Sunday, June 23, 2013
We had a deep, cushy, cream-colored loveseat in our living room. Back in Iran. That's how I remember it.
I was six years old. Luna's age. And I was notorious for giving my parents a hard time with going to bed. So - many late nights were spent curled up on that love seat, eyelids heavy with sleep - desperately trying to keep awake - not to miss a moment - and inevitably lulled into a sweet slumber by the entrancing sounds of the santur, tar, and violin - and the magical rhymes and rhythms of poetry. Always poetry. My childhood lullaby.
My mother is a poet and lyricist. Not of the "remember when we thought we were so cool, so bohemian, so hip, writing poetry and wearing all black" variety. But as in this was and still is her vocation - well, as close as being a poet can be considered a vocation. Of course for me and my brother she was and is, maman, who happens to be a poet. Who walked around the house (and still does) murmuring to herself. Filling notebooks with dreamlike verse. Staying up until the sun starts to show its face to finish that one hook, that lone melody, that last stanza. And so it was very much the norm to have our house filled with musicians, singers, fellow poets, and lovers of all of the above. There is a deep-seated love and respect for poetry and music amongst Persians. Very formal dinner parties would inevitably end up with everyone sitting in the round. Something of a jam session. See where inspiration would take them. Instruments tuned and voices warmed by the sweet, tangy honey and vinegar sharbat - syrup - sekanjebin.
Sekanjebin literally means vinegar and honey. It is the ultimate summer drink. The Persian version of lemonade. The refreshing combination of sweet and sour. It is a centuries old concoction - considered medicinal in its combination of honey, vinegar, mint and cucumber to hydrate, restore balance in the body, and aid with digestion. If it's summer - there's sekanjebin. It will cool your soul. It will sweeten your tongue and quench your thirst. It will bring you back to life. Yes - this will cure you whispers abound. Like all sharbat - a concentrated syrup is prepared and then diluted with water to taste. Sekanjebin can also be prepared with sugar but I much prefer the use of honey - as it was originally intended to be. I recommend using the best quality honey and a good quality white wine vinegar. Traditionally sekanjebin is served with grated cucumber. But you can also use sliced cucumber. Feel free to try out other refreshing summer fruits - such as lemon or lime slices, watermelon pieces, cut strawberries - as a garnish as well. In the summertime it is also very popular and refreshing to put out a bowl of the syrup and dip crisp Romaine leaves in it. We recently hosted a Father's Day brunch with a few dear friends where I served a pitcher of sekanjebin. It was an absolute hit with adults and children alike.
When we left Iran for Rome - our home away from home - with the future unknown - unaware that we would never set eyes on that land again - never get to say proper goodbyes to so many loved ones - unaware that very soon we would also bid adieu to our beloved Rome - we found comfort in the company of fellow expats. Each family with their own story of loss and an unknown future. Different and yet the same. I missed the familiar comfort of that big cream-colored loveseat. Yet even in those most trying of days - laughter, togetherness and poetry still filled the air. As everyone would inevitably end up gathering on the balconies. Cushions and rugs spread on the floor. Instruments pulled out of their cases and tuned. The haunting melodies of the santoor yearningly bouncing off the rooftops of the eternal city. The Roman summer night in its full splendor. And once again voices warmed and bodies cooled by sekanjebin. And of course, there was poetry. Always poetry. That's how I remember it.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Occasionally I'll be caught standing in front of the fridge or the pantry - a blank look on my face - desperately staring down the goods - hoping that this time, all the produce, legumes and grains have magically developed telepathic powers to convey to me how to prepare them in a mouth watering, nutritious fashion for the whole family to enjoy. It is a losing battle. As my six year old Luna is quick to remind me.
Vegetables and beans and rice can't talk Mama. They can't even think. Even though vegetables are alive they're not like us because they don't have hearts. Except for artichokes. Artichokes have hearts.
So just as I am about to give up - throw my hands up in the air - walk away from it all - declare that my cooking days are done - that one song, that one beat, that one sound, that one voice echoes through the speakers. And in an instant, inspiration fills the house, my knife comfortably cozies up to my hand ready to begin our duet. And before the song has ended I have the night's meal figured out.
What I listen to while I cook is much more critical than what we listen to while we eat. It can make all the difference between an inspired meal and a tedious job that just needs to get done. My musical tastes and the songs that inspire me in the kitchen vary from day to day. But there is one sound that is a constant companion in our house. On at all times - providing the soundtrack to our daily lives. This.
NPR is the sound that links us to the outside world, challenging our minds, provoking debate, but more importantly comforting and grounding us in our daily routine. The meal equivalent of this comforting staple in our house is Loobia Polo - green beans and rice. Loobia Polo is my husband Drew's most loved Persian meal. In fact, it could very well be his all-time favorite dish for dinner. It's the one meal that even the pickiest of little eaters will dig in for seconds. It also makes a great thermos lunch for school the next day.
Where NPR challenges us, gets us thinking, and fills us with sensational-free information - Loobia Polo comforts and soothes our souls. Every morning we wake and without a second thought put the kettle on and turn on the radio. And every Friday we celebrate having made it through another week with an exultant Friday Night Loobia Polo.
Green beans are bursting at the farmers market and in our farm box right now. The green bean mixture is quite easy and quick to prepare. The beans delicately soak up the aromatic and flavorful blend of the spices: saffron, turmeric, cinnamon - with the addition of tomato paste to create a sauce, and of course freshly squeezed lemon juice for that slightly tangy sour taste that dictates most Persian stews. When the end of the recipe asks that you adjust the seasoning to taste, this not only applies to the addition of salt and pepper but also to extra lemon juice if necessary. What you also want to keep in mind is to maintain the texture of the green beans. No mushy, out of the can style, green bean mess please. The green bean mixture is traditionally served mixed in with rice - I typically use brown basmati rice, but you can serve it along side white rice or any grain you prefer. The mixture can also be prepared ahead of time. Fridays happen to be one of our busiest days, so I like to split up the preparation process. I might prep the beans and chicken (prepping is the most time-consuming part) the night before, so all I would have to do the day of is cook the mixture and put on a pot of rice. Or if I can find the time I will cook the mixture a few days in advance. The green bean mixture can be made 2 days in advance and stored in the fridge. It can also be made ahead of time and stored in the freezer for up to 3 months. And if there is one dish that begs to be accompanied by mast o khiar, it's Loobia Polo.
The preparation of the bread tahdig is very similar to that of a rice tahdig. I used bread here for variety and because the girls happened to ask for it. Some days Luna prefers bread tahdig and Soleil prefers rice tahdig. The challenge is to get them to agree to the same kind of tahdig on the same day. Typically we use lavash bread - which is like a thin Middle Eastern style flat bread. On this particular day I used a whole wheat lavash from Trader Joe's. I simply tear fairly large pieces and place them on the bottom of the pot. Then I patch up any open spaces with smaller pieces. Make sure the sides of your pot are well-greased to avoid the bread sticking to the sides of the pot. Bread tahdig can burn very quickly so really keep a nose on this one and use a heat diffuser for the rice steaming part to ensure no burning of the bread. I use an old toaster oven metal rack insert as my heat diffuser.
So thank you Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Renne Montagne, and David Greene for accompanying us through another school year of hurried and harried breakfasts and lunches. Thank you Weekend Edition's Scott Simon, Rachel Martin and puzzle master Will Shortz for your constant reminders that we are now parents, and that weekends and sleeping in are no longer synonymous. And thank you to All Things Considered's Robert Siegel, Mellisa Block and Audie Cornish for being there with us through many weeknights of dinner prep - culminating with a satisfying Friday Night Loobia Polo. And of course, my husband's favorite: Lakshmi Singh.
Please do share - what do you like cook to? Is there a particular tune that gets you going in the kitchen?