I just love northern African cuisine — it’s fragrant and nuanced, yet easy to prepare and dependent on inexpensive staples like rice, lentils, and legumes. You may need to purchase a few spices to make your dishes more authentic, but spices last for six months to a year if you store them in a cool cupboard away from any light. (Frankly, I keep my spices until there’s a significant loss of flavor.) And in the summertime, it’s easy to grow your own key northern African ingredients, like mint and greens and cucumbers.
More and more grocery stores are offering a better variety of spices, but if yours doesn’t stock the more exotic ones like fenugreek and sumac, you can always resort to Internet spice shops. Penzeys has brick-and-mortar locations throughout the U.S., too, or you might have a spice shop in your hometown. (To all my fellow Detroiters: Spice Miser recently opened a shop in downtown Birmingham. I haven’t checked it out yet, but judging by their booth at Eastern Market, they offer a great variety of spices and herbs.) A little spice can go a long way!
Egyptian Rice & Lentils Serves 2 for a hearty meal; if you include a good amount of hummus, you can easily serve 4. This meal would also pair well with lamb or chicken.
Extra-virgin olive oil, preferably a nice fruity one
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 tsp. ground cumin (I like a lot of cumin, so I use 3)
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground fenugreek (optional)
1 tsp. sea salt
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup cooked lentils
Several leaves of Romaine lettuce, chopped (or chopped curly spinach) Hummus and sweet paprika for topping (optional)
In a large frying pan, heat oil for 1 minute over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook for 5 minutes or until onions are starting to brown. Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring often to prevent garlic from burning. Stir in spices, salt, and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to marry.
Stir in chickpeas, rice, and lentils and warm through. Stir in Romaine and heat for 1 minute or until the leaves just begin to wilt. Remove from heat and let stand for another minute to finish softening the lettuce.
Serve piping hot, topped with a scoop of hummus if you like. Sweet paprika makes a tasty and eye-catching garnish.