Sunday, April 28, 2013

RICE AND THE ART OF GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THE POT - CHELO BA TAHDIG




They gather around me with bated breath.  The air is thick with anticipation and hope.    

If it all goes as planned, the fruits of my labor will be met with thunderous applause and joyous cheers.  High fives and high jumps and quasi-cartwheels all around.  Maybe even a little impromptu jig. 

If it all falls apart (literally), shoulders will slump, and slight groans will replace the cheers.  Dissapointed little feet will shuffle back to the table.  And once they recover from this let-down, they will do their best to make me feel better.

It's ok Mama.  Next time.

It's not as great as usual Mama but it's still ok...

These are the pressures I face.

They crowd in even closer.  My audience of two.  I place the serving dish over the pot.  Inhale.  Hold my breath.  Tighten up my abs.  Chant a little mantra.  Flip the pot over.  

First it's the triumphant sound of success, the swish sound of the release, as the rice drops from pot to dish.  I gently pull the pot up and away and there she is in all her glory - golden and regal  - TAHDIG.  Merrymaking ensues.  Exhale.  The Muse of Cooking decided to smile upon me  - this time.


Rice is the crown jewel of Persian cuisine.  A platter of fragrant saffron-steamed rice is almost always present at the dining table.  The perfect companion to the many flavorful stews (like celery stew), koo koos and kababs.  As a child there was nothing more comforting and reassuring as a bowl of polo* ( cooked rice), crunchy tahdig, with 
mast o khiar and a few sprigs of fresh mint and parsley.  

* Technically, plain saffron-steamed rice served alongside a stew is called chelo-khoreshPolo is steamed rice mixed with other ingredients like vegetables and meats.  But in our house we refer to all cooked rice as polo.   

A Persian cook's reputation rests first and foremost on his or her ability to turn out the perfect pot of fluffy rice and tahdig (pronounced "tah DEEG").  Tahdig literally means the bottom of the pot The most common type of tahdig is made with rice (using bread or potatoes is popular as well).  The crispy, golden fried rice, nestled at the bottom of the pot - and the most coveted dish at the table.  

Making Persian rice is truly a creative process.  No pot of rice ever turns out exactly the same and a perfect golden tahdig is never assured.  But even at it's most imperfect, it's as close as one can get to delicious perfection.  Really. 

Every grain of rice should be separate, long, individual, fluffy - and shine on its own.  No clumps.  No sticking together.  Every grain is a jewel.

These are the words that echoed in our kitchen as my mom gently, methodically and artistically scattered the steamed rice - the jewels - on a platter. 



There are a few key ingredients and techniques that you must follow to achieve this:

RICE
You have to start with a long grain rice.  Indian white basmati rice is very similar to the rice enjoyed in Iran.  On any given day if you go the Persian market you can overhear the ladies AND gentlemen passionately discussing the merits of one imported basmati brand over the other.  I use the Lal Qilla brand (which means committing to a 10lb sack).  I have also found the Trader Joe's white basmati works quite well too.   Try a couple of different brands.  You'll get a feel for which will turn out the fluffier rice.  Or visit a Persian market and ask.  But beware you might get a twenty minute thesis on rice!  We are very serious about our rice.

I should also mention that we made the switch to brown rice many years ago, for all the obvious nutritional, health conscious, waistline-minded reasons.  But there are times when nothing else will suffice but a dish of white saffron-steamed basmati rice.  

POT,  PAN AND HEAT DIFFUSER
You have to use a non-stick pot or a deep non-stick pan.  A well-seasoned cast iron works too. DO NOT USE A STAINLESS STEEL POT.  To get the most tahdig, try to use a pot or pan with a flat bottom and one large enough that will give the rice plenty of room to expand.  If your pot or pan is too small the rice will clump together.  For this recipe I used a pot with a 10" bottom.  If using a pan, make sure you have a lid that will tightly fit it.  The zeery - heat diffuser - is used to ensure the tahdig doesn't burn.  If you don't have one don't worry about it.  It's just extra insurance.

HEAT SOURCE
Heat temperatures differ on any given stove.  This is where you have to get a feel for your heat source and its relation to your rice.  It's basically knowing when to go from a high heat to a low heat.  


THE TWO STEP METHOD
Here comes the art.  You will first par-boil the rice (much like making pasta) so it is al-dente.  This also comes down to a feel for knowing when it's al-dente and ready to drain.  It all depends on the quality of the rice you use and how long it has soaked.  You want the rice to be soft but still with a bite to it, not completely cooked through.  Boil it too long and you'll end up with clumpy overdone rice; boil it not long enough and your rice will be slightly hard.  

The second part is the steaming process.  There is a dichotomy at play here.  As you want to gently steam the rice up top you also want to crisp up the tahdig at the bottom of the pot without burning it.  

SERVING
There are two options on how you can serve the rice.  First, with a spatula you can gently scatter the fluffy rice onto a serving dish.  (No dumping the rice out of the pot onto a dish in one fell swoop.  Remember, you are dealing with jewels!)  And then gently loosen and remove your tahdig from the bottom of the pot, divide in portions and serve separately.  


Or, you can place a serving dish big enough to fit over the pot, and carefully but with purpose, flip the pot over.  Tahdig still intact.  Kind of like a cake.  This option has a great "tada" and "wow" appeal.



Think of Persian rice as a coy lover.  You have to treat her with respect.  You have to be patient.  You have to know when it's appropriate to make a move and when to pull back, give her space.  You have to seduce her with a gentle touch, poetry and love.  And ultimately you have to dive in with complete and utter unbridled passion and abandon.  If she turns you down the first time - try, and try, and try again.  Because she's worth it.  Really. 


Please do share and let me know how your rice and tahdig turns out.  Were you good to your lover? Was your lover good to you?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

THE BEST SOUP IN THE WHOLE WILD WORLD - LENTIL AND BARLEY SOUP




Mama, this is the best soup in the whole wild world.

Soleil is right, Mama.  Make this soup every day and every night and every afternoon. 

Can we have this for lunch tomorrow, Mama?!

Allow me to explain.

Although I'd like to take full credit for all the glowing adulation of my-soup making abilities, I  also need to extend a big thank you to my not so silent cohort - sugar.  The white, refined, not-so-natural variety.  Oh what the heck - let's give credit where credit is due.  Thank you:  corn syrup, red dye #40, blue #1, yellow# 5...

Allow me to explain further.

The girls had had a busy, fun-filled day at a kid function, and had - as expected -  indulged in kid function goodies.  Candy, baked goods, non-food food and more candy.  By the time they were back home the clock edged closer to the precarious 5:30ish hour.

The sun begins to set, their voices reach a feverish sugar-induced shrill; suddenly all goes silent - cue Ennio Morricone. 

What was once an inviting family living room is now a barren desert.  The tumbleweeds roll by in the form of half-clothed barbie dolls.  Once sisters, once compadres, forever tied in blood and love - now square off on either side of the rug.  Hands on hips, fire and determination in their eyes, ready to pounce at any moment, at any slight misspoken or misunderstood word by the other.  We have entered no man's land, no man's time...We need to reset.  We need something to make us feel whole again.



This is our go-to meal any night of the week.  Although quite hearty, we enjoy it all year round.  Barley and lentils are the stars of this soup, followed by a supporting cast of nutrient rich vegetables. Both barley and lentils boast numerous health benefits.  They are both high fiber foods which help in stabilizeing blood sugar levels.  Might explain why this soup was so needed and appreciated after a sugar filled afternoon.


  

Whenever possible I try and use hulled (or hulless) barley.  This means that the barley is in its whole grain form, and unlike pearled barley hasn't been stripped of its nutrients.  If you can't find hulless barley the next best options would be pot/scotch barley or semi-pearled barley.  Hulless barley is much chewier and heartier than pearled barley so I recommend that you soak the hulless barley overnight to cut down on the cooking time. Soaking the grain also helps in better digestion and absorption of the nutrients.  I also soak the lentils for the very same reasons but not as essential as soaking the barley.



Onion, garlic, celery and carrots are the main vegetables I use.  From there I add any other vegetables I have roaming around in the fridge or available in our farm box. The particular addition of  turnips, spinach, cilantro and parsley seem to work quite well with a certain six and three year old in from the cold of the wild west.  I like to add my herbs and greens right at the very end to maintain their color and fragrance.  But if you're using a heartier green like kale, I suggest you cook it a bit longer.  We like to finish off the soup with a number of different toppings.  Usually it's a drizzle of olive oil and some crunchy salt.  It is also delicious with a sprinkling of parmesan, a dollop of yogurt, or a squeeze of a lemon.

When we start to fall apart, this soup puts us back together again.  It's what grounds us when the whole world seems to have gone WILD.