A good friend of mine recently had an emergency where she had to take her 3-1/2 year old to the hospital for an acute health situation. Her husband is in the Coast Guard and happens to currently be working on a project on the other side of the country, so it’s just the two of them. One of the things that I do when others are in need is try to figure out how to feed them. Not only will I cook, but try to organize others to take feeding shifts. Now, both my friend and her daughter have some pretty severe food allergies and the list is long. I think my head actually started to spin when she provided a complete list of food don’ts. And, again – these are allergies, not preferences. So, any cross-contamination could lead to potentially serious medical reactions. Some of the top offenders are gluten and all things dairy. And if anyone has ever known, loved, or had to cook for someone with actual Celiac Disease, gluten occurs in more than just wheat. And many processed foods or food products somehow have gluten, such as soy sauce. Okay. No gluten and no dairy. Check.
Also, this dish had to come in one container. There is no room in a shared hospital room for multiple courses in a fancy plating. Okay – so a one-container dish. I also only had about 90 minutes to prepare it. So, I looked at her loooooooooooooong list of allergy restrictions, looked in my fridge, freezer, and pantry, and decided to do a lentil and rice dish. I searched the internet for lentil and rice dishes, and found this delicious (and easy) looking dish from Aarti Sequira on the food network. I made some changes, such as adding some meat proteins (chopped bacon and chicken) to make it more of a one-dish meal, made some substitutions for what I had in my pantry, and altered some of the preparations in order to streamline the cooking time. But I tried to stay pretty close to the spice profile of this dish and it came out amazing. The recipe that below is my version of this wonderful dish.
Now for the sustainability part – The main components of this dish are onions, lentils, and rice, all of which are inexpensive ingredients where you can splurge on the organic and keep on budget, that keep well in the pantry, and provide a pretty substantial and filling meal. The original recipe is vegan (if you omit the yogurt suggestion), and can be kept that way by skipping the bacon and chicken. However, it is also extremely flexible and you can use up other random vegetables you have around (like carrots and sweet peppers), or leftover cooked meats, like the chicken I added, reducing potential food waste.
Moreover, lentils are not only a powerhouse, economical protein, but are a great crop for farmers to grow to recharge their fields. They do not require chemical fertilizers and nitrogen-fix depleted soil. As these become more of a staple in American diets, it becomes a more and more attractive option for farmers to implement in a financially, and environmentally stable crop rotation system.
Additionally, the bacon that I used in this recipe came from a package of bacon “ends and pieces” that I buy in bulk. Sustainable pork is wonderfully flavorful, and has a better environmental impact, but it can also be hard on a modest budget. I find that so often when I use bacon in cooking, I am cutting it up into small pieces and cooking it. I don’t need to get the pretty center cut bacon, and the less pretty bacon ends and pieces tend to be much less expensive per pound. I ask my butcher for the ends and pieces, buy a few pounds (also capitalizing on bulk pricing), then freeze it in ½ pound bags, so when I need bacon for a recipe, I can pull it out and cut up what I need.
Lentils and Rice with Chicken
1 cup brown or green lentils (not lentils du Puy), sorted for debris and rinsed *see Notes below
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium onions, thinly sliced (red or yellow will work)
Pinch of sugar
1 medium carrot chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1 cup basmati rice
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick
1-1/2 to 2 cups chopped cooked chicken meat
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional) *see Notes below
Pour lentils into a medium saucepan and fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about an inch. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, grab a large skillet and pre-heat over medium-low heat. Chop up the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Put oil into pan and let it warm up for a minute, then add bacon. Cook until bacon is crisp, then remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns to remaining fat in the pan and cook, shaking the pan once in a while until the cumin seeds darken a touch, about 1 minute.
Add the onions and carrots, sprinkle with a dash of salt and pinch of sugar and cook until the onions turn dark caramel brown, stirring often. This will take about 15 minutes. Splash the onion mixture with a little water if they stick to the bottom of the pan.
While the onions are cooking, cook basmati rice according to directions on package with 2 cups of water. Place cinnamon stick in cooking water through the cooking process.
When onions are done, sprinkle in the ground cumin and cayenne; sauté about 1 minute. Add the cooked rice and cinnamon stick to the onion mixture. Add the cooked lentils, remaining cup of water, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the water is evaporated. About 5 minutes before the mixture is done cooking, add in the chicken.
Add in the cooked bacon and taste the rice for seasoning. Add in the nutritional yeast, chopped parsley and a little squeeze of lemon juice. Remove the cinnamon stick and re-adjust seasoning as necessary. You can also garnish with a little yogurt at the end.
Adapted from: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/aarti-sequeira/lebanese-lentils-rice-and-caramelized-onions-mujadara-recipe.html?oc=linkback
*Notes: I have used pre-cooked steamed lentils available in the refrigerator section of the grocery store for this with much success. You can skip the first cooking step if you use this short-cut.
The nutritional yeast is a gluten-free, vegan product. It is usually found in health food and organic stores, but is starting to become more available in other commercial grocery stores. I used it in place of yogurt to help moderate the heat of the cayenne. This is optional, but a good added a nice richness to the dish.