Monday, March 16, 2015

SCATTERED SHOWERS - A GREEN HERB RICE - SABZI POLO



I wish we could all be together this Nowruz.

I wish we weren't all scattered across the country.

Scattered across the continent.

Scattered across the globe.

She sits in her dedicated spot at our kitchen table.  Her words echo through the kitchen, twisting and turning, bouncing off you, looking and yearning for a spot to land, eventually finding their way out - seduced by the wide open door and a gentle late winter breeze.

Scattering across our parched lawn.

Across our parched city.

Across the country, the continent, the globe.

Slowly and meticulously she sorts through the bunches upon bunches of green herbs scattered before her.   

Parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, tarragon, fenugreek, spinach, green onion, mint.

Fragrant and willing representatives of new life, new beginnings, and Spring.  Nowruz.  Persian New Year.

Back in those days - when I was a little girl - in Iran - everyone started their khooneh takooni - the shaking out of the house weeks before the new year.

She moves on to the cilantro.  Notoriously difficult to sort through.  Methodically her aged but still elegant hands pick the leaves off the stems.  Setting the stems aside for a broth to be used for aash-e reshteh.

Windows would be washed, closets and attics would be sorted through, rugs would be swept and hung out to freshen up.

You turn your head, look over your shoulder, and sneak a quick glance at your carpet.  Faded - but ever present markings of a certain time, a certain age staring right back at you.  The spinach smoothie that got knocked over, the blueberry sauce that didn't quite make it to its destination, the chocolate shavings forever embedded into its mosaic theme.  

Then, on the night of Chaharshanbeh Suri (the last Tuesday night before Nowruz) my Aunt - Ammeh joon and Uncle - Amoo joon would take me to the Chaharshanbeh Suri bazaar.  This was one of the joys of our childhood.

You glance up at the clock, hurriedly grab the sorted bunches of parsley, dill and chives and escort them to the sink.  Scattering the herbs across the cool water.

All the streets would be lit up with lights, candles, colorful balloons, all sorts of decorations.  The scent of the sonbol (hyacinth) drunkenly guiding us through the streets and alleyways.

She slowly but purposefully makes her way to the sink, nudging you away.  You've rinsed the herbs twice.  She thinks they need another rinse.  Her hands reach into the cool water and gently, respectfully lift the greens in and out of the water.

Scattered showers.

Joyful music filled the streets.  Everyone would be out selling their goods. Ajeeleh Chaharshanbeh Suri Tabrizi, the mixed nuts from Tabriz was the best.  And all the kids would get to pick out their favorite candy.  Everyone loved khooroos ghandi - the rooster-shaped, sweet, hard candy.

You quickly lay out fresh towels.  And she patiently scatters the herbs across it to dry.  A field of greens on your kitchen table.  A most familiar sight. 

Ammeh joon would do all her own Nowruz baking.  All the families did their own baking then.  Noon berenji (rice flour cookies) as thin as a piece of paper, noon nokhodchi (chickpea cookies) that would melt in your mouth.  All baked on the manghal (a charcoal grill).

You grab the 10 lb sack of rice and watch as each grain clink-clanks into the bowl.  A most familiar sound.  You rinse the rice a few times - just like she taught you.  Swirling it around and around with your finger.  Rinse, drain, repeat until the water runs clear.  Add fresh water and salt and set aside to soak for at least one hour.  Just as she taught you.

Of course, Ammeh joon and all the ladies would pamper themselves days before Nowruz. Hair would be done, new clothes purchased, make-up beautifully applied.    Everything and everyone should be fresh and new.  Ammeh joon - she had the most beautiful, almond shaped, kohl-rimmed eyes.  Those eyes.  Those eyes.

Once again you transfer the herbs from the kitchen table back to the counter, to the food processor.  Working in batches you pulse away until they are finely chopped.  But not too finely chopped.  It's always a balancing act.  

We used to do all this chopping by hand.  A bunch of herbs, a board, and a knife.

Pulse.  Pulse.  Pulse.

It's much easier and faster now with these machines. 

Pulse.  Pulse.  Pulse.

But what you gain in time, you lose in flavor.  There's something about the blade of the knife that retains the fragrance and flavor of these delicate greens.  But who has the time and patience now to chop all this by hand. 

You bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  You add the rice.

And there you pause.  

Simultaneously.  Both of you.  Mother and daughter.  At the rice pot.  

Tradition, culture and the meaning of life contained in this one critical moment.  Exactly when to drain the rice. 

Each grain of rice should soften on the inside but still have a bite to it.  Not too soon, not too late.

A balancing act. 

You gently nudge her out of the way and grab the rice pot.  Moving the pot from the stove to the sink is not an easy task for her anymore.

You drain the rice as now she gently nudges you out of the way to scatter some fresh water over the rice.

And then came Nowruz. The Sofreh Haft Seen would be set and we'd all gather around it.  Ammeh joon always took such care to set out the most beautiful Sofreh Haft Seen.  The same Zari (ornamental cloth) that you use now for your sofreh - she used then.  And Amoo joon who was the elder of the family always had a bowl full of gold coins ready to be handed out.  For prosperity, for luck in the new year.  




You watch the butter melt, as she sprinkles the saffron.  She scatters the rice over the bottom of the pot.  The tahdig layer.  She sets aside a cup full of freshly chopped herbs and scatters the rest - parsley, cilantro, fresh dill, chives, fenugreek - over the rice.  And then some dried dill. 

Back to the rice.  The herbs.  The dill.  Repeat.  Top off with a couple of fresh spring garlic.  For its flavor, for its aroma.  For spring.  

I can still smell and taste our Nowruz meal.  The koo koo sazi, aash-e reshteh, the smoked fish, the white fish.  

You wrap a fresh towel over the lid and cover the pot.  Let it steam and work its magic for an hour. 

And of course it wouldn't be Nowruz without Sabzi Polo - Green Herb Rice.  Ammeh joon would always first set aside the best part of the tahdig for me.  Just like I used to do for you and your brother.  Just like you do now for the girls.    

She lifts the lid off the pot and instantly the steam, and fragrant aromas of the herbs and rice echo through the kitchen, twisting and turning, bouncing off you, looking and yearning for a spot to land, eventually finding their way out - seduced by the wide open door and a gentle late winter breeze.

You set the platter right next to her.  She makes room for you.  But you ask her to serve the sabzi polo.  Somehow, it always tastes better if she serves it.  You watch as she delicately scatters the rice across the platter, followed by a layer of the fresh herbs she had set aside.  Scatter the rice, scatter the fresh herbs, repeat, and top with golden saffron rice.  

 I wish we could all be together for Nowruz.  Everyone.  Even those that are long gone. 

You take her hand and walk her to her spot at the kitchen table.  As unexpected drops of rain fall to the ground. Taking your breath away.

Scattered showers.

The promise of new life, new beginnings, togetherness, a brand new year, Spring. 

Nowruz.     


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This year we celebrate Nowruz on Friday, March 20th, 2015 at precisley 3:45pm PDT.  Please take a moment to also enjoy the many tempting Nowruz dishes below from talented Persian food bloggers around the globe.  Happy Nowruz!  



Monday, March 9, 2015

SHIO KOJI - A ROUND KITCHEN


Dear friends, I am truly humbled to be included as a finalist in the 2015 IACP Digital Media Awards for Best Narrative Culinary Blog.  What a great privilege and honor to be recognized amongst such amazing, talented individuals.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart (and pot!) for all your kind words, support and encouragement.  It means the world to me.  Go Tahdig!

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♪ MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO ♪

We have a globe. Of the light-up variety. Of the round variety.  

Because the world is round, Mama.  It's the truth, Mama. 

It's the kind the girls love to spin and spin, and then randomly bring to a sudden stop.  Mother Earth graciously, patiently, holding still as their little fingers gently but methodically trace a path through her every field and valley, across mountain ranges and tundra, seas, lakes and oceans. All in a matter of seconds. 

As fast as the speed, Mama.

It's called the speed of light, Luna.

Is that faster than the speed of infinity, Mama?

Explorers on an expedition. Little fingers claiming birth places, lived-in places, want-to-visit places, random, exotic, mysterious places.  When you are five and eight years old, the globe holds an immeasurable, magical sense of mystery and respect.  

As it should. 

For us all. 

Whether your globe lights up or not. 

Shio koji literally translates to sea salt and koji. Koji is rice or soybeans that has been inoculated with a culture called Aspergillus oryzae.  The same culture/mold can be found in soy sauce, miso and sake.  The popularity of shio koji exploded in Japan about five years ago. But it is deeply rooted in the Japanese traditions of food and fermentation that are thousands of years old. And it has happily found its way into my kitchen.

I have my Japanese step-mother Kumi to thank for introducing me not only to this flavorful ingredient, but to the many beauties and majesties of Japanese culture.





Shio koji.

Little fingers search and search but are unable to trace its history back through the rice fields of Gilan.  

No verses of poetry to compare it to zaferan, talayeh sorkheh Khorasan - the prized flaming, golden saffron from Khorasan.  

No documented mentions of world-wise and travel-weary merchants along the silk road expounding on its powers of umami as they whetted their palates on the cha'i from Laheejan. As they bit into the chewy, fragrant, and sweet gaz from Esfahan, nesfeh jahan. Half the world, in Esfahan. 


To prepare shio koji, rice koji, sea salt, and water are combined and left to ferment for about seven days. After fermentation the shio koji is stored in the fridge and used as a salt replacement in various sauces, vinaigrettes, dressing for vegetables, and particularly delicious when used in marinades.  Kumi uses her shio koji in just about everything - like adding a small amount to her morning oatmeal. 

Shio koji delivers an incredible umami punch in the same way that anchovies, tomato paste and kashk do.  And since it is a fermented food you can benefit from its naturally occurring pro-biotics.  Shio koji can be purchased already prepared in a paste form from Japanese supermarkets (I have not seen it yet at any other markets - please leave a comment below if you have) or online.  But it is very simple and much less costly to prepare at home.  And preparing it at home satisfies my appreciation for the simplicity, and magical mystery of fermentation.  

I follow Kumi's instructions when making shio koji.  You need rice koji, fine grain sea salt (I've been emphatically told it has to be sea salt - no table salt please!), a jar, and time to ferment.  Rice koji can be found online, and here, and at Japanese grocery stores.  

Kumi has given me the measurements by metric weight as it is most accurate, so I highly recommend using a scale when measuring out the ingredients.  The measurements below are for a 1 liter glass jar.  You can also easily halve this recipe.  Any left over rice koji can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Place 400 grams rice koji in a bowl.



Break up any clumped up pieces of rice.



Add anywhere between 140-160 grams of fine grain sea salt to the rice.




Combine the sea salt and the rice koji by kneading the two ingredients by hand for about 5 minutes. During this process the rice koji and sea salt will start to come together. As you knead, you should be able to form a clump in your hands like loose pie dough coming together. During this process you should also be able to smell a slight malty aroma, similar to soy sauce.

Using a spoon, transfer the rice koji/sea salt to a sterilized 1 liter glass jar and add 500ml water.  Make sure there is enough water to fully cover the surface of the koji.



Place the cap on the jar and store at room temperature to ferment for 7-10 days.  The length of fermentation depends on room temperature.  It is important to stir the shio koji once a day by lifting the rice up and over from the bottom of the jar. This method of stirring allows for oxygen to circulate.  By days 7-10 the rice granules should be softened and there should be a distinct fermented and malty aroma.  This is how you know the shio koji is ready and has reached full flavor.  You can taste the shio koji.  The rice granules should have softened.  It might taste rather salty but don't panic; this will temper over time.  At this point you can place the shio koji in a food processor and process to a smooth paste.  Kumi doesn't process her shio koji, but I sometimes prefer it smooth.  Store the shio koji in the fridge and use as needed. It will keep in the fridge for up to 6 months.  

Generally, when using shio koji as a salt substitute you can use 2 teaspoons of shio koji for 1 teaspoon of salt. When using as a marinade the general rule of thumb is the ratio 10:1. For every 100 grams of food use 10 grams of shio koji.  Also, take note that shio koji can burn at very high temperatures.  So stick to moderate heat.




 “Nana korobi ya oki”  “Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight.”  Japanese proverb.

Little fingers traced and searched but couldn't find the bridge connecting the shio koji to their mother's birth place.  

Alas, all well mapped out and thought through expeditions must eventually come to an end.  

Make their way back home.  

For rest.  For provisions.  For a hug.  

And just like that little fingers lift off the globe, bid Mother Earth adieu with a dizzying final spin, and fly towards the kitchen. Crashing into the arms, warmth and comforts of their Mama. Recounting harrowing tales of their journeys.

Simultaneously.

At the speed of infinity.

All the while keeping a close eye on their Mama as she reaches in the fridge for Grandma Kumi's shio koji with one hand while stretching her other arm towards the spice cupboard for the zaferan, talayeh sorkheh Khorasan.

A bridge.  A path.  A connection. 

What's for dinner, Mama?

A most umami packed, golden roast chicken.

* All Japanese tea ceremony photos are courtesy of Ramin Deravian copyright 2015