Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A POMEGRANATE MOLASSES BBQ SAUCE AND PORK RIBS - FOOD DIPLOMACY 101

























You never see the sun in the night, but once in an ice cream while, you see the moon in the daytime. - Luna

BBQ sauce and pork ribs are not exactly part of my everyday cooking vernacular.  I am not what you might call a BBQ sauce/ribs enthusiast - not even close.  I know there are cookbooks, TV shows and competitions dedicated to this mighty American tradition.  Somewhere along the line I've learned that there are distinctions and differences, and pride to boot, between Texas BBQ, Mephis BBQ, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas City...BBQ.  What those differences are - I'm not sure.  This is not that story.  It's not a particularly Persian story either.  It's more a mother's everyday story to get dinner on the table, working with what she's got in the pantry and fridge.  A simple story.  At least that's how they all begin.



One of our quick, last minute, pre-made, go-to meals used to be the fully-cooked baby back pork ribs in smoky BBQ sauce from one of our local stores.  It was a hit with the girls.  All we had to do was heat it up in the oven or on the grill, roast some sweet potatoes, toss a salad and call it a night.  It was the meal we were about to enjoy the night Soleil fell and we thought she had broken her wrist (she hadn't).  It was the meal we quickly had on the table the nights we had unexpected company.  The meal that required extra napkins and lots of finger licking.  That is - until the fateful night I read this.  

Drew and I are both avid magazine lovers.  Consumer Reports is considered an exciting, cozy, bedtime read.  So when CR talks about "bugs in pigs" and "pigs on drugs," that gets our attention.  This news was actually not all that shocking.  Whenever possible we try and buy all of our meats organic, grass fed, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, local, etc.  But this practice had not applied to our baby back pork ribs.  So it got me thinking.  How difficult would it be to make our own organic, antibiotic-free, pork ribs with a homemade BBQ sauce.  

Down the internet vortex I went.  Once I came up for air I was armed with a little more knowledge.

There are a few different cuts of pork ribs.  So far I have worked with the baby backs and the St Louis style.  I found the St. Louis style (pictured above) slightly meatier and fattier, and the baby backs slightly more tender.  Both have been a hit and turned out delicious.  But organic pork ribs don't come cheap.  What I also learned is that when preparing the ribs you need to remove the membrane (the thin layer of skin on the back of the bones).  You can do this yourself or ask the butcher to do it for you.  I also like to trim most of the excess fat. Although the fat provides much of the flavor, none of us (especially the girls) like the chewy texture once cooked. 

As for the cooking, I've learned low and slow is the key to tender, fall-off-the-bone meat. But since this was going to be a midweek meal, I certainly did not have the time or patience to babysit pork ribs cooking in the oven or on the grill for hours.  So I turned to my most trusted low and slow kitchen appliance - the slow cooker.  After 5 hours on high (or 8 hours on low), not only were the ribs fall-off-the-bone tender but the whole house smelled fabulous.  I finished off the ribs under the broiler for a couple of minutes to get that slightly crisp and grilled effect.

The preparation of the BBQ sauce is where my worlds started to collide.  After 3 failed attempts (read 3 separate trips to the store) to buy bottled BBQ sauce that would not be too spicy for the girls, and not loaded with a bunch of ingredients I did not recognize as food, I gave up and resolved to make that myself too.  It turns out I had most of the ingredients needed to make BBQ sauce, either in the pantry or in the refrigerator door.  And it was there, at the perpetually overstuffed fridge door that I was suddenly lifted out of my cooking malaise.  To reach the worcestershire sauce I had to move the pomegranate molasses out of the way.  And that is when I hit my cooking high.  The fog lifted.  I was filled with adrenalin as I poured the pomegranate molasses into the blender, along with ketchup (worlds collide!) and reached for other familiar spices that I usually use to compliment pomegranate molasses - cinnamon, turmeric, cumin.  The result was a tangy and slightly sweet - finger licking good - concoction; one most definitely approved of by the girls.  I happened to have a sour pomegranate molasses on hand, and I added 2 tablespoons of honey to the sauce to cut the tang a bit. If you use a sweeter pomegranate molasses, start off with one tablespoon of honey, try it and add more honey according to taste.  Pomegranate molasses is readily available now at most stores or at any Middle Eastern market.  The sauce also works great with chicken, lamb chops or Portobello mushrooms.  It also freezes really well.  So whatever you don't use you can portion out and put in the freezer for another time.



Perhaps this is a story about when my American kitchen met my Iranian ingredients.  Something that happens on an everyday basis.  And I am here to testify that this encounter is quite harmonious, peaceful, and  delicious.  A little food diplomacy can go a long way.  And although we might not be indulging in pork ribs smothered in pomegranate molasses BBQ sauce all the time - we will be enjoying them once in an ice cream while.

Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A SPRING FLING - A CAMPARI AND VODKA COCKTAIL

What can I get you?

He leans across the bar.  Kindly looking into my bewildered eyes.  A simple question he has asked numerous times this evening.  He expects a simple and quick reply.

It's 6:30pm on a week night and the place is already buzzing with after-work imbibing.  Hipsters and the like winding down the day - or maybe just getting started for the night.  It's loud, the energy of the place palpable.  It's a familiar scene from what feels like a distant past.  Before set routines, before children.  A time when meeting up for drinks at 6:30 pm didn't require extensive planning.  

Can I get you something to drink?

I look back at him, stunned.  I've lost the ability to order a drink for myself.  The vibrant energy of the place doesn't match my scattered focus.  I can't settle in.  I've spent the day picking up, dropping off, deciding what to make for lunch and breakfast and then making lunch and breakfast simultaneously, driving the lengths of Los Angeles freeways, cursing said freeways, worrying about being late for pick ups and drop offs,  deciding what's for dinner for the six and under crowd, barely making it here...  I'm at a loss for words as to what I could possibly want to drink.  I cannot make another decision.

She'll have a Campari and soda.

That's it.  That's what I wantHe knows.  This man with the warm and reassuring voice seated next to me.  He knows exactly what I want.

But why don't we change it up a little.  Do you have any suggestions for a Campari cocktail?

And so they begin to conspire. These two men.  One a complete stranger - the bartender.  The other - my husband. They discuss my likes and dislikes, and they come up with a drink that would both satisfy and surprise my taste buds.  No decision-making on my part. Finally. 

We were on our way to join some friends at an event.  On a whim we decided to meet up just the two of us for a quick drink beforehand.  We hardly do anything on a whim anymore.  It felt adventurous, secretive.  A stolen moment.  



I'm not much of a drinker.  These days my preferred beverage of choice is often something that will energize, refresh, and see me through the day.  (A smoothie, my green tea, my black tea, simple and oh so enjoyable water, perhaps a spot of my husband's lastest project of the month, kombucha.)  Alcohol often has the exact opposite effect on me.  But I do enjoy that one glass of something every now and then. Anything over one glass, and fatigue, headache and general irritability quickly set in.  So that one glass has to be a drink I thoroughly enjoy.  The glass of red wine - dry, aged and  full-bodied - to accompany dinner, that first and unmatched thirst quenching glass of beer enjoyed on a hot summer's day,  the perfect martini - dirty with extra olives please - shared with friends; and my all time beloved aperitif - campari. I like my cocktails sour, a little bitter with a slight hint of sweet.  And this campari cocktail satisfies all these requirements.


He carefully places the pink concoction in front of me.  It's the color of those LA sunsets we marvel at every now and again.  Other-worldly, surreal, a magical light I can only associate to this expansive city of ours. 

I feel both mens' gazes intensely watching me as I take my first sip.  Conspirators - the stranger and my life partner.  

It's perfect.  I say.  Great, enjoy, says the bartender, and he casually moves on to tend to the needs (anxieties?) of others.  I turn to Drew and just like that I feel myself giving in.  My body shifts, I lean one arm on the bar, chin resting on hand,  the weight of the day is transformed and absorbed by the cool marble bar top.  I settle into the gaze of my husband, our conversation (mostly about the girls), this stolen moment, our little spring fling. 

Happy Mother's Day.




Sunday, May 5, 2013

A SPRING FAVA BEAN, DILL AND EGG STEW - BAGHALI GHATOGH


The salty air.  The very salty sea.  A warm seaside breeze.  Hair tangled and knotted in the wind - sticking to very salty lips. 

These are my memories of Shomal - North.

Memories can be very elusive, hard to pin down.  They tease us with a hazy snap shot of what once was - a time long since passedA familiar scent, taste, the caress of a warm breeze.  Sometimes that's all it takes to get wrapped up in the all-consuming embrace of nostalgia.

The Northern region of Iran bordering the Caspian sea is referred to as Shomal.  It is made up of three seaside provinces: Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan.   

My father's family hails from Gilan, a region well known for its rice paddies, lush green Alborz mountains, popular seaside destinations (for tourists and locals alike), its very distinct Gilaki dialect, and of course its cuisine.  Volumes could be written about the delicious food of Gilan -  khoresh fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut stew - a dish  particularly close to my heart), mirza ghasemi, kabab torsh, zeitoon parvardeh...and of course the abundance of fresh seafood and its much prized caviar.  But the one dish enjoyed most often is baghali ghatogh.

Baghala ghatogh (as it's called in Gilaki) is traditionally made with a type of bean called pacha baghala - which literally translates to short-leg beans.  

I was inspired to try my hand at baghali ghatogh after spotting the abundance of fresh fava beans popping up at the farmers market.  Fava beans (fresh or frozen) or lima beans (fresh or frozen) are often used as a substitute for pacha baghala - which is not readily available outside of Iran.  After a call to my cousin for a little direction I learned that canned white kidney beans (cannellini beans) are also a good and quick substitute.  So you have a few choices for the bean - but I had my sights set on those favas.


Call it cooking serendipity, chance - what you will - it was also right around this time that Baba -  my dad - and step-mother Kumi decided to surprise us with a visit.  And after one glorious family outing to the farmers market I had Baba making his baghali ghatogh.  Fresh fava beans, fresh spring garlic, fresh dill, and eggs.  The makings of a perfect springtime meal.

This dish is very quick and easy to prepare.  Except for one thing - shelling and peeling the fresh fava beans.  I won't sugarcoat this.  It takes some time - as in, it took 45 minutes to get through it.  And like you,  I really don't have an extra 45 minutes to devote to shelling 4lbs of fava beans.  But I do it because fresh favas are here for a short period of time and they taste great - because of the ritual - the tradition - beacause I imagine my aunts, uncles and cousins having done the same.  And yes, also because I'm inclined to get obsessive like that.  To make it a little less time-consuming you can split up the bean shelling and peeling process.  You can shell the beans the night before while you catch up on your favorite tv show.  Then store the shelled beans in a plastic bag in the fridge.  All you have to do the next day is peel the outer skin.  Try not to split the bean in half when you do this.  Once the outer skin has been peeled you have to cook the beans right away.  Or even better, enlist the help of others. (Please note fava beans can cause a rare but serious allergic reaction in some people and children.  Make sure you or your little ones are not allergic before handling or eating favas.)

The afternoon we got back from the farmers market with our 4lb bag of favas quickly turned from a we'll just make a simple baghali ghatogh dinner to an epic food odyssey.  As it often does.  Seduced and inspired by the goods at the farmers market, we decided last minute to throw together a fresh herb koo koo (Kumi's request), steam some artichokes (the girls' absolute favorite), put some rice on and quickly saute some fish (the way Baba likes his baghali ghatogh served).  As for Drew he had no requests - he just loves and consumes it all, in high quantities.  


Baghali ghatogh is typically served over rice, with a side of smoked fish.  Or that caviar from Gilan - if you can get your hands on some... I also like it served over some crusty bread to soak up all the delicious juices with some salty feta cheese (to mimic the salty smoked fish) crumbled on top. 



Every corner of the house was alive with activity.  Baba shelling and peeling the favas at the coffee table - Soleil perched in front of him watching attentively.  Kumi prepping the herbs for the koo koo at the kitchen table - Luna working on homework and munching on watermelon.  Me at the kitchen island - command central - wondering exactly how we got ourselves into this madness.  Every pot in use, both oven and stove in play, the background music trying to keep up with our tempo, children's questions, costume changes (impromptu fairy performance!) and other needs being met.  Absolute wonderful chaos.  And somehow, as is usually the case, it all came together.  All of us gathered around that kitchen table digging into some baghali ghatogh
 
 
I was about Soleil's age the last time we were in Shomal.  And now, all I have to recall from my visits are those hazy snapshots - the salty air, the salty sea, the warm breeze. 

I wonder if many years from now the girls will all of a sudden get a flash, a snapshot of a bustling and loud kitchen filled with the aroma of fresh dill and parsley, homework with a side of watermelon, aged but still strong and gentle hands of a grandfather shelling fava beans...