Tales from the Larder: Pleasant Persian Surprises

Many food writers seem to neglect Persian food (well, except this guy here, written some time ago under my not so clever handle, Asinus Asinum Fricat, originally a piece for Daily Kos) and I would surmise that because it is modern Iran, it is not so sexy and in people’s minds it may possibly be devoid of great recipes. Though Iranian eateries are on the whole pedestrian, serving endless kebab & pilaff rice dishes (there are exceptions of course) but the traditional Persian cuisine is varied and gutsy: it uses fresh herbs, fragrant scents and combines ingredients in interesting ways….and the desserts are supremely imaginative in their simplicity.

From a cultural point of view, Persian food has always been considered to be an art providing enjoyment to both body and mind. Iranians have looked at food at 3 different ways for many centuries; medicinal, philosophical & cultural. Iranian physicians and philosophers considered food and beverages as the main factor to revive body.

In Persian lore, consuming food is a way of weakening or strengthening human character. “Consuming a lot of red meat and fats was thought to create evil thoughts and make us selfish”, which is a telling point now that we know a whole lot more about red meat and its abuses (as well as being a factor in climate change via methane emissions from cattle.) The interesting line below I read in one of the official Persian history site:

However, consuming a healthy diet including fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl, mixed petals & blossoms of roses create unusual powers & make us gentle & noble creatures.

Before I go on, the dishes that have made Persian cuisine famous worldwide are mostly made at home, because Iranian women generally don’t work in restaurants or hotels. Women have had a great influence throughout the history of cooking in Iran. The best Persian cuisine chefs were and still are women.

About the food: it’s simple, tasty and simplicity is they key of Persian cuisine. As I wrote in the other piece (link above) their cuisine is based on a philosophy of marrying “warm” tastes with “cool” tastes. For example, chocolate and mint are “warm”. Yogurt is “cool” as are most vegetables. And so on.

This recipe is known as Ash é sâg, a wonderful, robust soup made with spinach and minced lamb with a pronounced mint flavor. Add a little yogurt as a garnish and it is a very satisfying first course.

For 4 to 6 (plus leftovers) serves you will need a cup of chopped baby spinach leaves, 400 grams (14 ounces) of minced lamb (you can make this with beef as well), a handful of good quality raisins, a large pinch of turmeric, 2 large onions (finely chopped), half a cup of broken (though here we call them split peas) yellow peas, 2 ounces of rice flour, a little bunch of mint (dried ok), 1 ounce of butter, water, and salt & pepper to taste. Additionally, if you wish,  a small amount of plain yogurt to decorate each plate before serving.

First bring the split yellow peas to boil in 3 liters of salted water. This forms the base liquid of the soup as once the peas are more or less soft (which should take roughly 20 minutes) the water is not discarded. In a large cooking pot melt the butter and quickly add the minced onion and the minced lamb, stir well until cooked (around 5 to 6 minutes), add the split peas, turmeric, raisins and the rice flour, then slowly add the water in which the peas were cooked, and cook gently for 20 minutes. Check for salt & pepper, then add the chopped spinach and chopped mint, and cook slowly for another 15 minutes. Serve with crusty bread or the real thing, Nan-e barbari .

The next recipe has a name but I can’t remember it. What I remember is the taste it left in my mouth after leaving the house of an Iranian friend in Los Angeles. As it is served cold, the delicate savor of the eggplant (aubergine) infused with liquefied saffron is left lingering for a while. The combination of potato, eggplant, tomato and green bean in equal parts is simply stunning, a triumph of rusticity and well balanced spices. A note about liquefying saffron which features in a number of Persian and modern Iranian dishes: all you need to do is to crush a few strands of saffron (a mortar and a pestle can be very handy!) and pour over a half glass of boiling water and allow it to infuse for at least 20 minutes. You can keep it in a refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 days. In my restaurant days in Sydney, I used to make aspic infused with saffron, for fish terrines.

For 4 to 6 persons you will need 2 large eggplants/aubergines, 8 medium-sized tomatoes, 6 large potatoes (roosters or russet), 200 grams of fresh green beans, 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, 2 small onions, finely chopped, a small handful of basil, chopped up roughly, a half glass of olive oil, some liquified saffron and salt & pepper to taste. This dish is, in a sense, the Persian version of the Provencal ratatouille, minus the bell peppers and courgettes. And it is easy to prepare, can be eaten the next day or two. Add a couple of eggs and you have breakfast, or eat it as a side dish or simply by itself.

First cut the eggplants lengthwise and chop them in thick slices. Sprinkle a little salt to remove the bitterness (though I never do that, I like the way they are). Peel the potatoes and cube them, roughly the same size as the eggplant. Peel the green beans if need be, and cut in three or four; parboil the tomatoes briefly to remove their skin and chop into quarters. In a cooking pot, pour the oil, add the chopped onion and garlic, cook till translucent and add the eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes and green beans. Cover with water, add the liquid saffron, salt & pepper and cook slowly, with the lid on for 20 minutes, then add the chopped basil and cook for a further 10 minutes with the lid off, check for salt & pepper and let it cool off.

 

This is perhaps the most popular dish in the Persian repertoire, Khoresht Fesenjan,  (I took the pic from a French website). It’s a  chicken stew cooked with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses and garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds. The trick is to find pomegranate molasses. I know it’s available online or at good Iranian or Middle Eastern shops. The end result may not look too appetizing but don’t be put off by its brown color, it does taste amazing. My Iranian friend, to please his American wife, used to “tart it up” with cream, but I thought it became a little too rich. Also some would prefer chicken pieces on the bone (as I do) and some would use chicken breasts. It’s up to you.

For 4 to 6 persons you will need 3 pounds of cut chicken or 6 breasts, whichever. 2 large yellow onions, finely minced, 1 ounce of unsalted butter, 4 tbs of a good olive oil, 6 tbs of pomegranate molasses, 2 cups (roughly) of walnut halves, the seeds of a fresh pomegranate, 2 pints of chicken stock, a cinnamon stick, a pinch of turmeric (a dessert spoonful), a pinch of ground nutmeg, a few sprigs of lemon thyme (this is my friend’s addition to this recipe) salt & (black) pepper to taste. Some add sugar to this dish, I personally think it’s best without it.

First toast the walnuts lightly, in a pan over medium heat with a little knob of butter. it should take less than 3 minutes. When cool, ground them in a food processor or use a pestle & mortar.

Trim the fat off the chicken pieces, rub a little salt and pat them dry. In a cooking pot, melt the butter and mix with the olive oil, add the minced onions, cook for a couple of minutes then add the chicken pieces and brown them on all sides. Add the spices, the pomegranate molasses and the ground walnuts, which serve as a sauce binder, more or less. Add the chicken stock, stir thoroughly, cover the pot and cook gently for 40 minutes, occasionally stirring. Serve on plates and garnish with fresh pomegranate seeds. If you want to go all Persian, obtain a good Shiraz and drink it with this dish.

Which brings me to my two favorite desserts, a date & pistachio cake and a simple Persian cream made with tapioca. The first does take a little time but the result is worth it, the second takes only five minutes!

Again, I can’t remember the name of the cake but as all good things the name is not important, it’s the execution as this is not a baked product but cooked right up on the stove. And the eating!

For the cake you will need the following: 500 grams of seeded dates, 125 grams of walnut halves (roughly 4 1/2 ounces), 125 grams of pistachios (shelled) , 500 grams of wheat flour (a good brand, if possible), 250 grams of unsalted butter, 125 grams of dark (or brown) sugar, a teaspoon of ground cardamon and a tablespoon of ground cinnamon. Some add ground almonds to this, however I think it’s fine without it.

Take the dates, making sure there are no kernels and wrap a half walnut in each. Ground the pistachios with a little sugar and set aside.

This is where it is time consuming: in a thick-based cooking pot, melt the butter and add the flour little by little, over a low flame. Keep stirring until golden brown (this should take 20 minutes, and believe me the end product is to die for). Take off the stove, wait for 2 or 3 minutes, to cool off a little and add the sugar, the cinnamon and the cardamon, stirring, and if it’s still a little dry just add a knob of butter.Cook really slowly for another 6 to 8 minutes, until well mixed.

Next take a shallow tart dish and line it evenly with a third of the cooked flour mix. Then add a lining of dates stuffed with walnuts, and pour the remainder of the flour mix. Press down with a cloth and sprinkle the cake with the pistachios. Wait till it’s cold (you can refrigerate for half an hour if you wish) and cut into slices. This is great with a glass of  sweet wine.

 

Persian Cream: this is one of the quickest dessert you’ll ever make, again simplicity wins the day. Any kind of fresh stone fruit or berry will do with this cream, apricot, peach, strawberry etc…and it is infused with Kirsch or dark rum.

For 4 persons (double the ingredients if you need more): 1/4 liter of whole milk, 4 tablespoons of tapioca flour, 4 tablespoons castor sugar, 2 free range eggs (yolks & white separated), and you can perfume this with either Kirsch or dark rum. And whatever stone fruit or berry of your choice. A few sprigs on fresh mint will be the garnish.

Cooking this takes 5 minutes: in a pot pour the milk and the tapioca flour and cook slowly to start, until the milk is absorbed by the flour (3 minutes). Take it off the stove and add the egg yolk, the Kirsch or dark rum and cook for a further 2 minutes. When it’s done, set aside. Whip the egg whites stiff, adding the sugar as you go. When it’s done blend in carefully into the tapioca mix and pour in to serving dishes or Martini glasses. Refrigerate for a few minutes. Decorate with fruit and mint and serve.

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