The ingredients are simple: rice, lentils, onion, garlic and aji amarillo paste. The aji amarillo (yellow pepper) is the defining ingredient in Peruvian cooking, according to many sources I ran across in my search for more information. I had only recently started seeing references to it when I first saw the recipe, so I was curious about it. I think that is probably the main reason that I decided to give it a try.
It took me a while to find it. I went to my usual shops that carry Latin American ingredients, but had no luck I was seriously considering just using jalapenos or serranos, but the main reason I had decided to make tacu tacu was because I was curious about the aji amarillo paste. I finally found it at La Unica on my last trip down to Devon Avenue to get atta flour. I was finally ready to get started.
This modest little dish turned out to be delicious! I substituted brown rice for the regular rice and just let it cook for 40 minutes instead of 20 and it came out perfectly done. I think I might start cooking my brown rice this way all the time. That little bit of garlic really enhances the flavor.
I already knew that rice and lentils go well together, but adding the aji amarillo and cooking it until it is crispy and browned on the surface takes it over the edge. There is a unique mellow smokiness to it that I can only assume comes from the aji amarillo. I don't know if it would work with a different kind of pepper, and I don't plan to try. I have already made this twice, and it is going into my regular rotation.
The typical way to eat tacu tacu is to top it with a breaded steak and/or a fried egg. It was delicious by itself (and a complete protein with the combined rice and lentils), but it is amazingly good with a fried egg on top of it.
According to the recipe I used, the rice and lentil mixture is fried all together in a large skillet and turned at 3-minute intervals to disperse the crispy browned bits throughout. The problem with that for me was that the leftovers lost their crunch. So the next time, I just cooked enough for one serving, pushing the lentils and rice together into a patty shape while I left it sit for about 3 minutes.
After the five minutes, I turned everything. Since it doesn't really hold together as a patty, I simply flipped it in pieces with a spatula, and then pushed it back into the shape of a patty. I'm not sure why I felt the need to keep it patty-shaped, but I liked the way it looked, and I think it gave me more confidence that the pieces against the pan were getting crispy. I repeated this process a few times, to make sure there were plenty of browned bits all the way through the mixture.
Once there were enough crispy browned bits I put the mixture on a plate, and once again pushed everything together into the shape of a patty that was just larger than the egg. I made sure not to over-fry the egg, so the whites were still somewhat soft and the yolk was runny enough to seep into the rice and lentils. The end result is a crispy, crunchy, velvety, spicy blend that has a flavor all its own. The mixture keeps in the refrigerator for about a week. It is the perfect dish to make for weekend brunch, and then you can just fry up a patty and top it with the egg for a quick weeknight dinner.
There are other recipes I plan to try now that I have this jar of aji amarillo paste (such as Papas a la Huancaina, another definitive Peruvian dish). But it is worth seeking out the paste just for this dish alone, I guarantee it.
Home Cookin Chapter: Pasta and Grains
TACU TACU (PERUVIAN RICE AND LENTILS)Serves 4 to 6
1 cup dried brown lentils
7-1/4 cups water, divided
2 tsp finely chopped garlic, divided
3 Tbsp vegetable oil, divided, plus oil for frying
1 cup long-grain brown rice
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp bottled aji amarillo paste
Sort and rinse the lentils. Combine with 5 cups of water in a three-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
Cook 1 teaspoon of garlic in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a three-quart saucepan for about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the rice and continue to stir and cook for another few minutes, until the rice just begins to snap and pop. Add the remaining 2-1/4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Stir to loosen and fluff the rice, then add it to the lentils.
In a large skillet, saute the onion over medium-high heat in a tablespoon of oil. After a few minutes, add the garlic and continue to saute until the onion is golden, about 5 minutes in all. Stir in the aji amarillo paste and, continuing to stir, cook for another minute. Add the onion/garlic/chili mixture to the lentils and rice.
Heat enough oil to cover the surface of a griddle or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add about half a cup of the lentil onion mixture and mold it into a large patty by scraping the edges together with a metal spatula. Let it cook for 3 to 5 minutes, being careful not to let it burn.
Although the mixture will hold the shape of the patty while it is cooking, it will not stay together, so turn it in smaller batches with the metal spatula to get the crispy edges on top. Bring it all together into a patty shape and let it cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, until the bottom is as crusty as the top, again being careful not to burn it. Repeat at least two more times, being careful not to burn it, but making sure the patty is full of the browned, crispy bits.
Place the mixture on a plate, again using the spatula to bring the edges together into a patty shape.
Top with a fried egg. Enjoy.
*The rice, lentil and onion mixture can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to get frying.
adapted from Gourmet Magazine (RIP), May 2009
Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (www.mountain-software.com)