In Scout’s How to Cook Vancouver series, we will be striving to combine our addiction to dining out with our passion for cooking by challenging ourselves to make Vancouver’s best restaurant dishes in our own homes.
I have this theory about foods that accommodate for a variety of dietary needs or preferences, and that theory is this: food will always be better when sourced from a cuisine that naturally works around those dietary restrictions without having to substitute for their absence and forcing you into making despondent comments like “oh…well, it’s quite good for something that is doesn’t contain *insert food-group-that-has-been-eliminated-from-your-life here*”.
One of the best cuisines for naturally accomplishing this feat? Lebanese – the food that manages to neatly bring together the gluten-free, the dairy-free, the vegan (and more) in such an effortlessly fluid way. One of the most perfect of dishes to tie all of these requirements together into an easily adapted, ever-so-malleable recipe is mjadra, the rent-week darling that won’t exacerbate your potentially tenuous relationship with lentils (most likely borne out of associating them with the frugality of a low-budget grocery week).
Many Vancouverites have a tender place in their hearts for the restaurant often associated with this savoury lentil and brown rice stew, strewn with the perfect salty-creamy-acidic topping combination: Nuba. Having previously worked front-of-house at not one but two Nuba locations (and during the sheer madness of the Olympics nonetheless), I can tell you that I have tested the limits of how much mjadra a person can possibly eat before that dish becomes outlawed from their personal food catalogue (turns out the answer is: infinite). Among the many existing locations where you could find yourself eating mjadra – my favourite one being the Mexico City-in-the-1970s vibe emanating from the bright and cheery Main and 3 rd location of Nuba – this recipe allows you to now pursue the added location of “my own house, which, now that it’s windshield-scraping season, I’d rather never leave again”. Did I mention that mjadra is perfect “make people come to my house for dinner” food? It is.
Source and ingredients note: This recipe actually comes from Nuba itself (well, by way of the Gastown Foodie cookbook; a compilation of stories and recipes from one of Vancouver’s most thickly populated restaurant neighbourhoods). Because I can never resist, some tweaks have been added, such as doubling the crispy onions – there is no such thing as too many of those – and suggesting the use of a flavourful vegetable stock over water. The directions have also been expanded on to provide further clarity where I felt this might be helpful. As for ingredients, the easiest way to get ahold of the pickled red cabbage called for in this recipe is to swing by the refrigerated section of the 3rd Ave location of Nuba itself (note: also grab a jar of their super creamy hummus) or hit up a grocery store that specializes in Middle Eastern ingredients. This is way easier than hacking into an actual cabbage and waiting for it to marinate long enough to take on the necessary acidic punch, plus those jars keep for eons and taste good on basically everything. For the tahini, make sure you’re buying the kind that is thick and runny (not the health food store variety) and that doesn’t immediately remind you of spackling paste.
Mjadra | Serves 6
3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, finely sliced
1 large jalapeño, de-seeded (if desired) and finely chopped
½ cup brown rice
1 tsp kosher salt + more to taste
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
5 cups good-quality vegetable stock (optional; water is also fine)
2 cups dried brown or green lentils (if buying green, get the flatter ones – not the smaller
¼ cup + 2 tbsp canola (or other neutral) oil
2 medium yellow onions, finely sliced
½ cup runny tahini
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 clove of garlic, minced
½ tsp kosher salt + more to taste
3 ripe avocados
Pickled red cabbage, to serve
Crumbled feta cheese, to serve (optional – if not doing vegan)
Thick tzatziki, to serve (optional – if not doing vegan)
Pita triangles, warmed, to serve (optional – if not doing gluten-free)
Start on the mjadra first, then make the toppings while it cooks down. Place a large, deep saucepan (or similar vessel – I favour a medium-sized Dutch oven) over medium heat and add olive oil. Once heated, add the sliced onions and chopped jalapeño and cook for ~5 minutes, or until the onion is soft and translucent, but not browned. Add the brown rice to the pot along with the salt and pepper and cook for 3-5 minutes, until the rice is sizzling and fragrant, but not burning. Add the stock (or water), bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 15 minutes at this heat. Stir in the lentils, cover the pot, and decrease the heat until the mixture is at a gentle simmer (about medium-low, but low if your stove is very enthusiastic). Cook for 35-50 minutes, adding small amounts of stock or water if things seem to be drying up too rapidly, especially in the first half of cooking (though by the end you want a stew, not a soup, so don’t get carried away with the liquid). I know the cook time seems like a big range, but the freshness of lentils can really skew how long they take to cook, so your best bet is to start tasting at 35 minutes and every ~5 minutes or so after until your lentils are tender without being mushy. Taste and season with more salt as needed.
While the mjadra cooks, start working on the fried onions. In a medium frying pan, heat the canola oil over medium heat until a tester slice of onion immediately sizzles hard when dropped in. While the oil heats, set a large plate lined with a few layers of paper towel beside your frying pan. Use your hands to break the onions up into individual slices and carefully scatter them into the hot oil (it may seem like there are too many for the pot – this will change, so don’t worry about it). Use tongs to toss the onions every few minutes, settling them back into an even layer after each toss. The onions will gradually start to shrink down and brown. Start tossing more frequently as the onions get darker, eventually pulling the pan off the heat when the onions are mostly all golden-brown (a few pale pieces are okay) and frizzled-looking, ~20-30 minutes. Scoop the onions from the oil onto the prepared plate and immediately season with a big pinch of salt. Let cool completely as they will become lovely and crisp once no longer hot.
If your mjadra is done, take it off the heat but leave the lid on to keep warm as you finish up the toppings. In a blender or small food processor, blitz together the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and ½ tsp salt. The tahini will likely seize up, so just start adding water by the spoonful until the sauce becomes runny and pale (~¼ cup water should accomplish this, maybe a tad more). Taste and season with more lemon juice or salt as needed. Cut the avocados into thin slices and warm the pita breads right before you’re ready to serve.
To assemble, ladle hearty servings of mjadra into bowls and drizzle each with a generous amount of tahini sauce. Divide the crispy onions amongst the bowls, nestled alongside fanned avocado slices, forkfuls of pickled cabbage, and – if making the dish vegetarian and not vegan – small handfuls of feta and dollops of tzatziki. Nuba serves their mjadra with either tahini or tzatziki, but the best behind-the-scenes advice I have from you is to always double up on the sauces. Wrap the warm pita triangles in a towel and snuggle them alongside your gleaming bowls of goodness. Your house is now the best house.