Sunday, February 16, 2014

Baked Layered Rice with Spinach and Lamb (Tahcheen-e esfenaj)

Tahcheen means "spread over the bottom" and the whole point of this aromatic dish is to end up with a lot of lovely golden crunch under the rice, which encases the aromatic filling.  Whilst there is a fair bit of preparation, a day in advance, it is brilliant for entertaining, as it just bakes away by itself for a couple of hours, and the end result justifies the means. It is also a very earthy dish, requiring a lot of work with your hands to work the rice, and assemble the dish, which is quite therapeutic.  This Persian recipe is inspired by an exotic book I was lent, which is based on Greg and Lucy Malouf's travels through Iran, and gives a captivating account of the history, and culture of Persia which expresses itself through their cooking. The book is called Saraban: a chef's journey through Persia. I am still captivated by the beauty of this book and the food it represents.

The most important thing is to use  a heavy duty cooking dish such as pyrex or heavy ovenproof porcelain. The lamb needs to be slow-cooked first, then marinated for a minimum of 8 hours for the flavours to develop. I think the prunes are essential and  accentuate the 'Persian-ness" of the dish.

Serves 6.


3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
400g lamb (from the shoulder), trimmed of fat and cut into 2cm cubes
200g thick natural yoghurt
2 egg yolks
80ml Saffron Liquid
250g spinach leaves
400g basmati rice
12 prunes, pitted and roughly chopped
60 g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
thick natural yoghurt and pickles, to serve


Preparing the Saffron Liquid - 1 day before:

20 saffron threads
2 tablespoons boiling water

To make the saffron liquid, lightly toast the saffron threads in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for about 30 seconds. While the threads must be totally dry, be very careful not to burn them. As they crisp up, they release a wonderfully pungent aroma. Tip the saffron into a mortar and leave for a moment or two before grinding to a powder.
Mix the ground saffron with the boiling water and set aside to infuse for at least 1 hour before using. The colour will continue to develop for about 12 hours.

Preparing  the lamb - 1 day before:

Heat half the oil in a medium saucepan over a low heat. Add one of the onions to the pan with the garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and spices and fry gently for 4 minutes. Add the meat and enough water to cover, then bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and simmer gently for 1 hour, or until the meat is tender. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Beat the yoghurt with the egg yolks and saffron liquid in a shallow dish. Drain the cooled lamb well and add it to the yoghurt mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or up to 24 hours.

The day of the event:

Preparing the Spinach:

Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over a low heat. Add the remaining onion and fry gently until soft and lightly coloured. Add the spinach and turn it about in the pan until wilted. Cook over a medium heat to evaporate any excess liquid, then set aside. When cool. squeeze the spinach to remove any residual liquid and chop it roughly.

Preparing the Rice:

400g basmati rice
2 tablespoons sea salt

Wash, soak, and parboil the rice. This is quite different to how we normally cook rice, but not difficult.
Wash the basmati rice thoroughly, then leave it to soak in a generous amount of lukewarm water for 30 minutes. Swish it around with your fingers every now and then to loosen the starch.

Strain the rice in  a fine colander, rinsing it again with warm water until water is clear.

Bring 2 litres water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the sea salt and stir in the strained rice.
Return the water to a rolling boil and cook, uncovered for 5 minutes. Test the rice after 4 minutes by pinching a grain between your fingers or by biting it. It should be soft on the outside, but still hard in the centre. Strain the rice and rinse again with warm water. Toss it several times to drain away as much of the water as you can. Please note: (I think 5 minutes was too long and the rice wasn't as hard in the centre as it should be. However, the recipe still worked. I advise to check it after 4 minutes to be sure.)

Assemble the dish:
Preheat the oven to 190deg C and butter a 2 litre ovenproof dish. I used a Pyrex casserole dish with a lid. Remove the lamb from the yoghurt marinade. Mix half the parboiled rice (3 cups) with the marinade and spoon and pat it into the base and up the sides of the ovenproof dish.

Arrange the lamb on top of the rice, then cover with the spinach. Dot the chopped prunes over the spinach, then spoon in the remaining rice to cover and smooth over the surface. Cover tightly with a sheet of lightly buttered foil, cover with lid, and bake for 1 1/2 hours.

Have a glass of wine and relax, you deserve it.

Final stage before eating:
Remove the dish from the oven and dot the surface of the rice with bits of butter. Replace the foil and lid and leave to rest for 10 minutes. Turn the rice out onto a warm serving platter and serve with a bowl of creamy yoghurt, a selection of relishes or pickles, and a selection of fresh herbs - tarragon, basil,  chives and parsley would be lovely.

Rena, our beautiful dinner guest. We were thrilled it turned out of the dish as it should.
A slice of Baked Layered Rice with Spinach and Lamb 
(Tahcheen-e esfenaj)

Thanks for reading.


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