Mujadara

If there is one thing you should know about me, it's that I love lentils. Just ask my friends. Or my family. Or my coworkers. Or my patients.

 Lentils!

Lentils!

Basically anybody who knows me knows about my addiction (is that the right word? Probably.) to these wonderful legumes. Lentils are the lesser-known cousin of beans and one of my favorite foods for the following reasons:

  1. They are delicious (that is, if you season them properly. YUM.)
  2. They are cheap (you can find them for less than $1.50/lb)
  3. They are easy to cook (no soaking required!)
  4. They are really, really healthy

Someone once told me that lentils (and beans, for that matter) are the perfect food to control blood sugar levels and I most heartily agree. They have a little protein, a little starch, and a lot of fiber. Lentils are a great example of why I am a big fan of including carbs in your diet.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Last week we talked about the transition of popularity from low-fat to low-carb diets. Today we're going to delve into what makes a carb a carb, and what differentiates a "good" carb from a "bad" carb.

The Basics of Carbohydrates

All carbohydrates are made of chains of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen atoms that are strung together in different ways. Some are short, some are long. The arrangement of the atoms determines whether or not our human digestive tract can break them down (we can't break down fiber, but cows can). If you want to understand the chemistry better, I suggest watching this video from the Khan Academy.

There are three molecules (called monosaccharides) out of which all sweets and starches are formed:

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose
Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Simple Carbs

Simple carbohydrates are the easiest to digest, thus they have the quickest effect on raising blood sugar levels. Eating large amounts of these at one time (especially without other foods that have protein or fat) will cause your blood sugar levels to spike high very quickly.

This spike won't last long, though, as simple carbohydrates don't have much "staying power." After rising quickly, your blood sugar will then start to fall quickly. (Sugar crash, anyone?) That's why if I only have a bowl of low-fat cereal in the morning, I'm hungry two hours later.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Here are some examples of simple carbohydrates:

  • White bread (glucose + glucose + glucose + glucose, etc., but no fiber)
  • Sugar (that is, sucrose - made of glucose + fructose)
  • Lactose (milk sugar: glucose + galactose)
  • Maltose (glucose + glucose... but we usually don't encounter much maltose in our daily lives)

Note: if you eat a simple carbohydrate together with a protein, fat, or other complex carb, it will change the way it affects your blood sugar. In fact, the rise in blood sugar will be much more like ingesting a complex carbohydrate, described below.

Additional note: eating sugar with butter still does not make it healthy. Nice try.

 Brown rice

Brown rice

Complex Carbs

Put your organic chemistry caps on. (Ugh, did I just say that? I hated organic chem.)

Most of the glucose-glucose-glucose chains in carbohydrates are connected by alpha bonds, which we humans have the enzymes (amylase) to break during digestion. Thus, individual glucoses are liberated, which we are able to absorb and use as energy.

However, once in a while a beta bond comes along; strings of glucose that are hooked together with a beta bond are called fiber. We can't break the beta bond apart, so fiber heads to the colon where millions of healthy gut bacteria eat it up. It's good for them and these probiotics are in turn good for us - although a by-product of their feast on fiber is methane production. Yes, that's right: farts.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble fiber.

Insoluble Fiber

It's found in:

  • Fruits and vegetables (especially in the peel)
  • Bran and whole grains

 

What it does for us:

  • Provides bulk in the diet and in the stool, helping to reduce constipation (just make sure to drink lots of water!
  • Slows digestion, thus helping us feel full for longer and slow the rise in blood sugar so we don't have a big spike followed by a drop
  • Feeds your healthy gut bacteria

Soluble Fiber

It's found in:

  • Whole grains
  • Beans and lentils!
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts and seeds

What it does for us:

  • Lowers cholesterol by binding to it in the gut and then being excreted.
  • Slows digestion, thus helping us feel full for longer and slow the rise in blood sugar so we don't have a big spike followed by a drop
  • Feeds your healthy gut bacteria

 

As you can see, not all carbohydrates are created equal. If you'd like to cut out sugar and refined grains from your diet, that's fine with me. However, I'm a big fan of the complex carbohydrates mentioned above, as high intakes of fiber have been associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Which brings me back to lentils - as I mentioned above, they are really, really health; their fiber content is one of the traits that makes lentils so good for you. On the other hand, if you're not used to eating much fiber in your diet, I suggest you not serve yourself seconds the first time you try eating these (ahem, note the methane produced by your healthy gut bacteria). It's best to ease into a high-fiber diet.

One of my favorite winter-time dishes is this Mujadara recipe. The first time I tried it, I realized it was the comfort food that I had never tried - a savory mix of the lentils/rice with sweet onions and a tang of yogurt on top. My friend and co-worker, Wendy, originally shared this recipe with me last year. I made a couple of small changes and it quickly became a staple of our menu.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com
Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com
Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

This recipe is easy, but it takes a long time. We're going to caramelize the onion, so think low and slow - low heat for a long time. This allows lots of those starches (long chains of glucose + glucose + glucose) to break down into shorter, sweeter molecules.

To begin, cut four or five large onions (or six or seven medium-sized ones) in half, then slice thinly. Add these to a large skillet with one-fourth cup of olive oil and cook on low to medium-low heat (depending on how hot your stove is), stirring to break apart onions. Cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until onions are soft. (If they're not soft by this time, turn up the heat a bit and cook a little longer.)

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com
Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

After this 20 minutes, add eight cups of water to a separate, large saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add one and a half cups brown lentils and one and a half teaspoons of salt. Season with some additional freshly ground black pepper, if you like. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Next, add half of the cooked onion and one cup uncooked brown rice to lentils. Continue to simmer, partially covered, for an additional 45 minutes until lentils and rice are tender.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Meanwhile, continue to caramelize onions over low heat, stirring occasionally, until dark brown and very soft. Once finished, they will taste unbelievably sweet. As in, you could almost add them to your ice cream. But that would be weird, because they are onions.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Once your lentil/rice mixture has absorbed all of the liquid and is tender, you're ready to eat! Serve lentils hot, topped with caramelized onions and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt.

Mujadara from Peas and Hoppiness - www.peasandhoppiness.com

Enjoy!

Mujadara

Ingredients

  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 4-5 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 c. water
  • 1 1/2 c. brown lentils
  • 1 c. brown rice (uncooked)
  • Plain Greek yogurt (to serve)

Instructions

  1. Add onions and oil to a large skillet and cook on low to medium-low heat, stirring to break apart onions. Cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until onions are soft.
  2. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add lentils and salt, seasoning to taste with pepper. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
  3. Add half of onion and uncooked rice to lentils and continue to simmer, uncovered, for an additional 45 minutes until lentils and rice are tender.
  4. Meanwhile, continue to caramelize onions over low heat until dark brown and very soft; they will taste sweet when finished.
  5. Serve lentils hot topped with caramelized onions and a dollop of yogurt.

Lentils - Serves 6 - Serving Size: 1  1/2 cups rice/lentils - Nutrients per serving: 339 calories -- 6g total fat -- 1g saturated fat -- 0g trans fat - 0mg cholesterol -- 602mg sodium -- 57g total carbohydrates -- 17g fiber -- 15g protein

Onions - Serves 6 - Serving Size: 1/2 cup onions - Nutrients per serving: 80 calories -- 5g total fat -- 1g saturated fat -- 0g trans fat - 0mg cholesterol -- 4mg sodium -- 9g total carbohydrates -- 2g fiber -- 1g protein