Monday, March 16, 2015

SCATTERED SHOWERS - A GREEN HERB RICE - SABZI POLO



I wish we could all be together this Nowruz.

I wish we weren't all scattered across the country.

Scattered across the continent.

Scattered across the globe.

She sits in her dedicated spot at our kitchen table.  Her words echo through the kitchen, twisting and turning, bouncing off you, looking and yearning for a spot to land, eventually finding their way out - seduced by the wide open door and a gentle late winter breeze.

Scattering across our parched lawn.

Across our parched city.

Across the country, the continent, the globe.

Slowly and meticulously she sorts through the bunches upon bunches of green herbs scattered before her.   

Parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, tarragon, fenugreek, spinach, green onion, mint.

Fragrant and willing representatives of new life, new beginnings, and Spring.  Nowruz.  Persian New Year.

Back in those days - when I was a little girl - in Iran - everyone started their khooneh takooni - the shaking out of the house weeks before the new year.

She moves on to the cilantro.  Notoriously difficult to sort through.  Methodically her aged but still elegant hands pick the leaves off the stems.  Setting the stems aside for a broth to be used for aash-e reshteh.

Windows would be washed, closets and attics would be sorted through, rugs would be swept and hung out to freshen up.

You turn your head, look over your shoulder, and sneak a quick glance at your carpet.  Faded - but ever present markings of a certain time, a certain age staring right back at you.  The spinach smoothie that got knocked over, the blueberry sauce that didn't quite make it to its destination, the chocolate shavings forever embedded into its mosaic theme.  

Then, on the night of Chaharshanbeh Suri (the last Tuesday night before Nowruz) my Aunt - Ammeh joon and Uncle - Amoo joon would take me to the Chaharshanbeh Suri bazaar.  This was one of the joys of our childhood.

You glance up at the clock, hurriedly grab the sorted bunches of parsley, dill and chives and escort them to the sink.  Scattering the herbs across the cool water.

All the streets would be lit up with lights, candles, colorful balloons, all sorts of decorations.  The scent of the sonbol (hyacinth) drunkenly guiding us through the streets and alleyways.

She slowly but purposefully makes her way to the sink, nudging you away.  You've rinsed the herbs twice.  She thinks they need another rinse.  Her hands reach into the cool water and gently, respectfully lift the greens in and out of the water.

Scattered showers.

Joyful music filled the streets.  Everyone would be out selling their goods. Ajeeleh Chaharshanbeh Suri Tabrizi, the mixed nuts from Tabriz was the best.  And all the kids would get to pick out their favorite candy.  Everyone loved khooroos ghandi - the rooster-shaped, sweet, hard candy.

You quickly lay out fresh towels.  And she patiently scatters the herbs across it to dry.  A field of greens on your kitchen table.  A most familiar sight. 

Ammeh joon would do all her own Nowruz baking.  All the families did their own baking then.  Noon berenji (rice flour cookies) as thin as a piece of paper, noon nokhodchi (chickpea cookies) that would melt in your mouth.  All baked on the manghal (a charcoal grill).

You grab the 10 lb sack of rice and watch as each grain clink-clanks into the bowl.  A most familiar sound.  You rinse the rice a few times - just like she taught you.  Swirling it around and around with your finger.  Rinse, drain, repeat until the water runs clear.  Add fresh water and salt and set aside to soak for at least one hour.  Just as she taught you.

Of course, Ammeh joon and all the ladies would pamper themselves days before Nowruz. Hair would be done, new clothes purchased, make-up beautifully applied.    Everything and everyone should be fresh and new.  Ammeh joon - she had the most beautiful, almond shaped, kohl-rimmed eyes.  Those eyes.  Those eyes.

Once again you transfer the herbs from the kitchen table back to the counter, to the food processor.  Working in batches you pulse away until they are finely chopped.  But not too finely chopped.  It's always a balancing act.  

We used to do all this chopping by hand.  A bunch of herbs, a board, and a knife.

Pulse.  Pulse.  Pulse.

It's much easier and faster now with these machines. 

Pulse.  Pulse.  Pulse.

But what you gain in time, you lose in flavor.  There's something about the blade of the knife that retains the fragrance and flavor of these delicate greens.  But who has the time and patience now to chop all this by hand. 

You bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  You add the rice.

And there you pause.  

Simultaneously.  Both of you.  Mother and daughter.  At the rice pot.  

Tradition, culture and the meaning of life contained in this one critical moment.  Exactly when to drain the rice. 

Each grain of rice should soften on the inside but still have a bite to it.  Not too soon, not too late.

A balancing act. 

You gently nudge her out of the way and grab the rice pot.  Moving the pot from the stove to the sink is not an easy task for her anymore.

You drain the rice as now she gently nudges you out of the way to scatter some fresh water over the rice.

And then came Nowruz. The Sofreh Haft Seen would be set and we'd all gather around it.  Ammeh joon always took such care to set out the most beautiful Sofreh Haft Seen.  The same Zari (ornamental cloth) that you use now for your sofreh - she used then.  And Amoo joon who was the elder of the family always had a bowl full of gold coins ready to be handed out.  For prosperity, for luck in the new year.  




You watch the butter melt, as she sprinkles the saffron.  She scatters the rice over the bottom of the pot.  The tahdig layer.  She sets aside a cup full of freshly chopped herbs and scatters the rest - parsley, cilantro, fresh dill, chives, fenugreek - over the rice.  And then some dried dill. 

Back to the rice.  The herbs.  The dill.  Repeat.  Top off with a couple of fresh spring garlic.  For its flavor, for its aroma.  For spring.  

I can still smell and taste our Nowruz meal.  The koo koo sazi, aash-e reshteh, the smoked fish, the white fish.  

You wrap a fresh towel over the lid and cover the pot.  Let it steam and work its magic for an hour. 

And of course it wouldn't be Nowruz without Sabzi Polo - Green Herb Rice.  Ammeh joon would always first set aside the best part of the tahdig for me.  Just like I used to do for you and your brother.  Just like you do now for the girls.    

She lifts the lid off the pot and instantly the steam, and fragrant aromas of the herbs and rice echo through the kitchen, twisting and turning, bouncing off you, looking and yearning for a spot to land, eventually finding their way out - seduced by the wide open door and a gentle late winter breeze.

You set the platter right next to her.  She makes room for you.  But you ask her to serve the sabzi polo.  Somehow, it always tastes better if she serves it.  You watch as she delicately scatters the rice across the platter, followed by a layer of the fresh herbs she had set aside.  Scatter the rice, scatter the fresh herbs, repeat, and top with golden saffron rice.  

 I wish we could all be together for Nowruz.  Everyone.  Even those that are long gone. 

You take her hand and walk her to her spot at the kitchen table.  As unexpected drops of rain fall to the ground. Taking your breath away.

Scattered showers.

The promise of new life, new beginnings, togetherness, a brand new year, Spring. 

Nowruz.     


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This year we celebrate Nowruz on Friday, March 20th, 2015 at precisley 3:45pm PDT.  Please take a moment to also enjoy the many tempting Nowruz dishes below from talented Persian food bloggers around the globe.  Happy Nowruz!  



Monday, March 9, 2015

SHIO KOJI - A ROUND KITCHEN


Dear friends, I am truly humbled to be included as a finalist in the 2015 IACP Digital Media Awards for Best Narrative Culinary Blog.  What a great privilege and honor to be recognized amongst such amazing, talented individuals.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart (and pot!) for all your kind words, support and encouragement.  It means the world to me.  Go Tahdig!

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♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO ♪

We have a globe. Of the light-up variety. Of the round variety.  

Because the world is round, Mama.  It's the truth, Mama. 

It's the kind the girls love to spin and spin, and then randomly bring to a sudden stop.  Mother Earth graciously, patiently, holding still as their little fingers gently but methodically trace a path through her every field and valley, across mountain ranges and tundra, seas, lakes and oceans. All in a matter of seconds. 

As fast as the speed, Mama.

It's called the speed of light, Luna.

Is that faster than the speed of infinity, Mama?

Explorers on an expedition. Little fingers claiming birth places, lived-in places, want-to-visit places, random, exotic, mysterious places.  When you are five and eight years old, the globe holds an immeasurable, magical sense of mystery and respect.  

As it should. 

For us all. 

Whether your globe lights up or not. 

Shio koji literally translates to sea salt and koji. Koji is rice or soybeans that has been inoculated with a culture called Aspergillus oryzae.  The same culture/mold can be found in soy sauce, miso and sake.  The popularity of shio koji exploded in Japan about five years ago. But it is deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of food and fermentation that are thousands of years old. And it has happily found its way into my kitchen.

I have my Japanese step-mother Kumi to thank for introducing me not only to this flavorful ingredient, but to the many beauties and majesties of Japanese culture.





Shio koji.

Little fingers search and search but are unable to trace its history back through the rice fields of Gilan.  

No verses of poetry to compare it to zaferan, talayeh sorkheh Khorasan - the prized flaming, golden saffron from Khorasan.  

No documented mentions of world-wise and travel-weary merchants along the silk road expounding on its powers of umami as they whetted their palates on the cha'i from Laheejan. As they bit into the chewy, fragrant, and sweet gaz from Esfahan, nesfeh jahan. Half the world, in Esfahan. 


To prepare shio koji, rice koji, sea salt, and water are combined and left to ferment for about seven days. After fermentation the shio koji is stored in the fridge and used as a salt replacement in various sauces, vinaigrettes, dressing for vegetables, and particularly delicious when used in marinades.  Kumi uses her shio koji in just about everything - like adding a small amount to her morning oatmeal. 

Shio koji delivers an incredible umami punch in the same way that anchovies, tomato paste and kashk do.  And since it is a fermented food you can benefit from its naturally occurring pro-biotics.  Shio koji can be purchased already prepared in a paste form from Japanese supermarkets (I have not seen it yet at any other markets - please leave a comment below if you have) or online.  But it is very simple and much less costly to prepare at home.  And preparing it at home satisfies my appreciation for the simplicity, and magical mystery of fermentation.  

I follow Kumi's instructions when making shio koji.  You need rice koji, fine grain sea salt (I've been emphatically told it has to be sea salt - no table salt please!), a jar, and time to ferment.  Rice koji can be found online, and here, and at Japanese grocery stores.  

Kumi has given me the measurements by metric weight as it is most accurate, so I highly recommend using a scale when measuring out the ingredients.  The measurements below are for a 1 liter glass jar.  You can also easily halve this recipe.  Any left over rice koji can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Place 400 grams rice koji in a bowl.



Break up any clumped up pieces of rice.



Add anywhere between 140-160 grams of fine grain sea salt to the rice.




Combine the sea salt and the rice koji by kneading the two ingredients by hand for about 5 minutes. During this process the rice koji and sea salt will start to come together. As you knead, you should be able to form a clump in your hands like loose pie dough coming together. During this process you should also be able to smell a slight malty aroma, similar to soy sauce.

Using a spoon, transfer the rice koji/sea salt to a sterilized 1 liter glass jar and add 500ml water.  Make sure there is enough water to fully cover the surface of the koji.



Place the cap on the jar and store at room temperature to ferment for 7-10 days.  The length of fermentation depends on room temperature.  It is important to stir the shio koji once a day by lifting the rice up and over from the bottom of the jar. This method of stirring allows for oxygen to circulate.  By days 7-10 the rice granules should be softened and there should be a distinct fermented and malty aroma.  This is how you know the shio koji is ready and has reached full flavor.  You can taste the shio koji.  The rice granules should have softened.  It might taste rather salty but don't panic; this will temper over time.  At this point you can place the shio koji in a food processor and process to a smooth paste.  Kumi doesn't process her shio koji, but I sometimes prefer it smooth.  Store the shio koji in the fridge and use as needed. It will keep in the fridge for up to 6 months.  

Generally, when using shio koji as a salt substitute you can use 2 teaspoons of shio koji for 1 teaspoon of salt. When using as a marinade the general rule of thumb is the ratio 10:1. For every 100 grams of food use 10 grams of shio koji.  Also, take note that shio koji can burn at very high temperatures.  So stick to moderate heat.




 “Nana korobi ya oki”  “Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight.”  Japanese proverb.

Little fingers traced and searched but couldn't find the bridge connecting the shio koji to their mother's birth place.  

Alas, all well mapped out and thought through expeditions must eventually come to an end.  

Make their way back home.  

For rest.  For provisions.  For a hug.  

And just like that little fingers lift off the globe, bid Mother Earth adieu with a dizzying final spin, and fly towards the kitchen. Crashing into the arms, warmth and comforts of their Mama. Recounting harrowing tales of their journeys.

Simultaneously.

At the speed of infinity.

All the while keeping a close eye on their Mama as she reaches in the fridge for Grandma Kumi's shio koji with one hand while stretching her other arm towards the spice cupboard for the zaferan, talayeh sorkheh Khorasan.

A bridge.  A path.  A connection. 

What's for dinner, Mama?

A most umami packed, golden roast chicken.

* All Japanese tea ceremony photos are courtesy of Ramin Deravian copyright 2015


Friday, February 6, 2015

TASTE - A COLLARD GREENS BORANI - COLLARD GREENS WITH YOGURT AND CARAMELIZED RED ONION SUMAC

 ♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO ♪

Raw honey.  

Like the jar from Trader Joe's.  

Dripping in gold, warmth, and sweetness.

My daughter's eyes, Soleil's eyes, the sun's eyes, shimmer like raw honey.

Dripping in gold. 

Showering us with warmth, sweetness, and unyielding love.

And occasionally stubbornness, and intense, deeply felt, unyielding five-year-old emotions.

Pure and raw.

These are the very same - stop you in your tracks, take hold of your heart and soul - eyes that stare back at me.  

Piercing right through me with passion, vehemence, and absolute indignation at 4pm on New Year's Eve. 

We are both splayed out on the kitchen floor with me holding a spoon of blueberry sauce inches from her face.

The concoction slowly but purposefully working its way down the wooden spoon, onto my hand, circling my wrist, trailing my well-pronounced bluish purple veins, down my arm and delicately drip, drip, dripping on to the wood floor.

The blueberry sauce has brought us to our knees. 
 
Literally.  

Well, actually, even lower than our knees.  

Onto our bellies. 

I have quite a fondness for all things bitter.  The bitter-sour in combination agree with my taste buds the most.  Especially bitter greens.  Arugula, frisee, escarole, radicchio, rapini, endive, dandelion greens, mustard greens...Maybe my exposure to Italian food as a child (bitter greens) and Persian food (all things sour) has had a hand in shaping and nurturing my taste buds.  

But for the longest time there has been one bitter green that I just couldn't come to embrace.  Collard greens.  Not that I would ever turn away collards, unless they've been boiled down to mush.  That goes for any vegetable boiled to oblivion.  But collards wouldn't be my first choice of greens.  Again, perhaps my lack of exposure to these beloved greens of American Southern cuisine has something to do with it.  

It also just so happens that this time of year our farm box and the farmer's markets explode with such greens.  And so inevitably I can expect a bunch of collards in our farm box every week.  Normally, I treat collards as I do other greens.  Simply.  Saute in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, hit it with some sort of acid, add a little water (if needed), put a lid on it and give the rather tough leaves time to soften and tenderize.  But, recently I decided to treat my collards and my taste buds to a special treat. 

To a most trusted and loyal friend. 

"...my late night confidante, my consigliere..."

Yogurt.

A borani

 

Her blood courses through mine.

As does mine through hers.

Her passion matches mine.

As does her flair for drama.

And much can be said about the paralyzing stubbornness that occasionally takes hold of our bodies and selfishly refuses to let go.

She stands her ground. (Well, more like the wood floor she is splayed across)

Unwavering and proud.

As do I.

Unwavering.

And proud.

But, Mama I don't like blueberry sauce!

Soleil, I added maple syrup to it this time.  Just taste it.  It's sweet!

Mama, you always tell me to listen to my body.  And my body is telling me I DON'T LIKE BLUEBERRY SAUCE!!!

Well, your body doesn't know what it's talking about right now.  I put MAPLE SYRUP in it!!! 

Borani is a side dish or dip made with thick, creamy yogurt and an array of vegetables or herbs.  It really speaks to the Persian (and my) love affair with yogurt.  My favorite borani as a child and perhaps the most well-known one is borani-e esfenaj.  In our house we simply call it mast o esfenaj - yogurt and spinach.  Also, a great way to get the little ones to eat their spinach.  Keeping with my theory that everything just tastes better with yogurt added to it, I decided to put this to the test with my troublesome greens - collard greens.  And the results are fantastic.  I first saute the greens with onion, garlic and turmeric.  Then add a splash of water to the pan and put the lid on it and give the greens time to slowly soften.  I cook the greens just long enough to tenderize but still maintain their rich color.  I have also added plump raisins to this dish for extra texture and a little something sweet to chew on. Once the collards cool slightly I mix in the yogurt and a splash of vinegar (you could also use lemon juice).  You can't have bitter without sour. The vinegar also helps to balance out the sweetness of the raisins.  The borani can be served as it is at this point, you could even sprinkle the top with some walnuts.  But what makes this dish really sing is the caramelized red onion with sumac.  You need these onions in your life.  Be it topping this borani, or gracing a salad, burgers, meats.  Make a big batch and have on hand in the fridge - to use at all times. 

This collard greens borani is great served as a dip with some warm flat bread to scoop up all the creamy goodness.  It also makes a great side dish alongside a roasted chicken or grilled fish.  Or, my occasional favorite 10 pm cuddle on the couch with the borani bowl nestled snugly in my lap and a bag of crunchy chips at my side (Trader Joe's organic yellow corn tortilla chip rounds, if you care to know).  A meditative and quiet time (save for the crunching of the chips).  A time for self-reflection.  Where I get to acknowledge that sometimes my body doesn't know what it's talking about either when it comes to collard greens.  All I needed to do is give them another try with a dollop of yogurt.  And then just taste and marvel at the goodness of it all.      


They stand above us - my husband and my first-born.  

Luna.  My moon girl.

Representatives of peace, truth, justice and all things fair.

Embodying all that we wish the UN could really be.

They look down at us and the blueberry spoon with kindness and curiosity.

Ok you two - time to separate you.  

Says my husband as he scoops up our second born off the floor and gently cradles her in his arms and carries her off for a game of Pretty, Pretty, Princess.

Luna bends her body just so, to get a better look at me and my situation.

I lift my head slightly and come face to face with those heart melting almond shaped, chestnut brown eyes.  

Warm, deep and all encompassing.

Mama?  Can I lick that spoon?


Thursday, December 18, 2014

A WINTER'S TALE AND A POMEGRANATE SOUP - SHAB-E YALDA - AASH-E ANAR


Yeky bood, yeky nabood...

'Twas the longest night of the year.

'Twas the darkest night of the year.

'Twas the most magical night of the year.

Soak the rice as the split peas simmer away.  Immerse your hands in the cold water and gently break up the rice into bits and pieces. Feel the familiar beat of nostalgia course through your body.  Memory knocking at your door.  It always begins with a gentle knock. Patiently waiting for permission to enter.  Sometimes you grant it - sometimes you don't. It's a slippery slope - the unpaved road to nostalgia and memory. You often tread those loose cobblestones cautiously. But tonight you are in a generous mood. It's a night of celebration.  A night of light, poetry, food, music, laughter, dancing, stories, family, jokes, togetherness, and a warm and tangy crimson-hued Aash-e Anar - Pomegranate Soup. You gently shake the rice off your fingers, dry your hands and place a firm grip on memory's door. Wildly swinging it open. Welcoming with it a howling gust of wind echoing with tales of  

Shab-e Yalda/Shab-e Chelleh.

Winter Solstice - December 21, 2014.


'Tis the one night of the year children are allowed to stay up all night. 

(Only to inevitably fall asleep at the foot of the korsi.  In the warmth of their grandmother's lap.) 

Giddy with anticipation of outlasting the long and dark night and welcoming a new crimson dawn.

Turn the music up.  Let its joyful rhythm, fervor and urgency draw your girls down the stairs. Add the rice to the aash along with a sprig of mint. Stir, stir and stir some more. The split peas have a tendency to stick.

What's he singing about, Mama? -Luna


I'm not sure. It's in Kurdish. I think it's a love song.

Who are Kurdishes, Mama? -Soleil

Friends and neighbors.

Interlace your fingers with your moon and sun and start spinning.  Orbiting around one another.  Shake your hair out, shimmy your hips, spin, spin and spin some more. Let yourself get lost in the moment.  Catch the sun's light reflect off the moon and bounce around the room.  A magical night, after all.  Spin, spin, and spin some more.  Jump and sing along until your heart can't take it anymore.  Collapse on the floor.  Only to get back up and repeat it all. 



 

'Tis the night of Yalda - birth.  

The birth of the sun.  

As light, love, truth and wisdom prevail over darkness.

Start on the meatballs.  Put the girls to work.  Add the parsley, cilantro, dill and advieh to the mixture.  Now listen - don't get too crazy measuring out the chopped herbs.  Grab a handful and chop away.  What you don't use in the meatballs you can use as garnish on the aash.  Place a small bowl of water next to the girls and show them how to wet their hands a little before forming the mini-meatballs.  Show them how small you want them. Bite your tongue and move away (go stir the aash) as they start forming odd shapes and sizes.  Let them get lost in the moment. 

'Tis a well-told and oft-repeated tale.

Told by ancient Persians six thousand years ago.

Told by George Lucas. In six parts.  Soon to be seven.

Set the Yalda table.  A study in various shades of red. All to symbolize a crimson dawn - the light of life. Watermelon for protection against excess heat in the summer months. Pomegranates and red pears to ward off insect bites.

Just like those patches we put on to keep away the mosquitos when we went camping.  Remember, Mama?

I remember, Soleil.
 
Dried fruits and nuts for an abundant and prosperous harvest. Candles to light the house and keep darkness at bay. Garlic for joint pain.

Mama, do your joints hurt?

Not right now, Luna.  But just in case... 

Divan-e Hafez to stir your soul and look into your future. And a crimson-hued wine to stir your thoughts and reminisce of days long gone.  A magical night, after all.

'Twas a well fought battle.

With no end in sight.

As the night raged on and on.
 
Gently drop the meatballs in the pot. Grate the beet and let its juices drip through your fingers and into the aash.  Chalk it up to more good luck. Hold the bottle of pomegranate molasses high above your caldron as you release its contents. Stir, stir and stir some more, then cover.

But where there is dusk - there is dawn.

And the sun always rises. 

She always rises.

Serve the warm and tangy crimson-hued Aash-e Anar as the girls crack open the walnuts.  Duck as walnut shells ricochet off the walls.

Mama, can we please stay up all night?  Please?

Yeky bood, yeky nabood... 

Wishing you all a very joyful and happy Yalda and Holidays. Please make sure you also check out the wonderful Yalda posts below. Plenty to tempt you with for this Yalda night.






Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE CHEF, THE QUINCE, HIS THOUGHTS AND HER PIE - A QUINCE AND LABNEH PIE

♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO ♪

You give the wobbly wheel a swift kick right where it counts and knock it back into place.  You may or may not utter a few unsavory words.  You and your traveling companion -  an old laundry basket on wheels - hurdle your way down the blocked off street.  Giving a quick hello to the lovely farmer who sells your precious sweet lemons to your left, and a nod of the head to the organic dates guy, who is perpetually singing "get your nature's candy" to your right. 

The Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer's Market.


You try to keep your cool with the clog of human traffic.  Casually milling about, admiring the finger limes and slowly savoring the chocolate persimmon.  You contemplate the cute  wicker baskets (pinterest & instagram-worthy) fashionably swung on the arms of the equally cute and hip young shoppers.  

You come to a sudden standstill. 

You utter a few more unsavory words.

You give the rickety old wheel another kick.

You re-contemplate the cute wicker baskets.

And just as quickly you and your ever-so-moody lower back dismiss the idea.  Cute wicker baskets just don't cut it when you're hauling four pounds of sweet lemons, four pounds of fava beans, an armful of sour green plums, and bags upon bags of fresh herbs.

You dodge the huge restaurant crates coming at you, overflowing with edible flowers, beets and squash of every color and dimension.  You start to panic. You're too late.  You utter a few more unsavory words at the clog of machinery that had you stuck on the Escherian stairwell, also known as the Santa Monica Freeway. 

And then with no fan fare, with no trumpets blowing or declarations you spot her.  You spot a whole table full of them.  Quince.  Beh

You don't approach.  You admire them from afar.  You wave hello to the farmer enlisted with the delicate task of protecting these blushing beauties.  You walk right past them, thinking you'll come right back to them.  Right after you make your way to the end of the market to pick up the pomegranate.  You make your way down to the pomegranate stand in a daze. Your head swimming with thoughts of rose water, creamy labneh, and fragrant behA pie.  The whole thing pretty much comes together right there before your eyes as you gently place the pomegranate in the well-traveled and well-lived laundry cart, and make your way back to the blushing beauties.


What do you mean you sold out of them?  There was a whole table full of them just five minutes ago!

Your hands are gesticulating madly (as they quite often are wont to do).  A farcical pantomime of recreating the picturesque (pinterest & instagram worthy) table overflowing with the quince.  You know if you give a convincing performance the quince will magically reappear.  If you believe it, they will come.

You didn't do so well in mime class.

Physical theatre was never your forte.

The quince do not reappear.   

There sure was - but then came along the chef and he carted them all way.  Who knows what he's going to do with them all.  Who knows what he's thinking.

The farmer is matter of fact and kind.  He once invited you to a Halloween party.  You politely declined.  

Your eyes dart back and forth between the tomatoes, the sun chokes, the bell peppers, and the pumpkin.  All that pumpkin.  So much beauty, so much color.  But none of it registers.  None of it matters. The one and only thing that brought you here is gone.  

Absconded by the chef.  

And his thoughts.

What was he thinking? 

Was he thinking of taking out the rose water and gently sprinkling it, flicking it lightly with his fingers over the softening quince?  Did he look away as they blushed?  Was he thinking of stirring the cardamom into the labneh, and then stirring in some more because his eight-year-old thought it needed more?  Did he make his own labneh?  Was he thinking of layering it all in a flaky, buttery pie crust to be garnished with flecks of pistachios and ruby red jewels - pomegranate arils?  Did he offer a piece to his five-year-old only to be curtly and unequivocally rejected?  Was he thinking of saving and drying the quince seeds to use later as a hot tea to cure a nasty winter's cough - just as his mother had instructed him to?  Did he watch with delight as his eight-year-old stepped right into the photo and scooped out the creamy labneh with a piece of quince?  Did he savor a piece all to himself with a cup of bergamot-infused black tea - only to have the moment interrupted by the everyday bickering of sisters? 

What was he thinking? 

 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

THE SPICE CUPBOARD - A STORY OF LOVE - A YELLOW SPLIT PEA AND PERSIAN LIME STEW - KHORESH GHEYMEH
























 ♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO ♪

Casually he lifts up his shirt.  Revealing cuts and bruises.  A skateboarding injury.  Meant to impress I think.  He keeps the shirt up for a beat longer than necessary.  Awkwardly lingering in the moment.  Electrifying and innocent all at the same time. As a young man in his early twenties - really, still a boy - is apt to do.  

Casually I ask him if he needs an icepack. As I lean a shoulder into the very white wall of my new apartment.  

Leaning into my new life.  

Leaning into a new city they call Angels.

Leaning into the blue of his eyes.

Leaning into a new friend. 

Pretending not to notice that he has held up his shirt just a little longer than necessary.  

Pretending not to notice the social gathering of butterflies in my stomach. Pretending that it's just hunger pangs.  As a young woman in her early twenties - really, still a girl - is apt to do.

I should make him a soup or maybe a khoresh - a stew - I think. The kind of stew that you long for when the weather starts to turn.  When a long forgotten chill taps on your window panes, and settles in for a good long stay.  Taking your breath away every time. The kind of stew that takes you by the waist and embraces you with warmth and doesn't let go. The kind that heals cuts and bruises. The kind that calms the whisper of  butterflies. 

Khoresh Gheymeh is the ultimate late-fall/winter stew.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Yotam Ottolenghi at an event for his recent book Plenty More.  The conversation turned to Persian food and Mr. Ottolenghi remarked on how Persian food is really homemade cooking at its very best. I couldn't agree more.  And this stew is a perfect example of such.  I like to make a big batch on a Sunday and hypnotize my family with its tantalizing aromas of faraway lands.  Khoresh Gheymeh is a hearty stew so I like to serve it with brown rice, a side of mast-o-khiar, and fresh herbs to balance out the whole meal.  What we don't devour right away gets portioned out for school, work lunches and the freezer - when in a few weeks you can once again indulge yourself and your family to a fantastic and comforting mid-week meal.  

Typically this stew is made with beef or lamb, yellow split peas, advieh - Persian spice mix, limoo omani - Persian dried limes, and garnished with matchstick fried potatoes. I don't cook with red meat often so when I do I try to use the best quality meat I can.  For this stew I like to use grass-fed eye of round stewing meat.  Like most stewing meats, this cut of beef requires the luxury of time to sit and braise. 

I prefer to cook the yellow split peas separately because the cooking time of the peas can vary. What you are ultimately looking for are peas that are completely cooked through, maintaining their shape without turning mushy. I find the best way to ensure this is to par-cook the peas separately and finish cooking them off in the stew in the final twenty minutes or so.

Advieh is a very fragrant and flavorful spice mix.  There are two types of advieh most commonly used.  One for rice dishes and one for stews and meats.  The spices used varies from region to region and home to home.  Common spices used in any combination can include turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petals, golpar, corriander, black pepper, cumin and ginger.  You can prepare a combination of these spices and store in a jar.  Keep in mind that a small amount of advieh goes a long way.    

He places the paper bags on the 2-person glass patio table. Now serving as my indoor dining table.  He has come over to cook for me - some kind of pasta dish.  I've made us a couple of pies - as I was apt to do in those days. He starts pulling out all sorts of brand new Trader Joes spice jars - basil, oregano, thyme.  As he pulls out his salt shaker I can no longer contain it and break out into a giggle.  What he doesn't know - yet-  is that what I may be lacking in furnishings, in wall decor, in plates, glasses and mugs - I more than make up for in my spice cupboard.  

Saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, rose petals, cardamom, golpar, my advieh jar,  salt - my dear, dear, companions.

Well traveled mismatched glass jars. Tiny little Bonne Maman jam jars filled with my precious ground up saffron.  My own Maman's handwriting forever etched on some of the jars - in Persian, English, some in Italian.  These spices and the jars that so humbly house them tell the story of our lives.

Limoo Omani is the secret ingredient that gives Khoresh Gheymeh its unmistakable unique tart flavor - a key flavor in Persian cooking.  Limoo Omani is a dried Persian lime and is quite often used whole or ground up in stews.  The flavor of Limoo Omani as it cooks down and softens up, releasing its juices is absolutely incredible.  This is where I could tell you to substitute fresh lime or lemon juice for the Limoo Omani.  But I won't, because to really enjoy and appreciate Khoresh Gheymeh you need to use these flavorful and aromatic dried limes.  Limoo Omani can be found at Middle Eastern grocery stores or online.  You first need to very carefully puncture them (so as not to stab yourself!) in a couple of places with a sharp knife and then place them in the stew.  As they cook down you gently press down on them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. I like to eat the Limoo Omani along with my stew.  But I will readily admit eating them whole is an acquired taste. 

Khoresh Gheymeh is also famous for the delicious matchstick fries that garnish itWhen I prepare this dish at home I usually don't make the fries - with apologies to all the traditionalists out there!  I find the stew in combination with the rice it is served with makes for a very hearty meal as is.  And doesn't require the addition of another starchy food such as potatoes - and fried ones at that.  But...if you have me over and make me Khoresh Gheymeh with matchstick fries I will happily and enthusiastically accept!   


The boy from all those years ago became a best friend, a lover, a confidante, a husband, a father.

He still makes me pasta dishes.

I still look forward to making him soups and stews. 

His skateboard comes out every once in a while.  If only to trail the moon and the sun.  As they try to find balance in it all.  On their bikes.  In their lives.  He's never far behind.  Tending to his daughters' cuts and bruises.

My spice cupboard is now our spice cupboard. 

Full of mismatched glass jars.

And he still mixes up the turmeric with the saffron.