Cypriot peasant cuisine: Moujendra

When I was growing up in my ethnically mixed family, we ate quite a number of foods native to Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean region. One of these I especially came to like and we still eat it in our home. It is called moujendra (μουτζιέντρα) and it primarily consists of lentils and rice. Take the following ingredients:

1 cup dried green lentils
1 cup rice
2 to 3 bulb onions, depending on size
2 celery stalks
olive oil (both pomace and extra virgin)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar

Place lentils in a pan of boiling water and cook until tender. About a teaspoon of salt should be added to water. This should take between 30 to 40 minutes. About ten minutes or so into the cooking of the lentils, add the rice. If using brown rice, start it first and then add the lentils later. Longer cooking time will lead to a porridge-like mixture. Shorter cooking time will keep ingredients more al dente.

Chop onions and celery. In a separate shallow pan cover the bottom with the pomace olive oil and turn on heat. Add chopped onions and celery and sauté. Add pepper and coriander. Once this mixture has been sautéed sufficiently, add it to the lentils and rice. Mix and then add the wine vinegar and extra virgin oil to taste.

Other ingredients can be added as well at various stages in the process, including chopped carrots, sliced kalamata olives, sun dried tomatoes or roma tomatoes. Feel free to experiment. That's what peasant cuisine is all about.

Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives. Thus it is the richest grade of oil and the deepest in colour. Pomace oil comes from the later pressings and is quite adequate for cooking. Although Italian olive oil is more common in North America, I strongly recommend the Greek variety. Italian oil has a fruity taste, while the Greek oil has a quite different taste that I am at a loss to describe because I grew up with it. To me, it's just, well, olive oil!

Incidentally lentils contain tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts serotonin levels in the brain. Low levels of serotonin accompany clinical depression. That means lentils are a great mood booster even better than caffeine, whose side effects include heightened anxiety. When I'm feeling down, there's nothing like moujendra and a green salad to pick me up again. I call it the "lentil buzz."

Legumes and grains together contain a complete protein and can thus be used as a meat substitute.

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