and sharing food anyway.
One night, I decided to make mujadara, a Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils, and spices. I can’t remember exactly where I got the recipe, but the dish was a hit (I believe that even my ‘this is good, but it would be better with bacon’ friend enjoyed it).
How could you not? Rice and lentils are cooked with warming cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, then finished off with rich caramelized onions and fresh cilantro.
I knew as soon as I tasted this that it would be one of my go-to comfort dishes.
Now that it’s fall, and squash season, I decided to mix it up a bit by omitting the lentils and adding cubed butternut squash. Because my oven is constantly on once the temperature dips below 50F, I also baked it instead of cooking it on the stove, to make this even more hands-off.
The caramelized onions really take this dish over the top. The are rich and slightly sweet, adding an additional layer of umami. When caramlizing onions, the key is to give them enough time. Getting the sugars in the onion to release and brown is a slow process, but so worth it.
This tutorial from The Kitchn is one of the best I’ve found on caramlizing onions. Basically, you cook the onion on the stove on low heat until the sugars have turned brown (not burnt) and caramelized. This can take up to an hour, if not longer, so give yourself plenty of time.
The rest of the dish comes together with minimal effort. In an oven-safe dish, cook the onion, garlic, and chili with the spices, then add the squash, rice, and some vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and place in the oven. When you take it out, you will have a warmly spiced butternut squash and rice casserole. Finish it off with the caramelized onions and fresh cilantro, then dig in!
Although this dish takes some time to come together, for most of the time, you can walk away and go play with your cat (or children, I suppose). The ingredients are also incredibly cheap and can be found at almost any grocery store. So there’s no reason not to try this!
This is a great dish to make ahead and would be perfect (dare I say it?) to serve at Thanksgiving. It’s clearly a fall harvest dish (because squash), but it will bring some less traditional flavors to your Thanksgiving table. Plus, it should please the omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans, without forcing anyone to eat bland vegetables. And it’s perfect for Meat Free Mondays (with which I have shared this recipe).