Seasoning with Time
Many of the memories of my maternal grandmother, a native of Lebanon, involve cooking and food. Over the years I have successfully re-created the tastes and aromas which activate the memories of the happy times we had together in my youth. One particular recipe, though, eluded me for decades. It is a simple dish with four ingredients. Yet no matter how I tried I couldn’t quite get it quite right. That taste memory so perfect in my mind seemed impossible to do again. Perhaps that was the problem, I concluded. Perhaps it would only ever be a happy memory. Maybe I was destined never to achieve that taste so that I would always attribute it to her. She died with a secret, I thought. Yet, it nagged me. She had never held back any secrets – she answered all my questions. She shared all her shortcuts and advice. But that one dish remained imperfect each time I tried to make it. It was a humble stew of dried lentils, rice, onions, and olive oil. In fact, it was so humble, that she would try to talk me out of my choice when I would request it. She would mention that it was considered ‘poor people’s food’ in her native country yet she would always make it for me when I asked. She grown up poor, lived through wars, and was grateful to have been welcomed to the US during the early part of the 20th century. My grandmother kept her own time. She cooked according to the seasons. She taught us how to spot wild mushrooms, grape leaves for stuffing, and fresh mint for drying. Every afternoon in the summer she would pray silently in her garden. In cold weather, she sat on the edge of her bed instead. As a young child, I was impatient with this quiet time and learned not to interrupt her though I would be so tempted. One afternoon, about 20 years after she died, I collected the ingredients to make the special dish. I had the naïve hope that this time it would come out tasting right. I cut the onions the way she had shown me “like angel’s wings”. The olive oil was heating in the pan and I laid the onion slices into the oil to start the dish. Then the phone rang. When I answered, I instinctively lowered the heat and walked away from the stove. It would prove to be the secret I sought for so many years: leave the pan alone and let the food cook slowly. When I remembered, with a start, that the pan was still on the stove, I ran to the kitchen to see that the onions had almost melted into the oil. Only a small portion was browned, and when I stirred them, they had not burned or stuck to the kettle. With relief, I added in the other ingredients and covered the pot. The result was the most delicious version of this dish I had ever made. (Hers is still the best, but this batch, I had to admit, was almost as good.) That was when I realized that time was the secret ingredient. Her prayers were timed to let the pans do the cooking. She would wait patiently and fill the time with positive thoughts and energies. The food would be delicious.
Sort lentils of impurities and rinse. Soak lentils in bowl of water while preparing the rest of the dish. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Peel onions and cut in half from stem to stem. Place onions, flat side down with the stem facing away from you, and cut into thin slices. Cook onions slowly in heated oil, and allow to melt about 15 minutes or until some of the onions are browned and crisped. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Transfer 1/2 of the cooked onions to a bowl to use as a garnish later. Stir in rice and sauté for about 2 minutes or until grains are thoroughly coated in the oil. Drain lentils that have been soaking and stir into the pot. Add water and 2 tsp salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer and cook, covered, over low heat until rice and lentils are soft, about 20 minutes or so. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Place in serving bowl and garnish with topping of reserved fried onions. Drizzle with olive oil.
Traditional garnishes: green salad, cured olives, pickled beets or turnips, yogurt