Mad Kitchen Science leads to lentil pilaf


The Kid has always been a very adventurous eater.

In the 1st grade, students were asked to bring in their favorite food to share with the class. The next day the table was laden with hot dogs, cookies, chicken nuggets, and bowls of mac ‘n’ cheese.

We brought three dozen dolmas — a Greek delicacy made from grape leaves, which are pickled and stuffed with lemony rice, then covered in olive oil.

When I was in the 1st grade, I would have brought Little Debbie brownies.

Petey and I share a fondness for Mediterranean food. We’re not quite as hardcore as The Kid; I’ll pretty much always pass on the squid and lamb. But I love the things they do with carbs and vegetables. Garlic is a frequent ingredient, as well as lemon and lots of bright fresh herbs.

Za’atar is a spice blend that’s really popular. Za’atar’s a mixture of toasted sesame seed, earthy oregano, smoky cumin, and rich, lemony sumac. It’s used as a topping for flatbread, mixed into oil, as a rub for meats, and a flavoring for rice dishes.

It can be purchased at Greek and Middle Eastern grocers, gourmet shops, and online.

My sampler side dish is a combination of the dishes of a few favorite restaurants. It’s an example of the flavor you can bring to the table on the cheap. The sausage was leftover from another dinner, the fideo pasta is .38 a bag, and the lentils actually came from the dollar store.

Thanks for your time.

Contact Debbie Matthews at

Mediterranean Sampler Side Dish

1 cup lentils

2 cups chicken stock

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 teaspoon za’atar spice

3 bay leaves

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup fideo or spaghetti broken into small pieces

1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

1/2 cup dry Marsala wine

1-10 ounce box frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed until most of the water is out, and chopped

4 cooked Italian, or other very garlicky sausages, slice into 1/2-inch rounds

4-6 (to taste) garlic cloves, chopped

3 1/2 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Large, flaky finishing salt, like Maldon salt

Place lentils, chicken stock and big pinch of salt into saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. This is to par-cook the lentils. They’ll finish cooking with the pilaf. Drain and set aside.

Melt butter in a heavy pot with a lid. Add onions, za’atar, bay leaves, a big pinch of salt and pepper. Cook on medium until the onions turn light golden. Add pasta, and while stirring frequently and watching constantly, cook until toasty-smelling and light caramel. Add rice and stir until it’s all coated with butter.

Turn up to medium-high and pour in Marsala. Stir, scraping up any brown bits stuck to pot. This is called deglazing, and the bits are called “fond”. Fond adds buckets of flavor. Cook until the wine’s completely cooked off and the pot is dry.

Stir in spinach, add sausage, and drained lentils. Add water, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cover. Reduce heat to medium-low.

Cook for 17 minutes. If the water hasn’t yet cooked out, keep cooking until the rice is moist, but there’s no water left.

Keep covered, turn off burner, and let sit for at least 15 minutes for starches to set. This will keep both the rice and pasta from breaking when you serve.

To serve, dish into shallow bowls, add a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finishing salt. The dish is a complete meal, but nice with a crisp green salad and a glass of dry white wine.

Serves 6-8.