Yesterday, I made red lentil and barley pilaf, a recipe I ran across in the newspaper. I love both lentils and barley, and I had all the ingredients excepting one in the house. The missing ingredient: za’atar.
Here is my story. See if you can spot the places where I messed up.
Lacking za’atar, I made my own blend (see the end for za’atar recipe and notes). This was fun. I like making my own blends (also Italian mix and garam masala)—it’s usually easy, and it puts me better in touch with the food.
Once I had all the ingredients ready, I started with the barley. I love barley (though I haven’t cooked it in years). It has a wonderful texture—a grain of substance. Checking my cookbooks (I often crosscheck recipes) I find that the 45-55 minutes recommended in my recipe is quite conservative for barley. My grains book says 45 minutes to 1¾ hours! Well, good thing I’m making the lentils after the barley. I like to focus on one thing at a time.
The barley is nearing done (after extending the cook time quite beyond 55 minutes) and I decide now is the time to get a leg up on the lentils. I pour the oil in the pan (sunflower oil, which surprised me), measure out the vegetable stock, do a few more things and then get ready to mince the onions and—the barley? Oh crap! I grab the barley off the stove, but of course the pot is hot and the barley continues to cook. Must get barley out. I get out my little colander. Way too small. I grope for the big one (the big metal one that belonged to my grandparents), put it in the sink and pour in the barley. I leave it there.*
*I leave it there because when I pulled out the large metal colander, my pottery batter bowl was inside. As I edged the colander out, the batter bowl fell to the floor and broke in two. This is a bowl I use for everything (except batter)—cooking, baking, and herb work. It was a gift from my sister-in-law; we had a no-new-gifts rule, and it was a bowl she had no use for, and a bowl I treasured from the day I got it. Sigh.
After a little tantrum and a few tears (and an email to a potter), I started the lentils. Possibly I shouldn’t have cooked, but I had grated the ginger and minced the garlic and onions, and everything was there and measured and waiting. And I had made the za’atar. Even the part of myself that said I shouldn’t cook when I was so upset acknowledged that leaving this uncooked was not really an option. Also, I was curious (and invested) in the recipe, and I love barley and lentils.
So, I heat the oil (and throw in a few minced onions to let me know when it’s good and hot). I add the onions, ginger, and garlic and stir, and I have to stir continuously because they stick to the pan after a nanosecond. I scape and stir for the required two minutes, then add the spices (I did an extra bit of scrape and stir here, cooking the spices) before adding the stock (which I added just a bit of, at first, to deglaze the pan like you do when braising—I wanted to get all those good stuck bits up off the bottom; they add good flavor). Then I added all the stock and the lentils, stirred, and brought to a boil. Boil, stir, turn down to a simmer. Timer on.
Oh, the barley. Put the barley back in its pot, awaiting the lentils.
Oh my. This kitchen smells divine. I can’t believe I’m making this wonderful scent waft. My spouse comes into the kitchen, twice, purely to comment (effusively) about how good it smells. I am in seventh heaven.
The timer goes off on the lentils—they’re looking mind of mushy and done, but I try one of course (more than one, actually, they’re small). Oh no—not done! Add 10 more minutes (and more stock, as it’s getting thick and sticking on the bottom).
Did I mention the kitchen smells divine? I’m practically passing out that I’ve created such a wonderful aroma. (Well, the credit must go to the herbs, of course, but I turned up the heat.)
So the timer goes off, the lentils look appropriately mushy, and I add them to the barley. All that’s left to do is heat it up (because the barley has quite cooled). And I stir it all together and the consistency seems to be really good after all (I was afraid it would be too dry). All it has to do is heat through. I taste it.
The lentils aren’t done. Well crap! I can hardly extract the lentils and cook them more at this point. I add stock to the barley-lentil mix and cook for 15 minutes. This makes the barley a little mushy, but still chewy (I believe barley is one of our most forgiving grains) but the lentils still not quite done (many are done, but the crunchy few stand out). It’s a bit of a torture: It tastes really good, but it’s overcooked and undercooked.
The success of course is the spice blend (also please note a hefty teaspoon of cumin went into the lentils along with a good pinch of red pepper flakes, in addition to the za’atar). More information about my za’atar journey below.
I am pretty sure I can get za’atar at the co-op, but that’s not happening for several days. So I scoured the internet for za’atar substitutes (I’m a fan of making my own mixes) and the range was huge! My big miss for homemade za’atar was sumac. Looking for sumac substitutes, I came up with lemon pepper, and lemon peel. I also found two wildly divergent za’atar recipes with the same ingredients, and this is what I came up with, somewhere in the middle (makes a little more than half a cup):
- 3 T thyme
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp marjoram
- 2 T toasted sesame seeds*
- 1 T lemon pepper (scant)
- 1 T lemon zest**
*I found a container of toasted sesame seeds at the grocery store and was happy to take this shortcut!
**Don’t add this until just before using if it’s fresh, and then only scaled to the amount you need for the recipe.
Excepting the lemon zest (unless it’s dried), grind the spices in a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)—enough to break up some of the sesame seeds and keep plenty whole. Then add the lemon zest. The amount to add is a little iffy and up to you. I added about a teaspoon and it was good.
Confession: When I made it, I was sure it wouldn’t work. I thought it smelled like dill. But I said to myself, you made it, at least try it. So glad I did.