Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week

I should start this by saying that I am lame. Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week (not its official title) was actually last week, and I'm only getting around to reporting it now. 

I've written before about my great admiration for Trapido, a South African-born British novelist.  I wrote about her a few years ago in my post about re-reading, and I mentioned her as well in my post last fall about Laurie Colwin.  It turns out that I also write about her in a bigger way every 10 years (to the month!).  In 2003, I wrote about her for the very nice but short-lived Readerville Journal, for a column called "Ode to a Lesser Known Genius."  Trapido's agent was very helpful, and once the piece was out, I got a thank you message from Barbara Trapido herself, which thrilled me. 

In the decade since, Trapido has published 2 novels, the autobiographical Frankie and Stankie about Trapido's childhood in South Africa (which actually was coming out right when my article was published) and the 2010 Sex and Stravinsky, full of mismatched lovers, teenage daughters, a truly horrifying mother and the mysterious Jack.  (You'll have to read it to know what I mean.)   I have continued to remain an enormous fan and to wonder why she is so little known in the U.S.

So when Bloom--a cool new site focusing on writers who first published after the age of 40--asked if I was interested in writing a piece, I knew exactly who I wanted to write about.  (Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982, when she was 41.)  

It was a lovely project.  I spent part of January re-reading four of Trapido's seven novels, the four that share a common set of characters.  It is a testament to her that I'd originally only intended to re-read two of them, but then I just couldn't help myself and kept (re-)reading.  (I'd read each of the four books at least twice previously, though not in the last ten years.)  It was a joy and a pleasure to be back in Trapido's world for that time.  

And last week, I also spent a delightful several hours on the phone with Barbara Trapido herself, just back from a literary festival in Mauritius (and truly a champ to agree to talk to me within hours of her return home to Oxford).  Our conversation was long and rambly and thoroughly enjoyable, and I hope we'll have the opportunity to talk again.  It's not often you get to gab so nicely with one of your favorite writers.  

So, even though Trapido was last week's feature author, and Bloom has moved on, I encourage you to go over to check the site out and participate in Barbara Trapido Appreciation Week--because it's never too late for appreciation!

The Joyful Mystery of Barbara Trapido

Interview with Barbara Trapido

(For a cool photo of Trapido a few years ago, scroll down a bit in this flickr set--she looks to me here the way her character Katherine Brown would look.  (Katherine was the narrator of Brother of the More Famous Jack and reappeared 20 years (and 4 books) later in The Travelling Hornplayer.  If we are lucky, we'll see her once more.  (But you'll have to read the interview to find out more!))

Monday, March 4, 2013

Meatless Mondays: March Forth for Mujaddara


March Forth!  Today is the only day of the year whose date is also a command, an exhortation, a rally cry.

There are many things I could march forth and do today--I did, in fact, march down to my compost pile, in snow boots but not in snow shoes, which is an improvement over a few weeks ago.  But I decided that I also needed to march forth and blog, and what I needed to blog about was mujaddara.

 It is hard, admittedly, to get very excited about cooking in early March.  The vegetables available are the same ones that have been available for months--i.e. vegetables in season in the southern hemisphere or those that can survive for months in a root cellar.  It's hard to cheer for chard or kale or even sweet potatoes in March.  March is that kind of month.

And it's still winter, of a sort.  I was skyping with my friend Sonia this morning, and she was exalting about the sun in Geneva and how she'd walked back to her house with no gloves on except when she was in a particularly shady bit.  I said that it was not not sunny here, and we agreed that was an improvement.  There are flashes of sun on this early March afternoon, and the sky is brighter than it's been in days.  But still, to get to the compost requires snow boots, and when I went for my Sunday run yesterday afternoon, I had to choose a route that avoided the bike path, which is still mostly snow-covered and slippery.  Then again, I didn't leave the house until almost 5 p.m., and that would have been unheard of even a month ago. So, spring is on its way, but it's most definitely not here yet.

And so, mujaddara--a 3 ingredient dish that is absolutely more than the sum of its parts.  It doesn't require any sad winter vegetables, although, of course, you could (and probably should) serve it with a vegetable on the side.  (I enjoyed mine last night with a bit of roasted sweet potato.)

I'm sure that there are as many versions of mujaddara as there are Middle Eastern grandmothers, but I have been making the Food 52 version for several years now and have found no reason yet to expand my horizons.  (The version in the new Ottalenghi Jerusalem cookbook might be that reason, but not quite yet.)  The ingredients are these: lentils, rice, onions.  There is also olive oil and butter, and there is salt, but that really is the sum total of the ingredients.  You boil the lentils, you cook the rice, you caramelize the onions and then you mix it all together and let it sit--for 15 minutes, for several hours, for a day.  What you will find is savory and a bit sweet from the onions and slightly salty and altogether delicious.  Rivka's Food 52 recipe adds a spiced yogurt, and many (though not all) of the commenters over there found that it made the dish for them.  Alas, it didn't for me.  I made the spiced yogurt the first time I made the dish but not since.  I may experiment with coming up with a spiced yogurt I like better, but in the meantime, I've been eating the mujaddara with plain yogurt from Side Hill Farm and enjoying every mouthful.

Last night, Alex and I were talking on the phone, and as soon as I said, "I made the mujaddara with caramelized onions," he said, "I'll be right over."  His reactions are not always that immediate.

What I love about this recipe is that it's simple--you can basically caramelize the onions while the lentils and rice are cooking, limiting your time at the stove--and delicious and easily adaptable.  If you or your guests are gluten-free, no problem.  Vegan--just swap out the butter with olive oil.  Vegetarian, easy.  Carnivorous--well, maybe then you'd serve it as a side, but still, it's a delicious one.

Soon enough, we'll be able to expand our winter repertoire to include  the earliest spring greens, asparagus, green garlic,  chives and more.  But in the meantime, as we wait March out (and entertain ourselves while doing so--it's Tournament of Books time again!), there is mujaddara, and that is at least some consolation. 


 Mujaddara (minus the spiced yogurt)
 (adapted from Rivka at Food 52)

Serves 4

  • 3/4 cups Puy lentils (aka French lentils, the tiny dark brown ones)
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 cup jasmine rice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 cups onions (about 3 medium onions), halved and thinly sliced

  1. Put lentils, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 4 cups water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer lentils until soft but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain lentils and set aside. 
  2.  At the same time, add rice, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups water to another pot, set over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and cover.  (My jasmine rice takes between 15-20 minutes to cook on very low heat.)  Remove lid and fluff with a fork. Set aside.
  3. While rice and lentils are cooking, set a wide, deep saute pan over medium-low heat and add butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. When butter has mostly melted, add onions and toss to incorporate with butter and oil.
  4. After 5 minutes, onions will have softened slightly and started to release their liquid. Raise heat to medium and cook 10 to 12 minutes more, until onions are very soft and browned. Add water by the tablespoon if pan gets too dry or if onions start to stick. When onions are well browned, add last tablespoon of olive oil and raise heat to high. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until bottom layer of onions has charred and crisped; try not to stir too much, or onions won't crisp up. (Note: I never added the final tablespoon of oil, and it was still fine.)
  5. Combine rice, lentils, and most of the onions in large serving bowl and let sit for at least 15 minutes, to marry the flavors together. (This dish definitely improves with age.) Taste, and add more onions if desired.
  6. If mujaddara has cooled significantly, reheat in a low oven or even in the microwave for a couple minutes. To serve, plate a big scoop of mujaddara and top with a dollop of yogurt.