The other day, while we were having dinner, my son asked me why nests don't fall off of trees.
Besides the basic grasp - if not understanding - of physics (balance, gravity and all that jazz) behind the question, which surprised me to a degree, it once again made me realize how much more for granted we take things compared to the average four year old.
He usually asks the best questions at the table.
Once he was staring quietly at his hands with great interest. He then proceeded to ask me what the lines were, pointing at the wrinkles on his knuckles.
Another question he asked me recently at the table that made me smile: why do they put plastic on eggs? He was eating sunny side up eggs and pointing at that transparent film that forms around the edges. Basically he had been eating it his whole life convinced it was Saran wrap (or cling film for those of you non Americans).
Not to mention he calls all meat chicken, so a normal enquiry at dinner will be: from what animal does the chicken we are eating come from?
I guess we can all agree that the questions a four-year old asks are priceless. But us adults have questions too. One of the things I always wondered about was how Persians make that delicious crunchy layer on their rice.
Lucky for me, my best friend is Persian and when she was visiting us from the States over Easter I forced her to make Persian rice for us and to let me watch, learn, help and photograph (unfortunately it was a dark, rainy day so the pictures do not do the meal justice). I had seen her making it other times, but had never had the chance to watch it being prepared from beginning to end.
Rice is a staple in Persian cuisine and usually accompanies most meals in one form or another. Tah cheen style rice is a sort of rice cake with a crusty outer layer (tah-deeg/tah-dig being that lovely crunchy layer) that is usually made for special occasions.
It can be prepared in a variety of ways: vegetarian versions like dill and lima beans; raisins, lentils and cumin; orange peel, almonds and cranberries or sour cherries. You can also layer with meat, like chicken or lamb, or fish.
The version we made was with carrots, onions and red kidney beans (plus cinnamon and saffron). I know, delicious...
Before we start our step-by-step tutorial, here is a list of ingredients, so you have everything handy when you begin.
Ingredients (serves 8 as a side)
800gr basmati rice
about 1 stick/100gr butter
1 small yellow onion
5/6 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 or more large serving spoons of plain yogurt
red kidney beans (cooked or canned and rinsed)
Rince the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear, then soak it for about a half hour (and up to a day) in water.
Heat a pot of salted water.
In the meantime, you can start prepping the vegetables. Melt some butter in a frying pan, chop the onion and sauté in the pan until they soften.
While the onions are cooking, peel and chop the carrots into small chunks and add to the pan. Let them soften and add a pinch of salt and about 1 tbsp of cinnamon.
When the water starts boiling, strain and rinse the rice and then boil it for 7-10 minutes, until very al dente (parboiled). Strain and set aside.
While the rice is cooking, dilute the saffron into about 1/4 of a cup of hot water.
Now we can start working the magic that is the Tah Cheen.
In a medium-sized bowl, crack an egg and beat it. Add four large serving spoons of plain white yogurt and mix. You want a thick conistency, like batter.
Add in about 4 to 5 servings of rice using a skimmer. Pour in the saffron and mix.
You still want the consistency to be thick, so add more rice if you think it is necessary. To check consistency, see if it sticks to the side of the bowl (first photo below, clockwise ). If so, you are set. Taste for salt.
Coat the bottom of a heatproof glass baking dish or bowl with abundant oil, any kind as long as it does not have a strong flavor, making sure you cover the corners and sides too.
Spread the rice all over the bottom and push up onto the sides.
Start layering the rice with the vegetables, as if you were preparing a lasagna. Don't pre-mix the white rice with the filling and fill the baking dish all at once, because the rice kernels lose their integrity.
Keep the layers sparse and keep going until the dish is full. Sprinkle with cinnamon and little knobs of butter over each new layer of rice.
When you reach the top of the pan add a last layer of white rice and whatever you have left of the saffron flavored rice in the middle, adding a few more knobs of butter.
Cover with tin/aluminum foil and preheat oven to 350-400°F/175-200°C (depending on how hot your oven is) and bake rice for about an hour, rotating it a few times so the crust colors evenly. I had to switch it onto convection for a while to obtain the right amount of coloring.
Take out when the crust is a dark golden brown. Remove tin foil and let rest until it stops steaming.
Then, with the help of a knife, separate the crust along the edges from the pan. Flip the rice over onto a large serving dish (or an ugly black baking tray...).
It was so good, I missed having you there to share it with us. As the Persians would say, jat khali, your place was empty.