Recently I watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode “No Reservations” shot in Cairo and where he ate the ubiquitous Egyptian vegetarian dish called Koshary. This is an old program of his and shot during the days when he still had his edge and sarcasm at its sharpest. Anyway, the show jogged my memory about the time I spent in Cairo almost a decade ago and feel in love with Koshary. Despite the advice of my Egyptian friends, I tasted all kinds of street foods in Egypt and of them all my favorite was Koshary. What is most remarkable about it is that the dish is made from simple ingredients like rice, lentils and pasta, drowned in spicy tomato sauce. It is made from relatively inexpensive raw materials and still makes for a well-balanced meal that has a good dose of carbs (rice and pasta) protein (from the lentils) and it tastes great.
I can’t say that my Lentil and Rice Pilaf was the same as Koshary because I didn’t add any pasta or tomatoes to it but it certainly drew inspiration from it. I used Basmati rice and lentils and bell peppers to make the pilaf a healthy and delicious one-dish meal. As far as possible, I am still trying to continue with my efforts to decrease my gluten and meat intake and today’s pilaf was a good attempt in that direction. Lentils are especially good for us because they are an excellent source of several nutrional minerals, two B-vitamins and protein (and unlike meat, protein from lentils comes with virtually no fat associated with it). Since lentils have high folate content, they help to lower the amino acid homocysteine, which is known to cause damage to artery walls and is considered a serious risk factor for heart disease. Also, lentils are rich in magnesium and increasing their intake provides further cardiovascular benefits because magnesium improves the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen throughout the body.
1. ¾ cup of Basmati Rice
2. ¾ cup of lentils
3. ½ yellow bell pepper
4. ½ red bell pepper
5. ½ orange bell pepper
6. One large shallot
7. 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
8. One stick of cinnamon
9. 1 teaspoon of cumin
10. ¼ nutmeg
11. 1/3 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
12. Salt to taste
13. 2-3 tablespoons of raw pine nuts.
14. One lemon
15. Two cups of oil for frying (you can reuse this oil).
1. Place the rice in a pot and add 1.5 cups of water to it. Cook the rice over low heat till it is completely cooked. You can use a rice cooker for this process.
2. In a separate pot, boil the lentils with 1.5 cups if water and cook these till they are cooked to an al dente level of done-ness. Cook the lentils over low to medium heat and continue to stir them after every few minutes. If they look like they are not completely done but are getting too dry, add a little bit more water at a time and continue cooking till they are cooked. Do not overcook them or they’ll get mushy during the stir-frying process.
3. Peel and thinly slice the shallot. Set aside about a quarter of the shallot aside and the rest has to be deep fried so that it gets dark brown and crispy.
4. Heat the frying oil and when it is very hot, add ¾ of the sliced shallot and deep fry them in the oil. Please keep stirring the slice shallots so that they are all done to the same level of consistency. We need the shallot pieces to be brown but not charred. When the shallots are done. Take them out of the oil and place them over a dry kitchen towel to let the excess oil drain out of them. If you don’t want to go through this step of frying the shallot, you can also buy jars of fried shallots at an Asian grocery store or at a regular super market.
6. Heat 1.5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan and pour the pine nuts to the pan and let them get slightly browned in the pan. Pine nuts have high oil content and so they tend to get burnt very easily. So please stir them constantly and in a minute or two when they look slightly darkened (they should be very lightly browned), take them out of the oil and set them aside.
11. In the middle of the sauté pan, make a well by pushing the rice and lentils to the side and add the remaining ½ tablespoon of oil to the middle and to that add the cumin seeds and red pepper flakes and let them come to a sizzle in the middle of the pan (takes 15-20 seconds only).
12. Add the stick of cinnamon to the rice and also grate the nutmeg over the rice and stir everything together and let the contents of the sauté pan cook for another 2-3 minutes while stirring everything constantly.
14. Add the juice of one lemon to the rice and stir again. Now switch the heat off and cover the pan and let it stand for 4-5 minutes).
15. You can serve this pilaf while it is still hot or at room temperature. Garnish with little bit of crispy shallots on top. This would make for an excellent side dish or a one-dish meal in itself. It would also be perfect for a packed lunch.