Monday, April 7, 2014

GRILLED HALLOUMI WITH BARBERRIES, TOASTED PINE NUTS, AND PRESERVED LEMONS - A DINNER PARTY - A NOMINATION

♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO

When your bucket is full you're really happy.  And when your bucket is empty you're really sad.  When a person dips into your bucket they're making you sad and taking some good feelings out of your bucket. When a person says something nice to you or are nice to you, they fill your bucket.  - Luna

It always starts with a dinner party (and maybe some wine - and of course some Tahdig).  About a year ago we had our good friend Krista over for dinner.  Loobia Polo - Mast-o-Khiar - all the usual edible suspects.  Krista asked me about the preparation of Tahdig, which got me talking about this idea I had for starting a food blog; an idea that had been brewing in my head for quite some time.  There it sat comfortably - in its cozy home clothes - in the back recesses of my mind - composing itself - cooking itself - photographing itself.  In short - taking up some valuable real estate in my already cluttered mind.  After patiently listening to my meandering diatribe on sharing what I know about Tahdig making with friends and its relation to writing a blog - Krista gave me a straight-up talking to.  Time to get the Tahdig out of my head and onto the blogosphere.  The right friend - with the right words - at the right dinner party. 

And so here I am one year later, absolutely humbled and honored to be nominated by SAVEUR MAGAZINE for their 2014 Best Food Blog Awards.  Bottom of the Pot is nominated in two separate categories:  Best Regional Cuisine Blog and Best New Blog.  If you would like to vote for me or any of the other amazing nominated blogs you can click on the link or on the SAVEUR awards badge on the side bar.  Voting closes on April 9th.  Thank you all for all your support, kind words, and encouragement.  But most of all thank you for joining me on this Persian food journey.  

The idea for this Grilled Halloumi appetizer was also born out of a dinner party.  An impromptu dinner party - the best kind.  2pm on a Saturday afternoon. Phones start lighting up.  How about a casual dinner at our place - the kids can all play... 5 pm - same day. The house awakens from its lazy slumber and echos with laughter/shrieking/crying/stomping/dancing and delectable secretive whisperings of children.  Lillet, and Drew's homemade kombucha flow freely (not in the same glass!) amongst the grown-ups.  Friends are put to work chopping the preserved lemons, assembling the salad, stirring the Kashki Bademjan (I had thankfully stored that away in the freezer - perfect for a last-minute dinner party dish).  Chairs are pulled out of every room of the house - the kitchen table far too small to seat all fifteen of us.  And yet, somehow we all manage to squeeze in.  Some sitting - some standing - a couple sharing the piano bench -  Drew crouched in the corner on the foot stool.  Baby Lilah is passed around the table like another delicious appetizer so her parents can have a moment to eat.  And the best part of all - the children are eating!  Some (not mine) have even dug into the sauteed mustard greens.  The children call out to "aunts " and "uncles" - although technically no one is anyone's aunt or uncle. These are friends with whom a night like this is possible.  Old friends with history.  Family.  

Barberries - Zereshk
Dried barberries are typically used in any number of Persian dishes - mixed in with rice (Zereshk Polo) - used alongside other ingredients as stuffing for poultry or seafood - enjoyed as a stew - or turned into jam preserves.  The dried berries are small like a currant and have a distinct tart flavor. When cooked they release their bright red color and add a beautiful hue to the dish.  These little berries really liven up a dish both visually and with their tart pop of flavor.  Besides the traditional methods of preparing them I think these berries can really accentuate any number of dishes like salads, quinoa pilafs, eggs, even baked goods.  Barberries are also known for their medicinal qualities - such as aiding with indigestion and other digestive ailments.  I bet we will soon see these little berries lining up the shelves at Whole Foods touting their ancient medicinal powers - declaring them the next superfood.  In the meantime you can purchase dried barberries (for a very affordable price) at Iranian grocery stores or online here, here, or on Amazon.  A search for organic barberries online will also give you a few options.  What's important is to use the freshest berries.  The ones that are bright red. The shriveled up darker ones are usually old and should be discarded.   It is also important to wash and soak the berries before use.  The berries contain a lot of sand so soaking them allows the sand to settle at the bottom.  Soaking also re-hydrates and plumps up the berries.



Preserved Lemons
This past winter I made my first batch of preserved lemons with the abundance of Meyer Lemons that were popping up at every Farmer's Market.  And I am so glad that I did because they are fantastic.  Salty and sour.  Once again - right up my alley. There really wasn't much to it.  A bunch of good looking lemons, stuffed with sea salt and left to ferment in their own juices for a couple of months.  I also stuffed a couple of cinnamon sticks in there.  There are many sources online that can guide you through the process such as this post by David Lebovitz and this one from Nourished Kitchen.  You really can't go wrong.  I already have so many plans for my preserved lemons.  The first of which was this topping.   

Halloumi Cheese With Sunset Hued Toppings
Halloumi is an unripened, brined cheese from Cypress.  It is typically made from a mixture of goat's and sheep's milk.  And because of its high melting point it's great for grilling or frying.  It is somewhat similar to feta cheese in its salty, briny flavor.  This cheese is right up my alley.  It makes a great appetizer served with a salad or topped off with some delicious ingredients as I have used here. The tart pop of the barberries, the crunch and nutty flavor of the pine nuts and the intense, unexpected and lively bite of the preserved lemons really make for a delicious and beautiful topping for the grilled (or fried) Halloumi cheese.  A perfect appetizer for an impromptu or planned dinner party - or even a party of one!

Many years ago I made the decision to once again re-locate - to another city - another country- same continent this time.  Away from parents, family, and childhood friends.  In search of a new adventure, chasing old dreams and a California sunset.  That new city has now become home.  But with aging parents, and children who are growing much too quickly I more and more find myself longing for a place and time where we could all be together.  And it's on these days that we throw an impromptu dinner party.  To celebrate everything and nothing in particular.  To celebrate good news and good friends who have become our surrogate family.  And we celebrate the only way I know how.  By sitting around a far too small kitchen table and sharing a meal.  

Suffice to say my bucket is full


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A FRESH HERB, BEAN, AND NOODLE SOUP - AASH-E RESHTEH - AZADI



Azadi?  What does Azadi mean, mama?

It means Freedom in Farsi, Luna.

The day before Nowruz - Persian New Year. We are at the Persian Bazaar - aka Westwood Blvd. - doing some last-minute shopping.  The girls pick out the sonbol - hyacinth - a purple one, of course.  Happily they crunch on the ajeel - the nut mix the store owners keep offering them. They marvel at the mounds of fresh green herbs everyone is sorting through - cilantro, parsley, dill, tarragon, chives, green onion, fenugreek.  With every inhale their noses fill with the inescapable aroma of Spring - a new day - tulips, cherry blossoms, rose water, seville oranges, hyacinth, hyacinth, hyacinth.  They practice snapping their fingers and swaying their hips to the joyful and celebratory music pouring out of every store.  At the bookstore Luna discovers a bookmark with Azadi written on it.

What does Freedom mean?

Three grown adults are momentarily left speechless.  Once we gather our thoughts - Drew, my mom and I try to convey what Freedom means to a five year old.  She listens quietly - head leaning to one side - chestnut brown eyes resting their soulful gaze on the haphazard chaotic world rushing past her car window.  Nothing more is said - or asked. 


Aash (rhymes with wash) is a hearty, thick soup typically made with a variety of herbs, legumes and grains. There are many different varieties of aash.  Each bursting with flavor and satisfying enough to be served on its own as a meal or in a smaller portion to begin each meal. Most aash can also be prepared vegetarian/vegan and gluten-free.   

Aash can be considered the foundation of Persian cooking.  The heart and soul of it.  In fact, the Persian word for kitchen is aash paz khaneh - the house (or room) where aash is made and the word for cook is aash paz - the maker of aash.  Different kinds of aash are traditionally eaten to celebrate or commemorate special occasions.  

Aash-e Reshteh literally means aash with noodles.  Traditionally Aashe-e Reshteh also known as Aashe-e Chaharharshanbeh Suri is served on the last Tuesday night before Nowruz - shabeh Chaharshanbeh Suri.  The noodles in the aash are said to symbolize the many winding paths that life spreads before us.  It is fitting then, to enjoy this heart warming aash right before the New Year, perhaps in the hopes of embarking on the right path for the coming year.  This also reminds me of the Italian tradition of eating Lentil Soup for good luck in the New Year. 


The preparation of Aash-e Reshteh is quite simple.  As with most Persian dishes that use an abundance of herbs, the most time consuming part is the washing and chopping of the fresh herbs.  A food processor can be of great help here.  And just like the preparation of Koo Koo Sabzi you don't need to get too caught up with taking every parsley leaf off the stem.  I cut off the long stems (you can save the stems for stock) and then run my knife through the herbs (little stems and all) a couple of times and throw everything in the food processor.  I like to use dry beans which I first soak for a few hours or overnight.  But you can also use canned beans if that's what you have on hand.  The combination I used here is chickpeas, red pearl beans (you can also use the slightly larger red kidney beans) and lentils.  Persian noodles -reshteh - can be found at Persian grocery stores or online, but linguini noodles work just as well.  And just like Kashki Bademjan, what really elevates this aash are the garnishes:  kashk and carmelized onion, mint and garlic.  If you can't find any kashk (or are still unsure of starting a relationship with this handsome new stranger), strained Greek-style yogurt or creme fraiche will work just fine too.  But I really think you should give kashk a chance. 

Be it a special occasion, a cold winter's night, a new journey, or simply one of those days when you just need a big hug, and a big bowl of comforting goodness in a bowl - Aash-e Reshteh is sure to hit the spot. 

The girls enthusiastically help me set up the Haft Seen table.  The hip-shimmying Persian music winds its way through the house.  Soleil and I debate the placement of the sonbol in relation to the goldfish - the goldfish like to be close to the sonbol so they can smell the sweetness too - two year old logic.  Luna runs up - out of breath - waving her Azadi bookmark.  She insists that we add it to the Haft Seen table.

It's important Mama.

This year on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at precisely 9:57am PST - precisely the moment when the Earth's axis tilts neither away nor toward the sun - when night and day are exactly the same length all around the world - we will welcome in a New Day - Nowruz.  And for the third year in a row Luna's Azadi bookmark will have a place at our Haft Seen table.

Because it's important.

Wishing you all a very Happy Nowruz and Peace and Freedom for everyone around the globe. 

    


Monday, March 17, 2014

HOMEMADE KASHK























I find the concept of an "acquired taste" a very interesting one.  Exactly when and how does one "acquire taste"?  

Growing up in Vancouver, whenever kashk was supposed to be used in a dish my mom would replace it with either yogurt or sour cream -  if we were feeding our Canadian or American friends.  Kharejeeha- foreigners (said Canadians or Americans being the "foreigners" in this case) don't like the taste of kashk, it's an acquired taste is what we would always hear.  So substitutions were made.  But as a child I always felt kharejeeha were missing out.  What was not to like about this tangy - flavorful - creamy - dip-like - yogurt-like - ingredient.

Thanks to the advent of technology and globalization the world has become a smaller place - and simultaneously our palates have expanded and "acquired" a liking and curiosity for foods from all different parts of the globe.  Kimchi, miso, harissa, za'atar - foods and spices that were once deemed ethnic or exotic are now as common place as mayo and ketchup - well, almost.  So it is in this spirit of world food and expanded curious palates that I present you with Kashk.  I think kharejeeha are more than ready and willing to give it try and fall in love with it.

Of course I am not the first to praise the deliciousness that is kashk.  As I mentioned in this post Mr. Ottolenghi has been talking up kashk for some time now. Think of kashk as an added creamy-like ingredient that really adds a depth of flavor to soups, aash (thick Persian soups-recipe coming next)- dips - stews - eggs...Use it as you might use creme fraiche in a savory dish.  Kashk plays the same role as anchovies, tomato paste, and parmesan rind do to add depth of flavor to any given food.  To give it that extra kick of deliciousness.  

In a nutshell, kashk is fermented yogurt.  I recently tried my hand at making homemade kashk.  Yogurt is mixed with equal parts water and simmered for a couple of hours until all the liquid has evaporated and you are left with a loose pulp.

Yogurt and water mix

Half way through the process.  The yogurt is breaking down and separating.

After about 2 1/2 hours.  The water has evaporated and the yogurt has broken down.

The pulp is then placed in a cheesecloth (I found using my nut milk bag worked great) and you squeeze as hard as you can to get rid of every last bit of the yellowish liquid (discard the liquid).  You want the pulp to be as dry as possible.






The dry pulp is then placed in a blender with some fresh water and salt.  Finally blend until you have a creamy consistency. 

I like to divide the kashk into small containers and either use right away or freeze until needed.  Although it takes a couple of hours to simmer the yogurt, the active prep time in making kashk is minimal.  Of course, you can also purchase kashk from Persian grocery stores.  If you purchase the dried kind you will have to reconstitute it with water.  I recommend using the refrigerated liquid kind.  You may have to try a few different brands to find the best tasting one (of course nothing is like homemade kashk).  You can also purchase kashk here , here, and here

And please do let me know if you "acquire" a taste for kashk.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A PISTACHIO BAKHLAVA CAKE - A CONFESSIONAL - AND AN ICESTORM


MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO


Confession:  I meant to share this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake with you in time for Valentine's Day.  It didn't happen.

Confession I also had every intention of sharing another delicious bite of goodness with you in time for the start of the Olympics. But that required making paper-thin slices out of a big hunk of jicama.  Which in turn required getting the mandolin out of solitary confinement and declaring with it a temporary truce. You see, my history with said mandolin is a troubled one.  What once seemed so bright and promising a future quickly turned to failed experiments and useless chunks of vegetables.   But then I thought - who knows, this might be the start of a new era for us. Maybe this time, with better communication - mutual respect - some give-and-take on both our parts...But alas, tragedy once again.  What was supposed to be a graceful duet quickly turned into a wrestling match, concluding with my worst self rearing its ugly head as I hurled profanities and mangled pieces of jicama across the kitchen.  And the mandolin just sat there - lifeless -  sharp and indifferent, and perhaps a bit smug.

Confession:  The ice storm pictures are from this past December in Toronto.  It was a sight to behold - especially for those of us from water-deprived Southern California.  We were some of the lucky few who had power and heat, and simply got to marvel at the beauty and majesty of it all.  Frozen.  Some of the shots are mine, some are Ramin's





Confession:  I don't really like to bake, nor do I have much of a sweet tooth.  Salty and sour is my late-night indulgence.

Confession:  I have been baking a lot lately.

Confession:  I have been enjoying baking as of late.  Much to my reluctance.

Confession:  I have been consuming more baked goods as of late.  

Confession:  I have been enjoying consuming said baked goods.  Especially this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake.

Bakhlava cake is my mom's go-to baked good.  She always has some on-hand in the freezer to serve with coffee or tea when unexpected company drops by.  The perfect little afternoon or after-dinner sweet treat.  Lately the girls have been enjoying it as an after-school snack with a cup of camomile tea.  

Bakhlava cake has the same flavors as traditional bakhlava - nuts, fragrant rose water - but without all the work of turning out layers of flaky puff pastry (my newly found baking enthusiasm and patience does not encompass all that work). Traditional bakhlava is also quite rich and decadent.  This cake version is much lighter - much more satisfying to my reluctantly blooming sweet tooth. Typically, it is made with a combination of all-purpose flour and either almond meal or pistachio meal.  And it is then finished off with a healthy drizzle of a simple syrup glaze.  Of course, not one to leave a recipe alone (even when baking) I swapped out some ingredients with what I usually have in the pantry.  I used a whole grain pastry flour and traded the almond meal with raw, unsalted pistachios that I ground up into a fine meal.  Instead of using butter or vegetable oil I used coconut oil.  I like using coconut oil in certain recipes but am not a fan of infusing everything with a tropical island coconut flavor.  I didn't want the cake to have a distinct coconut essence, and was quite pleased to discover that the coconut did not come through in this cake.  I also cut down on the regular sugar and used coconut palm sugar.  I have only recently discovered coconut palm sugar.  What I've learned so far is it is not as processed as regular sugar, and is low in the glycemic index with a high mineral content.  All of which sounds great but just to keep things in prespective - it is still a sweetener - so moderation is key.  

This cake is intended to be moist so it really depends on being covered in a simple syrup glaze once it's out of the oven.  I made my simple syrup with a honey/water/rose water combination.  Make sure you use a good quality mild flavored honey - I used a clover honey - orange blossom would be nice too.  You don't want the honey flavor to take over.  The flavor and aroma that should subtly awaken and envelop your senses here is rose water - golab.  Rose water is a staple in Persian baking, ice creams, sorbets and beyond.  It is always present on our New Year Haft Seen Table and our Wedding Sofreh Aghd to literally and symbolically purify and perfume the air.  It is believed to be medicinal, cosmetic with numerous healing properties, and lest we forget, also an aphrodisiac.  The aroma alone can make you drunk with love.  If you are new to the scent and flavor of rose water I suggest starting with small amounts.  Food grade rose water is available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and can also be found online - like here or here.  Unfortunately, organic food grade rose water is not that readily available.  If you have tried any, please share with me your thoughts.  Also check out the lovely Shiva Rose's tutorial on how to make your own rose water for cosmetic use.  It's beautiful.

The great thing about this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake is that it easily freezes for months.  I like to serve it cut into small rectangles - cold out of the fridge or thawed out of the freezer.  A little bite of rosey sweetness with an afternoon or after-dinner tea.       

Cofession: Our freezer is packed with containers of Pistachio Bakhlava Cake.  Just in time for Toronto's frozen castles to melt (or in our case - the draught to ease - and for Spring to once again rejuvanate us.  Just in time to share with friends and family for Nowruz.  




Sunday, February 2, 2014

A MUSIC EDUCATION AND A POMEGRANATE AND WALNUT STEW - KHORESH FESENJAN





George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  They dreamily look deep into my soul - unearthing every little secret and thought as I flop on my bed - chin resting on hands looking even  deeper into their souls - the intensity of my stare almost burning a hole in the album cover - held inches from my nose.  I fancy myself Andrew's best bud and the next Mrs. George Michael.  

Well - we all know how that all turned out.  But that's what you do when you're twelve and a mad fan of Wham!

Losing myself in a selfie slow-dance to the heartbreak that is Careless Whisper - and always ending with a big finale of me forgiving George (this one time) for his cheating ways - a radically different sound pounds through my bedroom floor knocking me off my feet and leaving the Careless Whisper sax solo whimpering in the dust.  My brother's music.

Hands on hips, an I-mean-business glare in my eyes, and ready to confront the injustice that has been assailed upon me and George (the same look I now spot in Soleil to much hilarity) - I storm down the stairs ready to unleash all my pre-teen angst on my older brother.  But halfway down I stop, and the fumes rising out of me slowly fizzle out.  For days afterward I sneak halfway down to the basement, take a seat on the stairs and listen to this sound that is planets away from anything I have heard before.  But you can sneak around secretly enjoying your older brother's music for only so long before you're caught. 

He doesn't tell me to take a hike, or embarrass me, or make me feel like a silly little WHAM!-loving twelve-year-old that I am.  Instead he invites me in - passionately sharing with me this new world of music.  Excitedly he rattles off facts - stories - one thought quickly leading to another - faster than I can keep up - as is his way to this day.  We listen through his entire record collection - the MOD/PUNK/"alternative music"/SKA canon. The Jam - Dead Kennedys - The Cramps - Madness - The Specials - Bahaus - The Smiths - Style Council - The Clash - The Stranglers - Talking Heads - The Who - Velvet Underground.... 

Weekends become about trips downtown to Odyssey Imports on Granville Street (before Granville Street became the tourist hub that it is now) to check out the latest import releases out of the UK.  When there was a distinct rivalry between the music coming from the UK vs the US.  When the freshly mohawked punk rockers had claimed the front entrance to Eatons as theirs and theirs alone.  All frightening and exhilarating at the same time for my pre-teen eyes.  And per-tradition those early years in Vancouver, after a day spent record shopping, Saturday nights were synonymous with a dinner party at our family friends house - the K's.  Where we would all gather seeking comfort in the company of other families - expats - having gone through similar travels, similar adversities.  New immigrants to a new land. And where you could be guaranteed plenty of dancing and plenty of Mrs. K's mouth-watering Khoresh Fesenjan - Pomegrante Walnut Stew.

Food in general demands our respect.  Khoresh Fesenjan commands our respect.  The respect of time and patience.  The respect of slowly and lovingly allowing a much celebrated stew of walnuts and pomegranate molasses simmer quietly away for a few hours on your stove on a Sunday afternoon.  Warming up your home with its tantalizing aromas - transporting you to a faraway land -  a faraway orchard - or - simply as my mother puts it - allowing all the flavors come to life.

Sweet or Sour - Pomegranate Molasses
Contrary to popular belief Khoresh Fesenjan is quite simple to prepare.  At its simplest preparation it is nothing more than ground up walnuts, pomegranate molasses, water, chicken (or vegetable of choice), salt to taste.  That's all you need.  But for a little added depth of flavor you can enhance with some extra spices. I like to use a little bit of turmeric, ground up dried rose petals and cinnamon. However, this simple yet sumptuous dish is often quite polarizing as to how it should be prepared.  This divisiveness comes down to a personal preference for what type of pomegranate molasses to use.  Sweet or sour or something in between - sweet and sour.  It is not uncommon for people to get quite particular and passionate about this preference.  You know you are talking about quite a special dish when there is so much passion and intensity surrounding it. I like and prepare my Fesenjan sour - the way Mrs. K and my mom prepare it - the way it is prepared in Gilan - Shomal - the Northern region of Iran bordering the Caspian sea  - known for its Khoresh Fesenjan.  Now, by sour I don't mean a mouth-puckering taste that makes you wince.  It only means that there is no sugar or other type of sweetener added to the stew.  It is a subtle and satisfying tartness which is dictated by the kind of pomegranate molasses that is used.  I use this pomegranate molasses which says sour on it.  If you are new to Khoresh Fesenjan I recommend trying different kinds of pomegranate molasses and see what suits your palate best. 

Walnuts
There is also a debate as to how fine the walnuts in the stew should be ground up.  Again, this comes down to a personal preference.  Some like the texture of a rougher grind, where you can feel the crunch of the walnut in the stew.  I prefer my Fesenjan smooth so I grind up the walnuts to a fine meal.  But be careful not to grind them so fine that they turn paste-like in texture.  You're looking for a grind resembling a flour like texture. The walnut meal is then mixed with some water and added to the pomegranate paste in the pot. 



Simmer, Simmer and Simmer Some More 
There is one thing about the preparation of this stew that is not up for debate.  And that is allowing the pomegranate/walnut sauce to sit and simmer slowly for at least a couple of hours before adding your meat or vegetable.  No quick fixes here.  The color, depth of flavor and richness of this dish depend on this step.  Just like any good stew or braise, this is your chance to bring the flavors to life.  Specifically to bring the walnuts to life .  As the stew simmers, the walnuts will slowly start to release their natural oils.  The more the walnuts release their oils the more they will come out of their raw state and the color of the stew will start turning from a very pale cappuccino shade to a rich brown .  That is what we are looking for.  The walnuts can make this dish a very rich and hearty dish, so you want to skim off as much of those oils that come to the surface as possible to cut down on some of that richness.  Also we don't want a raw walnut aftertaste in the stew which can often be rather bitter. As the stew sits and simmers uncovered it will start thickening so you want to keep adding about half a cup of water to it every half hour or so.  This process should take about 2 hours.  You will know the sauce is ready when its color has turned to a rich brown, when most of the walnut oil has been released and when it is at the desired consistency: not too thick and not too watered down.  At this point you should taste the sauce and make any necessary adjustments like adding more pomegranate molasses if necessary.  This is also where I add the cinnamon and ground rose petals, if using.  The sauce can be made ahead of time up to this point and kept in the fridge before adding the chicken.  If I am pressed for time or preparing for a dinner party  I usually make the sauce one day ahead.    

Duck, Chicken or Vegetables
Traditionally, Khoresh Fesenjan was served with a whole duck placed in the sauce and cooked through.  It has now become more common to make Fesenjan with chicken - whole or cut up into pieces - which is how I like to prepare it. Some preparations also use mini meatballs which cook through in the sauce.  You can also make a vegetarian version with eggplant or mushrooms or various types of squash.  It goes without saying that Fesenjan, or Fesenjoon as it is more colloquially called, should be enjoyed over rice.  This dish is also a perfect example of the Persian tradition of balancing a meal. A rich and satisfying stew like Fesenjan should always be accompanied with something fresh, raw and crisp to aid in digestion.  We are a culture obsessed with digestion.  So you will most definitely find Sabzi Khordan - a platter of fresh herbs and radishes (I love using watermelon radishes when available) at the table along with a bowl of crisp, fresh turnips as is tradition in Gilan and at Mrs. K's house. 

Those Saturday nights at Mrs. K's, after a feast of Fesenjan, Baghali Ghatogh, Mirza Ghasemi and smoked fish - following the obligatory after-dinner tray of tea and dates (for digestion of course) was passed around - after the platter of fruit (for digestion, of course) was served - after the dancing and clapping (also for digestion, of course) - my best friend S. and her older sister M. and I would watch my brother, their older brother B. and another good friend F. go through their ritual of getting ready for a night out. It almost always involved lots of hair gel.  I secretly longed to one day tag along, be a part of that world.  But until then I was quite content with George upstairs in my room and the New World Order I was experiencing downstairs in my brother's room.  Clinging to my childhood but on the threshold of crossing over to something new, exciting and nerve-racking: the teenage years.  That's what happens when you're twelve.  On the cusp of when his music, becomes our music - my music

Dedicated to the memory of "F" Farzad and "S" Sepideh.


Friday, January 10, 2014

A SWISS CHARD SEDUCTION - A SHRIMP AND QUINOA PAELLA - FUN FRIDAYS


It's not a graceful entrance.

We crash/bang/sing/stumble/dance/pontificate/drag/whine/laugh our way into the house.  Backpacks hit the the floor with a thunderous clatter. Jackets are tossed in one direction - even though the coat hooks are at arms length - and at kid height.  Two sets of shoes fly up and come crashing back down - briefly electrifying the room with a shower of sparkly lights.  The strategically placed shoe cabinet looks on in dismay - hungry for its daily feed (we all know that our slightly OCD-inclined dad of the house will put them away).  Sweaty socks peel off, each in the distinct form of the body part they once enveloped, leaving a trail behind. Newly freed feet pitter-patter their way to the living room.

Girls! Wash your hands first!

And so begins the ritual that is Fun Fridays.

The girls are not yet old enough to have their calendars filled with all-consuming extra-curricular activities and social responsibilities.  It could also be that we have chosen not to fill every extra minute with something to do.  Or that our days are jam-packed enough already.  Most likely - it's because we are just homebodies at heart.  So we have chosen to keep Fridays open.  Anything goes.  Free play time, no homework, time to unwind and just be, and most importantly: time to watch some television.  Seriously - with everything that we pack in a week - wouldn't you want your Fridays to be about all that?

With that laissez-faire spirit in mind I had also decided to join in on Fun Fridays.  With no dinner plans in the works - no Friday Night Loobia Polo - I had resolved earlier in the day that we were going to order in.  Not a regular occurrence in our house but a necessary one from time to time.  I was taking a break from the kitchen tonight.  Oh - yes - I - was.

As the girls settle in to watch Wild Kratts and Doc McStuffins, I take the opportunity to retire to the study for a cocktail and my current obsession/read.  A perfect setting for David Tannis to teach me a thing or two about artichokes (overlooking the minor details that we don't actually have a study, I don't like to drink at 5pm, and David Tannis'  book isn't really about artichokes.  Minor details - minor details.)  I have a vision of how the afternoon will unfold - and I'm sticking to it.  The spot on the couch next to the girls will serve just fine as said study.  Mr. Tannis will teach and inspire, and after all this day is about breaking the rules - so my cocktail of choice is, of course - A Campari Cocktail.

I lovingly set the Campari bottle on the counter with one hand as the other hand reaches back to open the fridge door - in search of a lime to accompany my drink. And thus begins the beginning of the end.  Instantly my eyes fall upon the bountiful bunch of Swiss Chard from our recent farm box delivery.  There I stand - arms outstretched - one hand on a beautiful red-hued bottle - the other hand holding open the fridge door.  My eyes quickly dart back and forth between the two adversaries.  This should be an easy choice - the plan is already in motion - I'm not cooking tonight - it's cocktail hour - the study - the book - the drink - the vision.  But the unwelcome voice of reason starts wiggling its way in.  The chard should be used soon - if I drink now I'll get sleepy and cranky - and the truth is - I simply can't take my eyes off those dark leafy greens.  I turn and face the Campari bottle - apologetically and gently nudging it to the edge of the counter.  I turn back and face the fridge.  I give my hair a quick flick, lower my eyes slightly, feel a coy smile creep up the sides of my mouth, extend my arm and grab the chard.  It's on.

Everyone is always looking for a quick go-to recipe.  This quinoa "paella" is ours.  Quinoa is a superfood commonly used as a whole grain substitute.  It is technically not a grain but an immensely nutrient rich seed - which makes it a great choice for those looking for a gluten-free grain alternative.  It also makes for a perfect vegan choice since it is considered a complete protein - containing all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa has been a staple in our house for some time now, right up there with our beloved rice and pasta.  Drew loves it.  The four-year-old loves it.  I still like it and consume it in abundance but truth be told, I have somewhat grown tired of it (interesting how I never seem to tire of rice and pasta...hmm).  And the seven-year-old is on the brink of jumping the quinoa ship completely.  So I'm always looking for ways to change it up and make it a little more interesting - like adding it to our morning oatmeal (a great way adding much needed protein to our breakfast), working it into soups, salads - recreating it any number of ways, like paella. 

This dish is inspired by the traditional Spanish paella.  The best part about it is that it can essentially be made with whatever you have on hand and can be prepared fairly quickly.  I usually get a lot of help from my freezer goods.  You can use chicken, other types of seafood, sausage, crack an egg on top, or keep it vegetarian (I'm dreaming of mushrooms, asparagus..you get the picture).  I usually have a bag of frozen shrimp saved for those last-minute meals.  And as is the case with all our seafood consumption, I always make sure to check in with Seafood Watch.  They also have a great app which is very helpful when you're at the seafood counter and not sure about the quality, safety and sustainability of what you're about to purchase.  Our other freezer staples are bags of frozen peas and corn.  Perfect for the makings of a paella.  Whenever possible I also try to sneak in our dark leafy greens like the chard here but you could also use kale or spinach.  The trick here is to finely chop up the greens or cut them into thin ribbons so they get well-incorporated into the dish; also ensuring no complaints from the little ones. I don't use the chard stalks in the paella but instead quickly saute them up in olive oil with some chopped onion, garlic and lemon zest.  Then stir in a little yogurt, a hit of parsley and enjoy it as a salsa alongside the paella.  This also makes a great dip you can serve with grilled or sauteed shrimp.

The basis for a traditional paella is the sofrito - the sauce made up of sauteed aromatic vegetables like onion, garlic, green or red peppers, and tomatoes.  I have very loosely recreated a sofrito here, leaving out the peppers (you can include peppers if you like) and adding anchovies.  Now - before you balk at the idea of the little salty fish - I assure you that you will not be able to taste them in the final product - they are used here to add a depth of flavor, a je ne sais quoi, an overall yumminess to the dish.  If you're still not convinced, you can leave them out but just know you'll be missing out.  In keeping with a paella preparation methods I add the quinoa to the sofrito for a couple of minutes before adding my cooking liquid.  This allows the quinoa to toast a little, drawing out more of its flavor.  Once the cooking liquid is added I cover the pan and allow the quinoa to cook, uncovering for the last 5 minutes of cooking time. The quinoa should be fluffy, not soggy or mushy.  Right before serving, garnish it with a little chopped parsley and make sure to squeeze a juicy lemon over the whole thing.  And serve alongside the chard stem salsa, or some guacamole, and you know if I can work in a dollop yogurt on top I will.  Delicious goodness in one pan.

I lift the heavy cast iron off the stove - turn - and come face to face with Drew.  Home just in time.  

Thought you could use this.  It is Friday after all.

He presents me with a glorious tumbler of Campari Cocktail.  I look to him - to the drink - back at the heavy paella pan precariously balancing in my arms - the room starts pounding with this hip shimmying beat.  I give my hair a quick flick, lower my eyes, place the pan on the counter, give my husband a teasing smile and yell out:

DANCE PARTY 

The four of us spontaneously bounce, wiggle, jiggle, shimmy, taking turns showing  off our moves.  And then follow the sock trail back to the kitchen table to tuck into some shrimp and quinoa paella.   

Happy Fun Fridays.

Happy New Year.     

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A THANKSGIVING OFFERING - A RICE AND LENTIL DISH - ADAS POLO


























He bursts through the front door - unwittingly inviting in the crisp November breeze.  Out of breath and on a mission, he spreads out a world map on the kitchen table.  An explorer out at sea - years in search of a long-lost exotic land.  And now so close to setting his eyes upon it.  Almost within reach. Running his aged fingers along the map and smoothing out its creases, he turns and focuses his periscope on me - the unknowing representative of said exotic land.

Now show me - where have you lived - exactly where are you from?

Uncle Ned.  Drew's great-uncle.  Sweet, sweet Uncle Ned. 

We were spending Thanksgiving with Drew's grandparents and extended family in Battle Creek, Michigan. Over the years my travels had taken me throughout the United States -  the Pacific Northwest, West Coast, East Coast, the South. But somehow I had always simply flown over the middle of the country - with maybe a brief (or at times not so brief) layover at Chicago's O'Hare.  This was officially my first visit to The Midwest.  In the heart of the country to celebrate a mighty American tradition: Thanksgiving.

I didn't grow up celebrating Thanksgiving.  Whole turkeys are kind of hard to come by in Rome or Tehran.  But having attended American schools, I was fully versed in the tradition and folklore of this holiday.  Later when we moved to Canada, the Thanksgiving celebration shifted to early in October.  My understanding of the difference of dates between the two countries is simple geography. Thanksgiving is essentially a celebration of the end of the harvest, and it is believed that since Canada is farther north, the end of the harvest and the onset of winter comes earlier. Another notable difference is the fervor and intensity with which this holiday is celebrated in America, versus the slightly more subdued approach Canadians take in all things (the current Toronto mayor buffoonery not-withstanding). Regardless - even tough this holiday is not cemented in my past - it is a gathering I can fully appreciate.  An event centered around family, food, warmth, togetherness, love, and the mandatory familial tensions and misunderstandings.  Yes - a gathering I can fully understand and embrace.

Adas polo literally means lentils and rice.  It is a very common, everyday dish typically served with a fried, or hard-boiled egg.  I think a poached egg would also be great.  Ultimate comfort food.  It has also taken on the role of the side dish to serve for Thanksgiving in many Persian homes.  The addition of the dates, raisins, cranberries and a hint of cinnamon sprinkled in the rice give it a beautiful festive autumnal appeal and add just the right amount of sweetness and texture.  It is also a great vegetarian alternative.  Typically,  adas polo is prepared with tahdig in mind.  Which means you would go through the two step method of preparing the rice.  First parboiling the rice and also cooking your lentils separately until they're  al-dente.  Then steaming the two together until everything is cooked through and you have crunchy golden tahdig.  You also have the option of adding the dried fruits mixture to the steaming process or simply scattering them on top of your rice when serving - as I have done here. But if you don't want to make tahdig you can prepare your basmati rice (white or brown) as you like, cook your lentils completely through separately, prepare the dried fruits mixture and mix them all together at the very end when serving.  But you know I'm going to urge you all to try and make tahdig.  And actually, steaming the rice and lentils together wonderfully melds all the flavors.  

I was seven years old the last time my entire extended family had the opportunity to gather in one place.  This was before many of them scattered to various corners of the world, while some stayed - living through a revolution, a war and other struggles brought on by these events.  We might have been celebrating a birthday, it might have been Persian New Year, it might have simply been a dinner - a get-together.  As hard as I try, I can't remember the exact occasion.  And at the time I'm sure no one had an inkling that this particular get-together would be the last time we would all be laughing, eating, and bickering together.  That those casual good nights and kisses at the door would be our very last.   

As foreign as Battle Creek, Michigan might have seemed to me - as foreign and exotic as I might have seemed to Battle Creek - spending that Thanksgiving at Drew's grandparents house was as familiar and loving as any family get-together from my childhood.  The linoleum-floored cozy kitchen, the shaggy rug, playing Canasata with Grandma and great-aunt Lolie, Grandpa's morning coffee and doughnut ritual, Grandma's Steinway piano and German antiques, the cuckoo clock, Grandpa enchanting me with his tales of serving in the Coast Guard in Alaska during World War 2, bringing down boxes full of black and white photographs capturing those moments (some of which now adorn our walls), Lolie and Ned sharing their love story and how they loved to go out dancing.  And of course the day long madness of preparing the great meal.  Tip-toeing around individual desires and needs of what and how a dish should be prepared.  (I've come to understand that it really takes some diplomatic, ambassadorial savvy to successfully get everything on the table to everyone's liking).  And finally opening up the card tables, attaching them to the antique dining table, spreading out the table cloth and gathering around the table.  No matter what is served, or how it is served - it's that moment of togetherness that is forever going to be etched in our memories.

All the elders of the family are now gone.  Grandma, Grandpa, Lolie & Ned.  As are my own grandparents and great uncles and aunts. All of them hearts and souls of the family.  We are told Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks and be thankful. And so I give thanks for that Thanksgiving in Michigan.  For the warm embrace of all those sweet people.  And with that same sentiment I offer you a lentil and rice dish.  It might not be familiar, it might not be traditional, but it is delicious and made with love.  And I hope at some point it can find its way to your table.  

When the explorer sets foot on the foreign land gifts are exchanged, customs and languages described.  And when he leaves to make his long journey back home he returns with new stories, new discoveries and hopefully a box full of new recipes. 

Happy Thanksgiving.