What you’re looking at looks pretty elegant, doesn’t it? Some might even call it ostentatious in this current climate. But what you’re actually looking at is a handful of pantry staples, the end of a yogurt container and a few egg yolks. This Tuna Tahchin with Green Lentils and Preserved Lemon is my pantry’s take on the classic Iranian dish – Tahchin. Tahchin is a sort of rice cake bound together by yogurt and eggs and seasoned with saffron. It can stay as simple as that and still be called a tahchin. But most versions include a layer of protein, most often chicken, in the center. I made it with tuna, lentils and preserved lemon because that’s what I have in my house right now.
Anyone else hyper-aware of their kitchen inventory? I feel like I could recite the contents of my fridge at any given moment. I used to muse over ingredients and daydream about potential recipes. Now I feel like my brain is constantly in the middle of an acrobatic routine. Contorting itself around each missing ingredient, scanning wildly for substitutes and workarounds. I would be lying if I said it was fun, but there are a few positives I take from this activity.
The first positive is creativity. Restrictions breed ingenuity. It’s just a fact. When the world is laid before us, we often find ourselves paralyzed with indecision. This is certainly not the case when you only have a couple of cans of tuna, a bit of rice and a bag of lentils to your name. You have to make these items dinner, preferably one you wouldn’t mind eating. Bonus points if you make it delicious. It’s best to think of it as a cooking competition. Ignore the fact your cat is your only spectator.
Positive number two – gratitude. There are some ingredients that I’m cooking with now, that I bought ages ago. I’d pick up split peas for something or other, use half of the bag and forget about it. I did the same with barley, lentils, dried beans and guess what is making up most of my diet these days? I didn’t value these shelf-stable treasures the way I should’ve when I could buy fresh every day. But now, they impress me with their flavor, versatility, and nourishment. I will never look at them as cheap, plate-fillers again.
So Long, Comfort Zone!
Positive number three – leaving that comfort zone behind. In some ways, this positive is the result of the previous two. I often feel like people get stuck in ingredient ruts. They know how to cook a few things well and then they just stop. The flavor combinations repeat themselves like the lyrics in the chorus of a pop song. And it’s totally fine to like what you like, but what you’re missing when you’re in these ruts is everything you could like. But today, in our “new normal”, there’s no guarantee you’ll find your favorite cut of pork or grain of rice at the grocery store. You may have to reach for a bag of Israeli couscous or get down with some ground lamb. And I just think that is a gift.
I am not immune to ingredient ruts. I fall into them on the regular – hello, there are like five recipes for fresh rolls on this blog. But ever since I decided to space my grocery trips farther than a week apart, I’ve had to leave a lot of my favorite ingredients behind, which means, I’ve been making a lot of creative substitutions and cooking a lot of new dishes. This Tuna Tahchin being one.
Tuna Tahchin – My Only Tahchin
I have the benefit of having a good friend who happens to be of Iranian descent. He introduced me to the wonders of saffron rice and tahdig. But in spite of his culinary mentorship, I had never encountered a tahchin. One day I was served Bon Appetite’s recipe for tahchin on Pinterest. I took one glance at the recipe and knew it would be something I would be into. I bookmarked it and promptly forgot all about it.
Fast forward to the pandemic and I’m a day away from my grocery re-up, staring at a bag of brown basmati and a jar of saffron threads I couldn’t remember buying. I was trying to conjure them into dinner in my head. The first thing I remembered was the mostly-eaten tub of yogurt on the brink of expiry in my fridge and then the memory of the tahchin recipe came back to me.
Now, Andy Baraghani, the author of the Bon Appetite recipe for Tahchin, kept things very low key and simple by only adding sauteed barberries (I used dried sour cherries in their place) to his tahchin. But I wanted this to be dinner, so I knew some form of protein needed to be invited to the party. Enter tuna and lentils.
Canned fish is such a godsend. If I hadn’t been a big fan before all of this I certainly would be now. It’s the perfect shelf-stable ingredient. You can do pretty much anything to it and it still tastes great. And lentils? Well, they’re just delicious anywhere you put them and their texture is something else.
Now, I realized preserved lemons may be difficult for a few of you to find. Please don’t make any special trips on my account. Simply sub in some fresh lemon juice and add a little extra salt. You won’t be deprived, I promise. But if you can get preserved lemons, grab ’em. They are such flavor boosters and they keep indefinitely. I like pureeing them into my hummus. And if you’re looking for additional recipe ideas, there’s always this tasty number.
So, there you go, Tuna Tahchin with Green Lentils and Preserved Lemon. A fancy-ish dish that makes a meal out of your pantry. Keep this recipe filed away from your next quarantine date night.
Tuna Tahchin with Green Lentils & Preserved Lemon
- 9" pie plate, preferably transparent
- 1 cup green lentils
- 5 cups water
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 2 tbsp hot water
- 2 cups uncooked basmati rice I used brown basmati
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and sliced thin
- 2 preserved lemons innards removed, peel sliced thin
- ½ cup dried sour cherries halved
- 2 cans chunked tuna packed in water drained
- 1 tbsp honey
- 4 scallions sliced thin, divided
- 1 cup plain yogurt 2% MF or higher
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup neutral oil I used canola
- 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves tightly packed
- Pour a small amount of neutral oil in the center of a 9-inch pie plate. Use a pastry brush to coat the plate in an even layer of oil, set aside.
- Place the lentils in a small saucepan. Add the water and place over high heat. Once the water is boiling, add 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and cook the lentils until tender. This should take somewhere between 25-30 minutes. If you notice the lentils are cooking dry, add a little more water. Drain the lentils and set aside.
- While the lentils are cooking, place the saffron in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt. Grind the saffron into a powder. Pour the hot water into the mortar and pestle and give it a quick swirl. Pour the mixture into a small bowl and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Rinse the basmati rice until the water runs clear. Place a large pot of water over high heat. Once the water comes to a boil, add the remaining salt and the rice. Cook the rice until just shy of al dente, about 6-8 minutes. Drain the rice and return to the pot. Set aside to cool.
- Pour the olive oil into a skillet. Heat over medium-low until shimmering. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about a minute. Add the preserved lemon and dried sour cherries and saute until softened, about 2 minutes more. Take half of the mixture out of the skillet and transfer to a bowl set aside.
- Add the green lentils to the skillet along with the tuna. Saute until everything comes up to temperature. Stir in the honey and saute for another minute or two. Taste and season with additional salt accordingly. Take the skillet off of the heat and stir in half of the scallions. Set aside.
- Spoon the yogurt into a large bowl. Add the egg yolks, oil and saffron water and whisk to combine. Fold in the rice and stir until each grain is completely coated.
- Press half of the rice mixture into the base of the prepared pie plate. Spoon the lentil mixture on top and press into an even layer. Cover with the remaining rice and smooth the top. It will look like there is too much going into the pie plate. Just cover the surface with parchment or wax paper and press down.
- Cover the pie plate with tin foil and place in the oven. Bake for 75 minutes or until the rice is set and the bottom is golden. Let cool in the plate for 10 minutes before inverting onto a large plate. Decorate the top of your tahchin with the reserved garlic, preserved lemons, and cherries. And sprinkle with the remaining scallions and mint leaves. Serve immediately.