By SHANNON WATKINS
I miss the ’90s (which feel like they happened only 10 years ago, max) for several reasons. One of them is youth, although if I had to go back and make the same mistakes (the less said, the better) I don’t think I’d want to return.
Another reason is that due to my job, basic needs, and the greater economic climate at the time, I had that thing – perhaps you remember it? – called “disposable income.” It was a magical substance, one that gave you the ability to conjure up stuff like “movie night without skimping at the concession stand” and “shopping sprees” and “dinner out at a nice restaurant for no special reason.” It was a heady era.
One of the things I dropped money on back then was a dance class that one of the area YMCAs offered. It was held at a local Presbyterian church near the Virginia Tech campus, a fact that always faintly scandalized me. I come from a town and a religious background that would no more have hosted dancing in church than it would have a cannibals’ barbecue at a Girl Scouts meeting.
Any kind of terpsichorean endeavor would have struck me as remarkable, then, but the class in question was belly dance. Taught by a slender, graceful Arizonan, it was a tutorial in basic moves, like the hip drop and snake arms, strung together at the end of the course into a rudimentary routine, which was only so enchanting to witness, given that the majority of us showed up in sweatpants.
By unspoken but obvious example, it was also an eye-opener in the bewitching art of mysterious feminine allure, the first lesson being that any kind of sinuous, airy maneuver is produced only by toil and sweat. That rapid shimmy that created the Hawaiian dancers’ vibrating hips on the runway, greeting visitors to Fantasy Island in the ’70s? You’d better have great knees – where the motion actually originates – to pull it off.
In any event, I’m pretty sure I looked about as bewitching as any klutzy, enthusiastic beginner would, but I had a good time. As always, exploring one aspect of another culture automatically made me wonder about other ones (i.e., What’s for dinner after you dance?) I looked up various Middle Eastern recipes, but a lot of them seemed dauntingly complicated and time-consuming for someone coming to them cold.
Then I found, in Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” a recipe for mujadarrah, a recipe found all over the Arabic world and beyond. It’s basically beans and rice with the beans replaced by lentils; it can be a main dish if you’re either vegetarian or broke, as it forms a complete protein and is very cheap and simple to make; it’s also a good side dish and would actually pair pretty well with last week’s chicken thighs.
Madison’s version has no seasoning beyond salt and pepper, which isn’t quite enough for me; and rather than fry the onions completely crisp, which is a standard in many versions of this dish, I caramelize them slowly until they’re limp, which makes for much less chance of them burning. This particular recipe is a hybrid between Madison’s and one recommended by the Food Network’s website, along with a few touches I’ve developed on my own. It’s a flexible dish; you can use other aromatics alongside or in place of the cumin and garlic (allspice, a cinnamon stick, etc.) and double the amount for a larger group of people.
And, despite my stated preference for French lentils, this dish calls for green or brown ones, the bigger, flat kind, instead. You can also make this with ultra-healthy brown rice instead of white, although it will take much longer to cook. (My feelings about the relentless healthfulness of brown rice are best compared to a critic’s take on the cultural significance of the 1979 German film “The Tin Drum”: “It has so much artistic merit you can barely sit through it.”)
1 c. green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
¾ c. basmati or any long-grained rice
1 very large yellow or red onion, or 2 large or 3 medium ones, sliced very thinly
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. cumin seeds
½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. cayenne powder (optional)
½ c. olive or vegetable oil
Put lentils in a saucepan with ¾ tsp. of salt and cover with water by about 1”. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes; drain and set aside.
While lentils cook, heat the oil a heavy skillet to medium and add the garlic, cumin seeds and peppercorns, and cook, stirring, for about a minute, until seeds darken and garlic is fragrant. Add the onions, sprinkle with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until dark and caramelized, about 15-20 minutes.
Remove half of onions from pan and sprinkle in the ground cumin and cayenne, if using, and saute for 1 minute. Add rice and cook gently until some grains start to brown a bit; then add the lentils, 3 c. water and 1½ tsps. or so of salt. Bring this to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover the pan and leave for 30 minutes. After this time, check to see if there’s any water left on the bottom; if so, cover and leave for another 5 minutes. Once this is accomplished, turn off heat and allow to steam for 5 minutes. Uncover and serve with reserved onions and any combinations of fresh lemon juice, chopped fresh herbs, hot sauce or plain Greek yogurt you like.
I checked a Y class roster recently out of nostalgia, but I’m afraid there appear to be no belly dancing courses available. Still, you could get your hands on a DVD of belly dance instruction, which is better than nothing, and try it out at home. If you do, have a big pot of mujadarrah waiting when you finish, and make sure to practice in your most beguiling sweatpants.