Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Taste of the Past

I am in the middle of cooking my supper and have been transported back to my childhood by the smells of onions, garlic and lentils cooking together. Now, you must know that I am celtic mid-westerner, a child of the land of meat-and-potatoes, so what am I doing rhapsodizing over lentils, garlic and onions frying in olive oil?
My mother subscribed to the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery- a series of cookbooks that came, one volume a month and spanned the culinary world from A-to-Z. They featured many exotic (remember this is Ohio in the 60's, so anything not served in cream sauce was exotic) cuisines, among them middle eastern. My mother cooked her way through all 26 volumes so when we got to the M's we first tasted M'Jeddrah or Jacob's Guile. For those of you who are not familiar with or have forgotten their Bible stories, Jacob sold his birthright to Esau for a "mess of pottage" and this pottage was and is M'Jeddrah. Coming from a family tree rampant with clergy, the biblical link added to its attraction.
It is a simple stew of lentils, rice and onions served with a crisp lemony salad and pita bread. (Imagine trying to find pita bread in Poland, Ohio 40 years ago. Fortunately, nearby Youngstown had a Lebanese immigrant community. My father became familiar with all the less mainstream markets in the area during this period.) Here is the recipe:

Slice up 1 large onion and 2 cloves of garlic
Sweat them in some olive oil
Throw in 1 cup of rice (I use brown rice nowadays) and parch it- saute it in the oil until the grains turn transparent and then back to opaque.
Add 1 cup of lentils
3 cups of boiling hot water
salt & pepper

simmer for about 1 hour or so, until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice and lentils are cooked

Make a salad of greens, cucumber , sweet pepper, tomato, whatever is crisp and cool. Toss with a lemon and olive-oil dressing.

Pile some of the stew in a bowl, top with the salad and serve with pita or flat bread.

The combination of hot and savory (umami) stew with the cool, sweet and sour salad is delightful.

I understand some levantine cultures serve the stew with caramelized onions on top and other variations but since this is the one I grew up with, this is the one I'll stick with.

So, the tug of aroma does its magic- hurtling me back 40 years to a kitchen in the woods in Ohio where a middlewestern housewife tried to cook the world.


Kate (Cathy Johnson) said...

Thank you! That is the ONE cookbook of that set I can't find, and I wanted it for the M'jeddrah! I can smell it now...

Barbara said...

Yes! M'jeddrah is divine. I've had a variation made with bulghur wheat instead of rice, and it was also delicious. Something about the lentils is so nourishing--one feels sated. The Syrian Jewish cookbook, "A Fistful of Lentils" has a really good version, adding some butter at the end of cooking, which makes it extra tasty.
Thanks for the discussion!