Thursday, March 17, 2016

A NEW DAY - TOOT - PERSIAN MARZIPAN



♪Music we're cooking to♪  


Propel. That's a good word, Mama. - Luna

Turn up the music. The music we're cooking to.

Turn it up loud.

I mean feel the rhythm surge through your entire being and bounce off your heart kind of loud. 

Louder. Louder. Louder.  

Push aside the curtains, throw open the doors and windows. Take off your shoes, grab your children's hands, step out, throw your arms up to the sky and welcome a new day.

 NOROOZ - Persian New Year.


Mute all devices that jingle, jangle, and make you twitch and tumble. Silence all the chatter floating through invisible wires, invisible messengers. Selling invisible dreams and schemes.

But, turn up the music. 

Loud.

Throw some almond flour in a bowl, scoop in the powdered sugar, and sprinkle the cardamom.

Slowly drizzle in the rose water. Get your hands in there and make a soft dough.  

Rose water again, Mama?

A little more, Soleil. Enough to make a dough.
  
We've been using a lot of rose water these days, Mama.

And we'll be using more, Luna.

It smells like Norooz, Mama.  And I just want to swim in rose water. 

We're gonna be swimming in rose water, cardamom, nuts, saffron, greens and more greens for the next few days, girls.

And SUGAR, Mama. Don't forget about the sugar!

And sugar, girls. To sweeten our days and our hearts.

That's silly. Sugar sweetens our taste buds, Mama!



Sit back. Close your eyes and press record. Record the rhythm of their giggles. Sisters. The cadence of each breath, the crescendo of the eventual disagreement. And repeat back to the giggles. 

It's like cookie dough, Mama. Are you sure we don't have to cook it?

I'm sure, Soleil.

Can we shape them how we like, Mama? I want to make a bunny.

We call them toot because we make them look like the real toot we eat - mulberries. But you can shape them however you like, Luna. No rules for toot making.

Giggles, giggles, giggles.

Soleil, did you hear what Mama said? She said toot making! Toot! Toot!

Giggles, giggles, giggles. 

Feel the rhythm of their laughter surge through your entire being and bounce off your heart. 




Sliver a few pistachios. Stick them in the toot, like a stem. Or bunny paws. No rules.

Arrange the toot on a platter and set them on your Haft Seen Table. To sweeten your heart, your days and your taste buds. 

Gather around your Haft Seen Table and light the candles. Watch as the flames reflect off the mirror and dance to the rhythm of the music, the rhythm of their giggles, the rhythm of your heart beat.

Turn up the music loud and let the beauty of it all propel you into a new day. 

Propel into Norooz.

This we year we welcome spring and Norooz on Saturday March 19th at exactly 9:30pm PDT. I wish you all a very Happy Norooz!

And please make sure you also sweeten your taste buds with the following Norooz recipes from Persian food bloggers from around the globe.




Monday, March 14, 2016

CITY OF GOLD AND A FARRO, MUNG BEAN, CANNELLINI AASH

 Music We're Cooking To ♪

I expected food, culture, and a unique culinary guide to the city - my adopted city. 

I didn't expect the tears.

I was invited to a screening of the documentary film City of Gold about Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert. It was a mid-week event right around dinner time. Which means high level planning, texting, and coordinating by the tag team parental unit. It means somewhere between school pick-up, homework, piano and violin practice, and endless queries about when it's ok to play Minecraft, there's dinner to consider. It means preferably a one-pot meal - stove to table. Something that will satisfy and nourish. Something a six-year-old can pick at and deconstruct to the daily (hourly?) whims of her palate. Something for which a nine-year-old will happily lick her bowl clean. All of which translates to aash - a hearty Persian soup. Use up whatever is within reach kind of aash. 



I take my seat in the intimate theater. The lights dim and Laura Gabbert's lens invites us to ride shotgun along side Mr. Gold. He guides us through the streets of his beloved Los Angeles with ease, respect, curiosity and a local's sense of love and authority. A true reflection of what has made him and his columns so adored by Angelenos and beyond. He weaves on and off our Escherian freeways in search of a taco truck, a hot dog stand, Szechuan, very spicy Thai, Oaxacan, fancy French fare, Ethiopian, grasshoppers with Ruth Reichl, and a brief stop at the always reliable and delicious Attari for a little taste of Iran. 

What shines brightest in City of Gold, what resonated most deeply with me, what grabbed my heart and lodged a lump deep in my throat are the stories behind the food. Laura Gabbert touchingly captures Mr. Gold's gift to shine a light on these stories. The people, the families, the struggles and successes, life in the diaspora, life in every corner of Los Angeles.

Mr. Gold's dedicated pursuit of the next satisfying meal reveals the many colors of the mosaic that makes up Los Angeles. We are reminded that our communities are alive and bursting with all sorts of flavors, people and stories - we just need to venture out a little more east, south, north and west to discover them. To break bread with them

This aash is a reflection of the flavors and ingredients that have journeyed with me from east to west. A mix of flavors that bring comfort in their familiarity. There is the abundance of fresh greens so beloved in Iranian cooking, the chewy bite of Italian farro, a mix of creamy cannellini and mung beans, a whole leek - white and green parts, mini-meatballs mixed with fresh herbs and Parmesan (for added flavor and more importantly because that's how my kids love them) and a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt to bring it all to life.

The true spirit of aash-making is not in how accurately you measure, or use these ingredients exactly as dictated. Aash is generous in spirit and very forgiving. If you don't have mung beans on hand try lentils, or substitute rice or noodles for the farro. For a vegetarian option, leave out the meatballs. Don't get too caught up on how big or small your bundle of greens is. Reach deep in the back crevices of your fridge and revive the forgotten and neglected. This is also a great dish to use the whey (from straining yogurt) sitting in your fridge door, politely waiting for its turn to be asked to the dance. If you don't have whey, not a problem, just use water.This recipe can serve as a guide as your pantry, crisper and taste buds lead the way. From east, south, north and west.

At a time when there is so much talk about building walls to separate - Laura Gabbert and City of Gold quietly offer Jonathan Gold, an ambassador of sorts. A not so anonymous, suspenders and bowler hat-clad food critic - crossing bridges, and overpasses in his green pickup truck - connecting us to our neighbors. One dish at a time. 




Monday, December 21, 2015

CLINGING TO FREDDY MERCURY AND A POT OF RICE - ZERESHK POLO - BARBERRIES AND RICE



Zereshk - barberries - like memories - first need to be sorted through.  Scatter them on a plate as you would dried legumes, and with a discerning eye pick out the older, shriveled and darker looking ones.  Hang on to the bright crimson ones.  Occasionally you might come across a small stone, pebble, or something of the sort.  Give those the boot as well.  While you're at it remove the little stems tooSometimes I skip this step.  Like other things in life it all depends on my patience level, and the all-too-demanding tick-tock of the clock.  


It's 1977, maybe 1978.  When you are very young the magnitude of every hour, day and month is never lost on you. You proudly announce your age by year, month, day, even minute.  Making sure no one mistakes the six-year-old you for the much younger five-and-a-half-year-old you. When later in life you look through the long lens of memory, the years meld into one.  And now you refrain from any unnecessary age announcements. 

Next give the zereshk a bath.  Even on lazy days follow through with this step.  Place them in a bowl and fill with cold water.  Let them sit and soak for about 15 minutes. Observe as the ruby red jewels re-hydrate, plump up and rise to the top as all the sand settles to the bottom. Best to leave the dirt and detritus behind.  In life and cookery.  Reach in and gently lift up the barberries (you can use your hands or a very small mesh colander for this) without disturbing the sand that has settled on the bottom. Place the barberries in a small colander, give a quick rinse and set aside to drain.

My older brother Ramin and I take our positions at either end of the carpet adorning the family room floor.  A recurring game of koshti - wrestling face-off between siblings.  The sizzle of the onions hitting the hot butter catches me off-guard and within a few seconds the heady aroma of onions melting and caramelizing sneaks out of the kitchen. Winding its path beyond the piano (a constant reminder to practice), and stops short at the large living room windows.  There it lingers in awe of the first snowfall of the season settling on the window sills. Just in time for Yalda night  - the winter solstice. Overnight Tehran will be covered in a peaceful blanket of white. Hypnotized and distracted by the scents and sounds my eyes scan past Ramin, who is ready to charge, and fall upon our mother in the kitchen, rhythmically lifting the tart, jewel-like zereshk in and out of the bowl. I overhear our parents' conversation. Like the onions, it sizzles and softens, casually weaving in and out of earshot. There's talk of a possible trip to the mountains to enjoy the first snowfall. There's also murmurs of unrest on the streets.  With a yek-doh-seh my brother and I charge at each other.  I give it all my little body has to give.  He lets me win.  He always lets me win.  A typical weekend.  It's Tehran.  But it could be anywhere. 

Caramelizing onions is a test in time, patience and heat control.  But where there is great effort, there is also great reward.  Most of the time.  When making zeresk polo I like to caramelize the onions in butter for a silkier, nuttier, and of course tastier, finish.  Start at a higher temperature and stir often.  At this point you'll need to use all senses to determine when to turn down the heat.  Listen to the sizzle, stick your nose in there, and keep a close eye on those onions.  Play with your heat source and don't get discouraged - it takes time.  Ultimately, after about 45 minutes the onions will shrink,  sweeten and turn into a sticky rich shade of brown - caramel like.  Some pieces turn darker and crunchier than others.  Add the barberries to the caramelized onion at the very end.  Barberries can burn very quickly so they only need a quick saute, no more than 3-5 minutes.       
 
It's 1980, maybe 1981.  Snowfall in Rome is rare, but then again the past year or so has been anything but ordinary.  The murmurs of unrest turned into demonstrations, which turned into revolution, which turned into blackouts, sirens and bombs.   All that and so much more is now behind you.  What's ahead is unknown, uncertain, unnerving.  But when you are young all that matters is what's in front of you.  And on this particular day it's a few flakes of snow ushering in a new season and gently dusting the eternal city. 

Gently simmering chicken in its own juices and saffron is one of the simplest and most satisfying dishes ever.  Even if you don't scatter the chicken pieces in between the rice and barberries for the zereshk polo make this chicken and serve it with a side of plain rice, or roasted potatoes or scoop up with a warm piece of bread, like lavash or sangak.  I like to use skinless, boneless chicken (except for drumsticks that are on the bone).  If you prefer you can use thighs on the bone, with the skin on.  Just make sure you remove the skin before adding it to the rice.      

Ramin instructs me to take my place at the other end of the living room, which also serves as the entrance, the family room, the dining room and my bedroom.  There's no space to charge at one other. I'm told to just stand, listen, and have my life as I knew it altered forever.  My brother is now a full-fledged teenager and this is how teens speak.  As I wait for further instructions I glimpse Baba anxiously flip through the newspaper.  

"Anything?" Maman asks.  

Anything about all that was left behind.  Everyone that was left behind.  Anything about what lies ahead. 

Anything.  Anything. Anything.  

I hear the trepidation in her voice but I watch as her hand remains steady as she meticulously scatters the barberries, and the saffron chicken in between the rice.  With the future unknown all we can do is take charge of what is in front us.  She calls out that she's put aside a few chicken pieces for us to snack on.  I especially like to gnaw on the drumsticks.  My brother declares the ubiquitous yek-doh-seh. He reaches over to the black cassette player and presses play.

Life alters. 

Just like loobia polo or sabzi polo, I prefer to make zereshk polo by layering the barberries, onions, and chicken in between layers of par-boiled rice and then steaming it all.  The barberries will bleed their crimson hue into the rice in this process so I like to set aside a couple of spatulas full of the barberries and onions to scatter over the entire dish when serving. Allowing the gems to shine.  You can always also make a pot of rice and add the chicken and barberries to it when serving.  But I find the rice absorbing the flavors and juices of the saffron chicken and onion/barberries mix to be essential in this dish.  It's also the only way I was able convert my six-year-old into a zereshk polo lover.             

It's 1983, maybe 1984.  The unknown presented itself in the shape and form of Canada and you adapted.  That's what happens when you're young - you adapt. To the rain. To the lush green maple trees and brown squirrels. To the questions, the assumptions, and presumptions.   

Ramin tells me to sit downI do as I'm told.  It is apparent he has important information to share with me.  As I take a seat I watch Baba set the table.  Ramin tells me to focus and listen closely to what he is about to tell me.  I try to focus but am instantly distracted by the cloud of steam rising from behind him.  Maman lifts the towel covered lid to the rice pot and instantly the windows fog over.  For a brief moment I spy flakes of snow descending down on our rainy town of Vancouver.  A moment to be celebrated. The steam carries with it the scent of Iranian rice, ruby red barberries and saffron chicken.  The scent of home - wherever that may be.  The very scent that has enamored my newly made Canadian friends with our food and in return with us.  I quickly look back to Ramin and lock eyes with him, giving him all my attention.  The scent of zereshk polo circles us both. I close my eyes.  It's Tehran, it's Rome, it's Vancouver.   There is a comfort, a safety in it all.    

"Freddy Mercury is Persian" declares my brother with pride.  

I open my eyes. He smiles.  I smile back.  The scent of the rice and Ramin's revelation have us both drunk with hope.  They are gifts. Gifts to deflect all the mind-boggling questions, assumptions, presumptions and misunderstood notions of who we are and where we came from with the appropriation of a genuine rock star - a rock god - and a steaming pot of rice jeweled with tart, crimson berries. 

It's 2015, soon to be 2016.  Snow flakes are a fairy tale mystery in Los Angeles, as are drops of rain these days.  Turns out Freddy Mercury isn't Persian.  It didn't take us long to figure this out.  But it doesn't matter.  He was Persian for us when we most needed him to be.  And after all these years I find myself once again reaching for Freddy and an unmistakable fragrant pot of Iranian rice.  To explain it all.  The questions, assumptions, and presumptions. Everything and anything.

Anything.  Anything.  Anything.  

*********************

Wishing you all a light filled, healthy and peaceful Shabeh Yalda - Winter Solstice 2015.  Please also enjoy these posts for Yalda night from fellow Persian food bloggers around the globe: