Crispy, Cheesy Persian Makaroni Is My Comfort Food MVP

published Jul 9, 2021
Kitchn Love Letters
Persian Makaroni with Red Lentil Bolognese

This comforting pasta dish is basically a Persian take on spaghetti Bolognese.

Serves6

Prep20 minutes

Cook1 hour 30 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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persian makaroni on a plate with a section missing and forks nearby
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

My first introduction to Persian Makaroni was in the mid ’80s, when I was about six years old and visiting my Ammeh (paternal aunt). I could see a pot on the stove steaming with a tea-towel wrapped around the lid, leading me to think it contained our beloved Persian rice and tahdig (the crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pot). But the aroma filling the kitchen was unfamiliar to me, so I was curious to see what was in there.

As my Ammeh flipped the pot and the contents were revealed, I was mesmerized: it was spaghetti, but with a layer of tahdig containing all the delicious Bolognese within its crispy walls. Every bite was glorious: The crispy layer of tahdig was followed by soft spaghetti enveloped in a tomato sauce with hints of cinnamon, turmeric, and saffron.

As I would soon learn, Persian Makaroni is our take on spaghetti Bolognese. It is comfort food personified, and a Persian love song to Italian spaghetti dishes. Although it’s commonly cooked with a Bolognese-style sauce made with lamb or beef, my vegetarian adaptation — designed to be kinder to the planet — swaps the meat for red lentils. I also layer mine with mozzarella, so when you slice through the crispy exterior you have another layer of indulgence with the melted cheese.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

3 Tips for Making Persian Makaroni

Here’s how to flip it out with ease (and achieve the crispy tahdig).

  1. Use a nonstick pot. The key to successfully releasing this upside-down-cake-style Makaroni is using a nonstick pot. If you don’t have one, you can use a medium-sized nonstick skillet. Just be sure to keep the heat on medium-low to prevent the bottom of the tahdig from burning. 
  2. Wrap the lid of the pot with a tea towel. Wrapping a tea towel around the lid while the Makaroni steams is essential for developing the crispy tahdig layer — it absorbs the steam droplets and prevents them from falling back into the pot. Don’t be tempted to remove the lid from the pot while it’s steaming, or your tahdig won’t come out as crispy.
  3. Create a barrier of spaghetti. To achieve a golden-colored tahdig, you will need to create a barrier of plain spaghetti at the bottom of the pot, as the Bolognese will caramelize and create a darker tahdig. But it’s not the end of the world if you forget to create the barrier or the Bolognese sauce seeps through — it will still be delicious.

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Persian Makaroni with Red Lentil Bolognese

This comforting pasta dish is basically a Persian take on spaghetti Bolognese.

Prep time 20 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 30 minutes

Serves 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1

    medium yellow onion

  • 1

    medium stalk celery

  • 1

    medium carrot

  • 1

    small zucchini (about 6 ounces)

  • 4 cloves

    garlic

  • 2 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt, plus more for cooking the pasta

  • 1 teaspoon

    ground cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground turmeric

  • 3/4 cup

    dried red lentils

  • 2 cups

    vegetable stock

  • 1 (14.5-ounce) can

    diced tomatoes

  • 2

    bay leaves

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    ground saffron or 2 saffron threads

  • 1 cup

    water

  • 2 tablespoons

    tomato paste

  • 1 teaspoon

    dried oregano

  • 1 tablespoon

    ketchup, plus more for serving if desired

  • 1 tablespoon

    grated Parmesan cheese

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 pound

    dried spaghetti

  • 2 tablespoons

    vegetable oil

  • 7 ounces

    sliced low-moisture mozzarella cheese

  • Serving options: pickles, ketchup, or a salad with citrus dressing

Instructions

  1. Finely dice 1 medium yellow onion and 1 medium celery stick. Peel 1 medium carrot if desired and grate on the large holes of a box grater. Grate 1 medium zucchini on the same holes. Crush 4 garlic cloves.

  2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large wide, high-sided skillet or saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and cook until translucent, 8 to 10 minutes.

  3. Add celery and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric and stir to combine.

  4. Add 3/4 cup dried red lentils and stir until combined. Add 2 cups vegetable stock, 1 can diced tomatoes and their juices, 2 bay leaves, and 1/8 teaspoon ground saffron. Add 1 cup water to the empty tomato can, swirl it a little bit, and pour into the lentils. Add 2 tablespoons tomato paste and stir to combine.

  5. Add 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 tablespoon tomato ketchup, 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and stir to combine. Bring to a rapid simmer, then turn the heat down to low. Cover and cook until the lentils are just tender, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pasta.

  6. Bring a large nonstick pot of heavily salted water to a boil over medium-high heat (this pot will also be the pan you steam the final makaroni dish in to create the cake-style tahdig, so ideally one with a glass lid). Add 1 pound spaghetti and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain the pasta.

  7. Wipe out the pot. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and brush the oil all over the bottom and up the sides of the pot. Arrange enough cooked spaghetti in the pot to form a 1/3-inch thick layer.

  8. Taste and season the lentil bolognese with kosher salt as needed. Turn off the heat. Add the remaining spaghetti and toss to combine. Transfer half into the pot and spread into an even layer over the plain spaghetti. Layer 7 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese onto the bolognese spaghetti in the pot. Top with the remaining bolognese spaghetti.

  9. Cover and cook over medium to medium-high heat until it starts to steam. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Wrap the lid in a kitchen towel and place back on the pot. Cook undisturbed for 45 minutes to 1 hour for a crust to form.

  10. Remove from the heat and uncover. Invert a large plate that’s wider than the pot onto the pot. Grasping both the plate and pot with oven mitts, carefully and quickly flip both over in one motion. Remove the pot. Serve with pickles, a salad with citrus dressing, or just a dollop of ketchup.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The bolognese can be made a few days ahead and refrigerated. Rewarm before using.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Vegan Variation: If you are vegan you can substitute the cheese elements for plant-based alternatives or leave them out completely.