Look, I’ll be honest with you: I don’t really know what koshary is. I only barely know what koshary is supposed to be, a street-side Egyptian carbo load. But I can tell you what the thing I make that I call koshary is, and that’s a big-ass bowl of food that you want to eat when you’re starving. I mean, how else can you explain a mess of rice, beans, and macaroni?
I first came across it not prepared by a hawker in Cairo but by a restaurant chef in L.A., Kajsa Alger. Usually I think cheffed up versions of traditional lowbrow foods should be taken with a metaphoric grain of salt, loaded as they tend to be with egotistical flourishes, but Kajsa’s food is straight up, honest, and delicious.
But then again, in my own kitchen I sometimes like to get a little willful and turn what should be simple, homey foods into kind of overly complicated, homey foods. I’m not talking about fancying anything up with gold leaf and truffles; I’m talking about doing things like cooking all the components separately, like slowly caramelizing the onions and browning the lentils and searing the macaroni and spicing up the rice. Sure, it’s a lot of steps, and sure it takes a while for something that’s not a dinner party showpiece: It’s still homey, all right, and homely as hell. But you breathe in warm spices with every bite and taste the flavors of three different grains and chew on three different textures; it’s the kind of thing you want to put in big bowls for your favorite people. I’m happy just mowing it down on its own, but it also makes a fantastic base for a tomato sauce or a great landing pad for some braised greens or a piece of roasted something or other.
Makes a ton. Or enough to feed 4 carbo loaders, or like 8 people as a side.
1 large onion. Maybe 2, if you like onions. Slice them thinly.
6 oz dry lentils. Make sure there are no rocks pretending to be lentils.
8 oz macaroni elbows, or ditalini, or some other short, compact pasta shape
2 cups long-grain rice (I like jasmine or basmati for this)
3 cups water (for rice), plus whatever you need to boil the pasta and lentils
2 sticks cinnamon, like 3 inches each
A few cardamom pods, maybe
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
· First you’re going to caramelize an onion. You do realize that caramelizing an onion is not the same as burning an onion, right? Splash some oil into a heavy pan, enough to coat the bottom. Get it good and hot, so that the onion sizzles when it goes in. Quickly toss to coat the onion in oil, then turn the heat down to low or medium-low, and let it ride. Stir it occasionally while it’s still pale, then more frequently when it starts to take on color, so that it caramelizes evenly. It will take a long-ass time. Do other things, but don’t let it burn, homie!
· Preheat an oven to 350°F, unless you’re one of those freaky people who can cook rice perfectly on the stove.
· Boil some water for the lentils (enough so they’ll at least be covered). Throw in your pebble-free (you checked, right?) lentils and turn it down to a lazy simmer, checking them after, say, 15 minutes. They should be cooked but have a little bite. Sometimes they take longer. Who knows why? Drain the lentils and let them cool.
· Cook your pasta. You know the drill: water as salty as the sea, yadda yadda. Pull it out just when it’s al dente, and toss it lightly with olive oil. I know this is heretical, but you’re going to let the pasta cool completely, and you don’t want it to stick. Go ahead, trust me.
· Hey, how are those onions looking?
· Warm up a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Give it a few nice glugs of olive oil. Don’t be stingy. Throw in your cinnamon and roll it around in there until you can smell it. Now throw in your rice and stir it around. Add your spices and toast all this together, stirring, until the spices are all aromatic and maybe half the rice has turned opaque. Pour in your water; it will probably boil immediately. If not, make it boil. Then cover it and drop it in the oven. Pull it out 13 minutes later. If you’re one of those freaky people who can cook rice perfectly on the stove, do whatever it is that you do. Weirdo.
· Hey, how are those onions looking?
· Is the rice done? Good. Season it with enough salt to make it tasty while you fluff it. Let the excess moisture steam off.
· While that’s happening, get a large sauté pan going with some olive oil. Get it really good and hot, and throw in your pasta. Don’t touch it for a minute; let it get kind of brown and crusty. Oh God, I’m getting hungry. Toss it, and let it toast for a while. It will start to dry up a little bit and get chewy. Yeah.
· Dump the pasta into the rice. Sear up the lentils the same way. Dump them into the rice. Okay, are your onions gorgeous and sweet and brown? Dump them into the rice, too. Stir it all together, and go get the biggest spoons you can find.