Welcome to “Wide Open Table,” a bi-monthly Montana Free Press column on all things food and cooking. “Wide Open Table” is written by Montanan Jon Bennion, who posts recipes and other kitchen content on Instagram as Intermediate Chef.
Back in 2021, I embarked on a quest to learn the fundamentals of cooking the diverse cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. It’s not the kind of food we have dotting this part of the country at restaurants, but you can find it in a few of our urban areas. Although I have not been to India (someday!), I seek out the food originating from there often when I travel out of state. It’s incredibly flavorful and so different from the often blander “meat and potatoes” diet I grew up with.
In my quest to learn some of the fundamentals, an online friend introduced me to a simple southern Indian lemon rice dish, also called “chitranna.” It mixes some traditional Indian spices, fried peanuts, curry leaves, lentils or chickpeas, and lemon with basmati or long-grain rice. Our family instantly fell in love with it.
I am also a huge fan of the traditional fried rice you can find in many Chinese and Japanese restaurants, so it occurred to me that you could combine many of the elements of the two dishes. Adjusting the recipe gave me a chance to swap out a few ingredients that are not as common in Montana. In other words, it became a fusion dish that I think a lot of you will enjoy.
The final product definitely leans more toward the original version, but the recipe calls for more veggies, which are more traditional in the fried rice dishes of the Pacific Rim. It departs from Indian lemon rice in that it doesn’t use curry leaves or whole red chiles, and it allows for the addition of a few ingredients that still bring a tiny bit of heat and green freshness that can be found in most stores around Montana.
As a bonus, I use Montana-grown lentils that have been decorticated, allowing them to cook with a quick soak. I’m sure that since Montana is No. 1 in the country when it comes to lentil and chickpea production, some of them are even ending up in India. I like to explore ways we can eat more of them right here.
The extra veggies, coupled with the texture and protein boost of the lentils and peanuts, make this a very well-rounded meal, or a great side. It just happens to be vegan and gluten-free, but non-vegan and gluten lovers will also enjoy it on its own, or with some grilled yogurt-marinated chicken skewers (should that be a future column?). And I’m not sure a prettier rice dish exists — so colorful and bright, with flavors that match.
LEMON FRIED RICE RECIPE:
Two cups cooked basmati or long grain rice
1 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1 jalapeño seeded and diced
1/3 cup yellow lentils
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup peanuts
3 scallions chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds
Serves 4 people
Soak the yellow lentils in 2 cups of hot water one hour before you start. You will need to drain off the water before they get added at the appropriate time to the pan. Cook your basmati or long grain rice according to package instructions so you have around two cups of cooked rice. Set that aside.
Toast the peanuts first in a very large sauté pan on medium heat for a few minutes, flipping occasionally. You just want them lightly toasted, so don’t step away from the pan for long or they are guaranteed to burn (trust me!). Remove from pan when lightly browned and set aside.
Place one tablespoon of vegetable oil in your very large sauté pan on medium heat and start cooking the onions with a little salt and pepper. After five minutes of cooking and stirring, add in the carrots, red bell pepper, and jalapeño and cook for another five minutes until all aromatics are soft. Remove the veggies from pan and set aside.
Add 2 more tablespoons of vegetable oil to your pan and add the mustard seeds and drained lentils. After 2-3 minutes, add the turmeric and the cumin and cook another 2-3 minutes. Add the rice and stir to break up clumps and get all the grains coated in the turmeric and spices, which will give it that beautiful yellow color. Add ½ tsp of salt and stir in. Zest half of your lemon and add to the rice. Cook for another five minutes to add texture to the rice and heat it through. Throw your veggies back in and stir them throughout.
Add the juice of half of your lemon, half of the chopped cilantro, scallion, and peanuts and stir in before plating. Now taste for salt, pepper, lemon levels and adjust according to your preferences. Top each serving with a little more cilantro, scallion, peanuts and added lemon juice if desired.
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