Previously published in MungBeing Magazine, Issue 24
Over the course of three years I worked in a windowless office at Sotheby’s auction house at 72nd and York Avenue in New York City. For light, and to restore my peace of mind, I wandered an upper eastside circuit at lunch. East 70th Street between First and York was a tree-lined residential block that I returned to frequently to pick up a quick lunch or to run errands over on Second or Third avenues. And there was also my favorite hospital thrift store offering a wealth of high end labels at prices to fit my grossly overextended paycheck.
The buildings were mostly prewar brick low-rise apartments, none had the architectural details that would cause a pedestrian to stop and notice them. The neighborhood had several shops under awnings offering shoe repair and newspapers, and the trees had matured into a shady canopy, despite the rigors of small plots bound by concrete.
One summer afternoon, apparently in the course of city tree pruning, a large limb sheared away from one of the older maples. Revealed in the now exposed crotch of the tree was a ten-inch tall, blue painted, plastic Madonna figure that had clearly been tucked between the major limbs while the tree was young. This revelation swiftly became a locally known miracle and in a matter of hours a shrine grew up around the tree. Someone fenced in the small square with a low wire border – undoubtedly to discourage dog walkers. This curbside puja displayed all variety of offerings: Milagros candles, votives, photographs, plastic flowers and letters to Mary backed with cardboard and Saran-wrapped to keep off the rain. Beaded necklaces, so familiar at Mardi Gras, were draped on branches, while letters and prayers were stuck to the tree and piled on the ground. A hand lettered poster from some self-appointed caretaker admonished passers-by not to steal from this public altar. I stood there a long time in a sort of awe, reading everything, inspired by how a simply explained event could also be resonant with deep and last meaning.
I’m not a religious person, preferring humanity, community and nature for my spiritual connections. Cooking and eating are acts both symbolic and essential to our survival. And so it was I walked a few doors down the block from the Mary tree to a small Lebanese take out restaurant with a long display case of hot dishes. There I found the earthy yet heavenly Mujadarra (the name has many variants, among them mejadra, mujadarra, and mudardara), a rice and lentil dish served throughout the Middle East. I have found similar recipes rooted in Egypt (Kushari), India (khichdi), Syria and Egypt. And of course we see echoes of it in the many American versions of rice and beans.
I’ve thought about that idol in the tree a few times during intervening years but I’ve made Mujaddara frequently. It’s a staple that can be elevated by experimenting with ingredients. My recipe takes many liberties but is still recognizably derived from that classic everyman’s dish.
I use brown rice or a combination with bulgur, red and white quinoa, faro – or any other whole grains. Though the tradition has everything cooked in one pot, I cook them separately for a cleaner set of flavors. Rather than the brown lentils so commonly used in Lentil soups, I prefer French lentils with their darker skins and sturdy exteriors. They hold their shape well after cooking and much stirring. Indigo lentils are an elegant option as well, since they retain a slightly firmer bite when cooked. Crispy caramelized onions traditionally finish the dish. I like to mix shallots, small yellow onion and slivered leeks, all cooked until brown and crispy.
To serve 4 as a main vegetarian meal or 6-8 as a side dish, excellent with grilled marinated lamb:
1 c rice or a mix of grains
1 c lentils
1 medium onion sliced thinly
1 leek, white and light green portions only, sliced into thin rounds
1 shallot thinly slivered
1-2 T olive oil or ghee
Cook rice or grains and lentils in separate pots, following suggested cooking times.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet and stir in the various onions. Cook on medium heat stirring occasionally to avoid burning, until the onions are crispy.
When rice and lentils are cooked, stir together, top with caramelized onions and serve. Makes a wonderful meal when served with a salad topped with thin slices of feta dressed with lemony vinaigrette and buttery toasted pita along side.