Criteria: the marvelous is a mental spark created when two radically different realities make contact. For example, the sentence, “Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” The marvelous is often accompanied by a disorienting feeling. Think of it as poetic dislocation.
Art School. What a joke, I scoffed internally, reading through yet another nonsensical assignment. Having carefully critiqued a few too many blurry photos of anonymous crowds and underexposed shots of twisted ribbons, all passed off as “art,” the concept has lost some of its original reverence in my mind. Is it “art” when something truly transcendent has been created, or merely when the perpetrator doesn’t know how to define it otherwise? Did the photographer miss the decisive moment, forcing them to slap this label of “art” on it and just keep on shooting for something better? This dismissal of all fine art will surely create a bit of dissent among the believers, but trust me: After more than four years of trying to dissect the intent of a photo containing nothing more than three blueberries lined up in a straight row on a white table, for example… You would get pretty burned out on the concept, too. (And that was one of the better ones.)
And yet, though absurd, something about the proposed definition of marvelous stuck with me, rattling around in my head. It was laughable, and yet it still resonated. Perhaps I’m guilty of my own artistic sins as well.
Dreaming of hanami as the cherry blossoms all across Japan explode in joyous whites and pinks, it’s the time of year that I miss the island nation most. Though always beautiful, the way that the delicate petals rain down through the early days of spring is unmatched in its charm. No one could sit beneath the sakura and not smile. Food is also a huge component of hanami, so it goes without saying that it’s an added attraction for me. Picnic lunches are simple, traditional, typically consisting of bento boxes or at least a few delicate triangles of onigiri.
That’s where the marvelous struck me, insidious thing that it is, and suddenly it made perfect sense of add some middle eastern flair to this beautiful mental image. Mujaddara, one of my favorite dishes of savory spiced rice, tender lentils, and sweet caramelized onions took root in my mind and could not be shaken. Why? The only common element to unite them was rice, and that connection was tenuous at best. Just to prove myself wrong and get back to more time-honored hanami dishes, I went ahead and committed this crazy culinary mash-up. Sticky rice swapped for the fluffier long grains, the rest simply fell in place.
And can I tell you something, honestly? The results were pretty damn marvelous.
1 1/2 Cups Sushi Rice
2 Cups Water
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 1/2 Pounds Onions, Chopped (About 4 Cups Chopped)
3/4 – 1 Teaspoon Salt, Divided
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1/3 Cup Chopped Fresh Parsley
2 Cups Cooked Brown Lentils
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat on the stove. Once at a lively bubble, stir in the sushi rice and immediately reduce the heat all the way to low. Cover and let cook gently for 15 – 20 minutes, until the water has been fully absorbed. Turn off the heat and let stand, covered, for an additional 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet with high sides over moderate heat. When hot and shimmering, add the onions and turn the heat down to medium low. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until translucent. When they begin to brown around the edges, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and reduce the heat further. Continue to cook over low heat, stirring every now and then, for about an additional 30 minutes to caramelize the onions. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan thoroughly to prevent pieces from sticking and burning. The onions should take on a deep amber brown color at this point, and a be very aromatic. Remove the pan from the heat, mix in the balsamic vinegar and all the spices, and let cool.
When both the rice and onions are cool enough to handle, just above room temperature, mix both together in a large bowl along with the parsley and lentils. Stir well to thoroughly distribute all of the ingredients. Add remaining 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of salt, to taste.
Scoop out approximately 1/3 – 1/2 cup of the mixture for each onigiri, gently pressing it into triangles in the palms of your hands. If the rice isn’t quite holding together properly, let it sit and continue to cool for a bit longer. Serve immediately, or wrap each individually in plastic to save for later. When properly stored in the fridge, the prepared onigiri can be reserved for up to three days.
Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Dozen Onigiri