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.