Look to legumes for protein that's affordable and delicious
With my grocery bills running 20 percent higher than four months ago, it's time to pinch pennies wherever possible. I've cut my family's...
Newhouse News Service
With my grocery bills running 20 percent higher than four months ago, it's time to pinch pennies wherever possible. I've cut my family's meat consumption to a minimum — and stuck to bargain cuts at that. But for the most part we are eating legumes for much of our protein and favoring budget-priced fruits and vegetables.
Beans and rice — in every iteration imaginable — form the cornerstone of our current diet. Megadarra, or mujadara, is a dish that appears throughout the Middle East in many guises, but it's really nothing more than lentils and rice topped with caramelized onions. (In Egypt, they add toasted pasta and call it koshari.)
Simple, yes, but there's something about the combination of flavors and textures that makes this dish unbeatable. And with such simple ingredients, it costs pennies a serving.
Traditional versions of megadarra use white rice and plain brown lentils. But I find the nutty, earthy flavor of brown rice far more satisfying — and more nutritious — than bland white rice. I also substitute French lentils (lentilles du Puy), which have less starch than brown lentils and hold their shape better.
While most recipes cook the lentils and rice together, I prefer to simmer them separately to attain the ideal flavor and texture of each. Simmering the lentils with bay leaves and garlic cloves adds rich flavor with little effort.
The onions can be tossed with butter or oil and baked in the oven until golden, but I think a hot pan and plenty of butter do the trick better and faster. When sautéing onions, I usually add salt to break down the onion's cell walls and expedite the cooking process, but in this recipe, it's best to wait until the end before seasoning; otherwise the exuded moisture inhibits the browning of the onions.
While megadarra can be served simply accompanied by tart yogurt or lemon wedges, I like pairing it with harissa, a North African chili and spice paste. My recipe is inspired by cookbook author Paula Wolfert (but is a bit more assertive).
While the recipe makes enough for several meals, it keeps well and can be used to flavor countless dishes, including sandwiches, salads and simple roast meats.
A shredded carrot salad makes a good partner for megadarra. Few vegetables sell as cheaply or are as healthful as carrots, and I always have a crisper drawer loaded with a few pounds to eat raw, render into salads or sauté for a quick side dish.
For a shredded salad, I typically add a lot of herbs — usually parsley, cilantro or both — and whip up a flavorful sweet-tart vinaigrette, which brings out the best in the frequently bland bulk bin carrots I usually buy.
For a quick dessert in the spirit of the meal, I make poached apricots to ladle over any yogurt left over from dinner. Dried apricots are usually quite inexpensive and turn silky smooth when poached in a spiced syrup.
Cardamom and apricots have a natural affinity, especially when the mint-like spice is pointed up with lemon zest and balanced by earthy cinnamon. Cardamom is an expensive spice, but a few green pods can be purchased in bulk for pennies.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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