Rice and Lentils with Chicken

Last semester, I had bought lentils, with the intention of making some tadka dal. I was inspired by one of the campus eatery’s version of it and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, after much perusing on the interwebs, I discovered that tadka dal actually needed for split yellow lentils, not the green ones I had already purchased.

Undeterred, I tried making some curried lentils on my own and ended up with inedible mush. The remaining green lentils were then banished to the corner of my food shelf, until I could figure out what to do with them. Green lentils are the tougher variety within the colors available. I’ve seen plenty of red and yellow lentils in curries and soups; green lentils hold their shape pretty well (unless you overcooked them like I do) and are best eaten on their own on salads or with other grains. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very interested in making salads or anything like that.

Fortunately, I found this recipe for stuck-pot rice and lentils. After a few tweaks, I ended up with the most delicious rice dish I had made in a while. The rice is garlicky and crispy and cumin-y. The green lentils add a nutty taste to the grains and leaves you fuller than you expect. The onions hide among the grains, sweet and crispy little slivers. The chicken had quite a bit of skin, so the rest of the dish had a nice fatty quality I had missed from real poultry  in a while (none of that skinless, boneless chicken breast crap). I had a LOT of leftovers for the rest of the week. In the morning, I could scoop up a portion into a container, reheat, and eat it on my way to class.

Crispiness incarnate

I used red onions because I only had red onions at the time but it was a good switch. Red onions have a bit more flavor that their yellow counterparts. Two whole onions may see like a lot, but they cook down quite a bit, and three cups of rice and lentils ends up being a lot of rice and lentils. If you feel like two onions might be a lot, feel free to use one or even only a half if you’re not an onion fan.

The addition of chicken came after I found a freezer-burnt chicken thigh I had neglected for a month (oops). I knew I wanted to pair it with the lentils and rice but I wasn’t sure how — baking them would take too long, frying them would be a pain, but I had an epiphany! Inspired by salt-crusted fish and how the fish is insulated in salt, I decided to place the chicken right on the very bottom and cover it with the grains (which would kinda act like the salt crust, but you know, it’s all edible). The grains would keep the chicken nice and hot while both elements cook. The skin would also get nice and crispy on one side with the rest of the grains. When the grains are cooked, the chicken will be cooked through as well. Inverting the entire pot in a serving bowl or platter is really satisfying and reveals all the brown crispiness that you’ll want to hide for yourself.

The chicken adds another source of protein in the dish but can easily be left out as a vegetarian/vegan option.

Rice and Lentils with Chicken

Adapted from SmittenKitchen

Feeds 2 or 3 comfortably, with leftovers

¾ cup green (or brown) lentils
2 cups white long-grain rice
2 cloves of garlic
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon cumin
2-3 chicken thigh and/or leg pieces
⅓ cup water
Juice from ½ lemon
Vegetable oil
2 teaspoons of salt, plus more for chicken
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Ground black pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Fill up a heavy and large pot (iron cast or dutch ovens would be ideal, but I used a regular nonstick pot* and it worked out great) with water and place on the stove over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add in the lentils, rice, and a pinch of salt, and cook for about 5 minutes. The lentils and rice will only be partially cooked. Scoop out or drain out the rice and lentils into a large bowl.

While the rice and lentils are cooking, season the chicken with salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. Rub the seasonings all over the pieces and let sit while the onions are cooking.

Dry out the pot and heat up about 3 tablespoons of oil under medium heat. Once the oil is sufficiently hot, add in the onions. Cook the onions without moving them too much; this will help caramelize and brown them. If some of them get burnt, no worries! It’ll add flavor and crispiness. This will take about fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the onions and the heat of the stove.

Meanwhile, to the bowl of rice and lentils, mix in the cumin, two teaspoons of salt, a pinch of red pepper flakes (a big pinch or two for my tastes), ⅓ cup water , and juice squeezed from the half lemon.

Remove the onions with a slotted spoon after they are sufficiently browned. Add a tad more oil if the pan looks a little dry and make sure the pot is at medium-high heat. Add in the chicken pieces and let brown on each side for 2-3 minutes. While the chicken cooks, mix the onions in the rice mixture.

Once the chicken is finished getting some color on both sides, begin packing in the rice and lentil mixture to the pot — all around the nooks and crannies of the chicken. You’ll start hearing the sizzle from the chicken oil and juices.

Cover the pot with its lid. Place some towels around it or by putting some foil around the rim of the lid to help keep the steam in. Let cook on low heat for about 30-35 minutes without disturbance. You’ll smell the rice starting to crisp and hear the chicken continuing to sear but have patience! Read a book or watch an episode of television.

Once it’s time to check, open the lid (carefully ) and taste a bit of the top. If the rice is cooked, then it’s ready! If the grains are a bit chewy, let it cook for few more minutes. You can make the judgement if you want to add a tad more water or broth.

To serve, invert the pot onto a serving platter (or bowl, like I did). The crispy bottom may come out easily or not but it’ll all come off with the help of a spoon. You can serve the chicken whole–one piece per person–or pluck out the pieces, debone, and chop the meat up for even dispersal among the grains.

*The amount of chicken is really only limited by the size of the pan. I have a medium sized pot so I could only fit one large thigh and one leg piece. With a shallower but wider pan,  you could feed up to four people with a thigh or leg each. You’d also end up with more crispy bits!