Shiftwork Bites: Megadarra

For years now, I've been chasing the perfect megadarra. I was first introduced to this Middle Eastern staple at Droubi's. My family has been visiting this grocery store-cum-lunch counter location for quick weeknight dinners for years, especially on Wednesdays, when megadarra and fried potatoes with lemon, garlic, and cilantro were on the menu. My mom would come in, my three brothers and me in tow, and get compliments (and extra-generous helpings) heaped on her for her brood of boys.

Almost as soon as we discovered the disarmingly simple dish of lentils, rice and fried and caramelized onions, we began trying to replicate it at home. It evaded us routinely. Either the rice was too soft by the time the lentils had cooked, the onions weren't the right texture, or the ratio was off. We were always close, but never right on.

Then, a Lebanese friend recommended a copy of Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. The first thing I cooked out of this book was megadarra, and it came out perfectly. The firm and slightly dry bite of the lentils and rice, the soft and yielding sweetness of caramelized onions, the slight crunch of the fried onion topping, and the deeply earthy and rich flavor permeating the entire dish was exactly what I'd been looking for.

It's the dish I turned to after my experiments in preventing onion tears (a great way to use up six quarts of onions), and one I keep in my back pocket for when my pantry and fridge are reduced to a pittance of ingredients. Megadarra is a beautiful dish exactly because it can turn a pittance into a pleasure.

This reliance on a small number of very pantry-stable ingredients makes it perfect for Shiftwork Bites. I can keep lentils and rice in the office cupboard indefinitely, and have started keeping standard aromatics on hand for use in a variety of dishes. This puts megadarra within easy reach any night of the week.

When I made it at work a few weeks ago, I decided to augment the meal with a few fresh sides in addition to the lentils and rice. I made some homemade hummus with garbanzo beans, sesame tahini, olive oil, and lots and lots of lemon juice and garlic. I thought it was going to kill our crappy blender. I also whipped up a quick yogurt dish, blending garlic, lemon juice and zest, diced cucumber, and brunoised serrano chiles. Topped with some freshly toasted and ground cumin, it was a refreshing accompaniment.

The main dish wasn't quite up to my standards. For starters, I accidentally bought green lentils instead of the traditional brown variety. The green version holds its shape better, but also takes longer to soften to the proper consistency for megadarra. By the time I'd realized my error, I was on the verge of overcooking the rice, and had to settle for a less than optimal texture.

I also did a bit of corner-cutting on the onions. The dish calls for two additions of onions; half get deeply caramelized and added to the cooking lentils as their primary flavoring, while the other half are caramelized, then fried until crisp, and used as an amazingly flavorful topping, adding sweet and savory punch as well as textural contrast. I rushed things and didn't get the first batch of onions browned deeply enough. As a result, the flavor imparted to the lentils was somewhat wan, tasting more of onion than of the deeply browned richness that caramelization brings. I made up for it with extra fried onions on top, and a big forkful of those with every bite improved things considerably.

Fortunately for me, this was the first time my coworkers had tried the dish, and they pronounced it excellent. Next time, I'll do it right, and show them just how great it can be. As Claudia Roden might say, ""Keep your food of kings and give us megadarra any day!"

Claudia Roden's Megadarra (adapted)

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • At least 2 onions, halved and thinly sliced. More is better.
  • 1 1/4 cups large brown lentils, rinsed and sorted to remove stones, etc.
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 1/4 cups long-grain rice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are golden brown, about 20 minutes longer.

In a medium saucepan, combine the lentils and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat until the lentils are partially cooked, about 15 minutes. Stir in half the onions and the rice. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat until the rice and lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.

While lentils are cooking, cook the remaining onions in a small amount of oil over medium high heat until dark brown, deeply caramelized, and slightly crispy.

Top the megadarra with fried onions and a drizzle of good olive oil.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall