Category Archives: California Cuisine

Mujaddara—-an inspiration for one-pot meals

Mujadara with a twist

Staple recipes become new again by switching a few ingredients.

Mujaddara and similar lentil/rice dishes, cooked in one pot, are a standard meal in many middle eastern homes.  Mujaddara is commonly topped with crispy, fried onions and served with yogurt, salads and flat breads.  I have been making this dish for over 15 years, using basic recipes from Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Greece and Egypt with minor changes to spices and toppings.  At home, I caramelize the onions and avoid frying them for a healthier meal.  When dining out we splurge on the delicious, crispy, fried bits.

The basic recipe is also a great base to experiment with and create new dishes to compliment almost any cuisine:

  • substituting different rice and grains  (brown, black or red rice; bulgur; barley, etc…)
  • changing lentils and beans (black lentils or fresh shell beans)
  • changing the flavor profile to match other cuisines.

One of our new favorite twist– Black Lentil Basmati Rice with Preserved Lemon.  It is simple, but extremely flavorful.  Serve as a main meal or side dish.  Neri recommends eating it with homemade or Greek yogurt and sautéed greens with mushrooms.

Preserved lemons add extra umami to many dishes.

Preserved Lemons—a small amount imparts a great deal of flavor to any dish.

Black Lentil Basmati Rice with Preserved Lemon

  • 1 cup black lentils
  • 1 cup white basmati rice
  • 1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 2 medium cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 preserved lemon**, lightly rinsed and minced (remove any seeds, use both the rind and pulp)
  • pepper to taste ( do not add salt, the preserved lemon will provide more than enough)
  • 5 1/1 c water

Pick through and rinse the lentils and rice.  Heat the oil and add the shallots. Saute until the shallots lightly brown, add garlic and saute for 2 more minutes.  Add the lentils and preserved lemon and toss with the mixture.  Add water.  Bring to a boil and lower temperature.  Cover pot and cook for 10 minutes.  Remove lid, bring mixture back to a gentle boil and then add rice.  Grind in black pepper, mix and cover.  Lower heat and cook for 15-20 minutes.  When water has been completely absorbed, lightly toss lentil/rice mixture and cover to let it steam out for 5-10 minutes.  [Newbie Note: The dish will be moist, not dry and fluffy.]

This recipe makes about 5-6 cups and will feed 4-7 people.  You may cut the recipe in half, but use the same amount of garlic and shallots.  Makes a wonderful lunch or leftover dinner.  This flavor combination pairs well with Moroccan, Spanish and North African foods served with a medium sweet Riesling or Sake.

Three important rules to follow when cooking one-pot grain/legume dishes:

  1. Total amount of water added at the beginning of the recipe should equal the amount required to cook each component separately:  White basmati rice 1 : 1.5 ratio  and Black lentils  1 : 4 ratio  [solid to water] Total water = 5 1/2 cups
  2. Start the product with the longest cooking time first :  Black Lentils 25-35 minutes  White Basmati Rice 10-15 minutes   25 minutes – 15 minutes = 10 minutes (after which time add second main ingredient)
  3. Sturdy grains and legumes should be used for this recipe.  Red lentils, quinoa and amaranth are best when cooked separately, then combined.

Once you are familiar with a particular combination of ingredients, cooking times and the final product you may want to use more or less water.  If you add any vegetables to the pot, this will also affect the amount of water needed to thoroughly cook the grains and legumes. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new flavors.

**Preserved lemons are easy to make at home, but may be purchased on-line or at specialty stores.  The next blog posting will show you how to make preserved lemons.


Left-over Make-over: Thai-Style Pesto

creative pesto

Thai-style pesto

If you have never eaten homemade pesto, you may not be a fan.  Most of us are familiar with the generic, food supplier provided pesto sauces served in restaurants or in pre-made meals at the store.  They all taste the same.

Homemade pesto is unique, flavorful and varies from batch to batch. Pesto changes from region to region in Italy and Italian expats often switch out traditional ingredients for local products to ensure their pesto is fresh.  I have been making pestos since my college days at UCSC, when I discovered the wonderful Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market and was able to purchase flower bouquet size bunches of basil in over 6 varieties for under $3.oo per bunch.

You don’t need to use pine nuts, basil or Pecorino cheese to make a delicious pesto. My pesto changes with the seasons and sometimes crosses continents. Last week, Neri wanted pasta, but I really didn’t feel like cooking Italian. This pesto was a perfect compromise between both our desires for dinner that evening.

A recent trip to Laguna Hills Farmers Market provided me with more shiso (perilla) leaves than I needed for my Japanese dishes that week.  I also had fresh cilantro and mint leaves and 1/2 of an avocado from lunch in the refrigerator.  Early that day I was craving those “Thai” style toasted cashews, coated with lemon grass, chilies, sugar, salt and other spices–which is the inspiration for this pesto recipe.  You can vary the amounts of herbs and flavorings to suit your taste. The ingredients marked optional can be omitted if you do not have them available and will allow you to use the leftover pesto in a greater number of dishes.

  • 1  cup red and green shiso leaves (or all of one type) * If you don’t have shiso leaves use Thai or lemon basil*
  • 3/4 c cilantro (including stems)
  • 1/2 c mint leaves
  • 1 c toasted cashews (toast your own raw, unsalted cashews for the best flavor)
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • 1/2 tsp to 1 T crushed dried chilies or single origin chili powder (do not use the chili powder with other spices)
  • 2 to 3 green onions
  • 1/4 c  to 1/2 c olive oil, coconut oil (melted) or nut oil
  • 1 tsp brown or date sugar
  • 1/2 in piece of lemon grass (inner bottom portion of the stalk) optional
  • 1/4 c grated coconut (packaged unsweetened) optional
  • juice of 1 lime
  • salt to taste

Using a food processor, pulse the cashews, garlic, dried chilies, coconut and lemon grass until finely chopped. Add herbs and green onions, pulsing until coarsely chopped. Add lime juice and slowly drizzle in oil with food processor running. Stop and scrape down the sides with a spatula as needed. Once mixture is smooth, add salt, pulse to mix and taste.  The pesto should have a fresh green flavor with the sweet and salty bite of Thai food. Adjust ingredients as needed.

We used this pesto on pasta, tofu and stir-fried vegetables.  It would also be a wonderful addition to steamed baby potatoes or spread on a banh mi sandwich.

Keep reading throughout the summer for more creative pesto ideas including the best ingredients for the more traditional pesto variations.  The type of olive and quality of your extra virgin olive oil is just as important as the freshness of your basil.

Confession time: The photos I took of the original meal became corrupted and had to be deleted. The featured picture is a quick snap shot of the small amount (of the same pesto) left in the refrigerator. It was much brighter and colorful the first 3 days.

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