My best friend is a Sephardic Jew from Iran. Like many of my first generation friends, she really only learned to cook in order to ensure she had a steady supply of food to satiate her cravings for family staples while away at college. As such, when we met as freshman year roommates, I learned a lot about Persian cooking from her and even learned some of her recipes. She taught me how to eat matzoh with crushed walnuts and date syrup during Passover, and we would sit in front of the TV shoving it into our faces while watching free HBO (we were living in a hotel) talking about Peter Kraus on Six Feet Under.
Lisa didn’t just crave Persian food, BTW, I also learned a lot from her about Celeste frozen pizza and Kraft Easy Mac, but we’re not talking about that right now so get your mind out of the culinary gutter, friend.
One thing we always delighted in early in our friendship was discovering intersections between our cultures. Lisa’s mother grew up watching Bollywood movies and could engage my father for hours about them. We both grew up in households where our parents hoarded tons of junk, and we were never sure whether we were witnessing run-of-the-mill immigrant thrift or something more disturbing. Or whether it was just their thriftymindedness colliding with the culture they settled in – one of consumption, abundance, and waste. I mean, in America, you have a never-ending supply of free napkins and twist-ties to save, and our parents had apparently saved every one they had ever come across. We were also never sure if we were rich or poor. Like, we traveled a lot growing up, but why were we so psycho about saving ketchup packets?
Polo, the Farsi word for rice, was very similar to Pulao, the Gujarati word for seasoned rice, and all the dishes Lisa would make would remind me of the comfort food I had grown up with, even though the flavor profiles were completely different. All of hers were delicately sweet on the balance, sometimes with a little tang, whereas I grew up with spicy, salty, deeply savory food. But I could always locate my food and my culture and my history in her and her family’s dishes, and I think that’s what I always liked about them. My favorite was baghali polo – dill basmati rice with lima beans and greek yogurt. It tasted like nothing like what my family cooked, and yet it reminded me so much of home.
Growing up, I ate daal-baht nearly every day. Lentils, rice, and a scoop of plain yogurt. That was my jam. Gujarati dal is really the oddest combination of flavors – it’s sweet, savory, sour, and hot’n’spicy. Gujaratis are also known for kichadi, a comfort food well known to ayurvedic diet enthusiasts, which consists of moong dal with rice, and is usually served in my house with kadhi, a hot soup made from yogurt.
I’m saying all of this to tell you that lentils, rice, and yogurt is basically my food origin story. It’s what I crave when I’m ill, when I’m sad, when I miss someone, and when I’m homesick and want to make my kitchen smell my like my aunt’s housecoat.
The recipe I have here today though, is not authentic to anyone. It’s kind of Indian, kind of Middle Eastern, with lots of warm spices to honor my friend’s palate and love of sweet food, but it still savory to satisfy mine. And she loves onion rings, so I’ve added crispy fried onions. To make up for the fact that it’s covered with a layer of deep fried onions, I have swapped the white rice for farro, an ancient grain that is more nutrient dense.
You start by deep frying a buttload of onions. Yeah, I know, that sounds scary. But fried onions are delicious, and without them you might as well throw this dish in the garbage. If deep frying scares you, you can buy a can of those french fried onions, and I won’t tell anyone. I fry mine myself (1) as a point of pride, (2) because I can use a healthier oil and (3) because my house begins to smell the way it did on Sunday mornings growing up when my parents would be downstairs blasting Indian classical music and frying onion pakodas for breakfast.
While you’re frying the onions, you can also be cooking the farro. I use a pressure cooker for this because it’s way faster, but you can also just look up regular cooking instructions which involves boiling them forever. You can also get quick cooking farro from Trader Joe’s or use another grain that cooks faster.
Finally, you cook the lentils with a lovely combination of aromatics.
Combine it all together, add some yogurt, and you’ve got a fabulous Sunday night meal.
For the onions:
3 large onions, sliced thinly
3-4 Tbsp white flower
1 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1-1 1/2 cups high smoke point oil (I used avocado oil, but you can use peanut, sunflower, canola, grapeseed)
For the farro:
1 cup farro
2-3 cups of beef broth (or chicken or vegetable, whatever you’ve got; alternatively you can use bouillon)
For the lentils:
1 Tbsp high smoke point oil
1 cup of brown or french green lentils
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground allspice
Plain yogurt to taste
- Cook the farro according to package instructions, substituting broth for water. Drain and set aside.
- Fry the onions: Spread the sliced onions out on a large sheet pan, breaking up any pieces. Sprinkle with flour and salt, and toss to coat evenly. In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan (I use an enameled cast iron sauce pan about 6 inches in diameter) heat the oil on high. When the oil is hot (when you put an onion in and it starts sizzling a lot) put in a handful of onions. Fry until golden brown, flipping using a slotted spoon only when necessary. When golden brown, carefully transfer the onions to a colander lined with paper towels and season with salt while still hot. Repeat, working in batches, adding more oil if necessary.
- Prepare the lentils: In the saucepan you used for the onions, discard the frying oil (or filter and save it for later if you’d like. Wash or wipe out the pan, add 1 Tbsp of new oil and the cinnamon stick, and heat on medium. After a few minutes, the cinnamon stick should start spitting out teeny tiny bubbles, which means that it’s beginning to infuse the oil. Add in the cumin seeds stirring for about 10 seconds until they are brown. Working quickly, add in the rest of the spices allowing them to bloom for a few seconds in the oil. (Be sure not to burn the spices here – if you do, forgive yourself, throw it all away, and start again. Trust me. You don’t want to ruin all of the components of this dish with burnt spices.) Add in the lentils, enough water to cover and then about two inches more, a bay leaf, and 2 tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, and simmer according to package instructions (should be 8-15 minutes depending on which lentils you chose). The lentils should be tender but not mushy or falling apart. Drain. Taste and season with salt if necessary.
- Combine lentils, farro, and half of the onions into a large bowl. Top with generous dollop of plain yogurt and a generous helping of more crispy onions.