Lentil Pottage Credit: Sandy Oliver

Cooking lentils doesn’t come easily for an awful lot of Mainers. Our favorite legumes are those lovely fat Yellow Eyes, or Soldier beans, or split peas. Lentils languish on the grocery shelves, though some of you may have picked up a bag or two thinking, “Oh, lentils keep, I’ll grab some in case I need them.”

Or maybe they were the only thing left in the dried pea and bean section during pre-pandemic stocking up. While old or new back-to-the-landers and vegetarians might know what to do with lentils, some of us might be a little stumped.

First off, let’s admit it. Lentils make a wicked homely mess when boiled. And even if they are oh-so-good for us and high in protein and fiber, they really need a hefty shot of spices or a raft of chopped vegetables to give them flavor and color.

Judy Boothby in Bangor sent this recipe along, which she found in a cookbook of classic vegetarian recipes from the Middle East written by Habeeb Salloum published 20 years ago. Its Syrian name is Mujaddara, and a very simple staple porridge-like dish which presumably is similar to something one might sell one’s soul for. Judy makes this and serves it with a green salad on the side.

It has lots of onion and is augmented by bulgur, which I usually use only in summer when I want to make tabouli with a lot of parsley. It calls for salt and pepper and cumin. But to tell the truth, as a die-hard cumin lover, I thought the quantity called for was downright to small. I added lots more, and then I reached for a Northern African spice called ras el hanout. That did the trick and turned the lentil stew into a rich and fragrant mixture, with apologies from me to its historic roots.

The frugality of this dish will take your breath away. Enough to feed three to four adults from one cup of lentils, a quarter of a cup of bulgur (you could probably use rice or couscous if you have no bulgur) and two onions. Good gracious.

Judy wrote, “Remind folks that lentils, like dried beans, should be rinsed before cooking. I remembered the second time.” Hmmm, I wonder how she knows that?

Mujaddara or Lentil Pottage

Serves 4-5 as a main dish, more as a side dish

1 cup lentil, rinsed

5 cups water

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

¼ cup bulgur, or rice or couscous

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon cumin

2 teaspoons ras el hanout, optional

2 tablespoons butter

Bring the water and lentil to a boil, reduce heat slightly and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.

Cook the chopped onions in the oil over a medium heat until they are golden.

After the lentils have cooked for 30 minutes, add the onions, bulgur, salt and pepper, cumin and optional ras el hanout to the lentils and cook for another 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Stir in the butter before serving or add a pat to each bowl.

Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...