I recognize that early January is a time of year traditionally reserved for repentance and asceticism, but I’ve never been much good at either of those. After many years of making my never-changing Annual New Year’s Resolution (yeah, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours), this year I didn’t make one at all.
So while better women are perfecting their green smoothie technique or annoying the regulars at the gym, I’ve been getting over my fear of deep frying.And I’m so glad I did. This dish is spectacular for a few reasons. The flavors are deep and rich and sweet, beautifully spiced but not at all spicy. You probably already have all the ingredients in your cupboard, but I bet it won’t cost you $2 if you have to restock anything for this recipe. And the leftovers just get better and better as the days go by.
The recipe is from Jerusalem, my favorite cookbook of the moment, and we’ve been enjoying this dish alongside those roasted squash and onions from the same source. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s captivated by Jerusalem; Beth of OMG! Yummy has started up a virtual cookbook club on Facebook and Twitter to cook through “and beyond” its pages. Sounds good, right? Join us! I always like the chance to cook with friends.
So anyway, about the frying. I’ve never liked the idea because (a) a pot of hot oil is scary and (b) it seems like adding an unnecessary amount of oil to the food. But I did it, and I will do it again to have these onions again. And again. I used my heaviest pot on a back burner, and long-handled tongs in order to keep a safe distance. I measured the oil before and after cooking and you know what? Only a few tablespoons were actually absorbed by the onions (plus the paper towels, plus drips). I’m a convert.
One word of warning: in spite of its simplicity, this isn’t a quick recipe, so plan ahead to spend some time in the kitchen. It took about half an hour to fry the onions, and another half an hour to cook the rice and lentils together. Adding in the time it takes to pre-cook the lentils and get the rest of your ingredients together, I suggest that you get started well before dinnertime. If you are a more experienced fryer maybe you can deal with cooking other parts of the dish while the onions are cooking, but as a novice they required my full attention.
Lentils and Rice with Fried Onions: Sort through 1 1/4 c. brown lentils to remove any tiny hiding stones. Rinse them well, put them in a small pot covered with plenty of water, and bring them to a boil. Lower the heat to a gentle boil and cook for 12-15 minutes, until they are softened but not completely cooked. Drain and let them cool. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 1/2 tsp. turmeric, 1 1/2 tsp. ground allspice, 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1 tsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt and several grinds of black pepper. Set spice mixture aside.
Peel 1 1/2 lbs. onions (for me this was 2 large onions), halve them, and cut them into thin crosswise slices. Spread the onions on a big plate or platter, sprinkle with 3 Tbsp. flour and 1 tsp. salt, and toss well to distribute the flour and salt. Be brave: pour a cup of sunflower oil into a medium-sized, heavy pot and turn your burner up to high. You’ll know that the oil is hot enough when a piece of onion sizzles merrily the moment you drop it in the pot. Fry the onions in 3 batches; mine took about 10 minutes each. Use a slotted spoon or tongs to stir and turn them occasionally, and then to drain them a bit as you lift them, deeply golden and fragrant, from the pot to a paper-towel-lined colander. Sprinkle them with another pinch of salt. Taste one. See what I mean? Turn the heat down a bit once the oil gets nice and hot to keep them from burning as they cook.
Once all the onions are done, wipe out that same pot and add 2 tsp. whole cumin seeds and 1 1/2 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds to it. Toast the seeds over medium heat until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add 1 c. basmati rice, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, and the spice mixture (turmeric, etc.) you made earlier. Stir for a moment to coat the rice with oil, then add the drained lentils and 1 1/2 c. water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, stretch a clean dishtowel under the lid, and leave the pot to steam for 10 more minutes.
Just before serving, stir half of the fried onions into the rice and lentils. Transfer to a serving dish and pile the remaining onions on top.