Thursday, 31 January 2013

Roasted&Salted Sunflower Seeds - Tokhmeh - تخمه


Eating sunflower seeds by cracking the hull with teeth is a past time favourite.  On long winter months, this is a popular habit in Iran.  After dinner, the whole family used to eat seeds such as; pumpkin seeds, watermelon or sunflower seeds. I vaguely remember buying warm freshly roasted seeds wrapped in newspaper from a local dried fruits and nuts store 'khoshkbar foroshee'.  This type of store specialises in nuts, seeds, dried fruits and other cooking specialities such as dried orange peel for Jewelled rice, dried morello cherries, etc... Usually, it is the sort of store you would pop in and out, but there were long queues just before Naw Ruz for everyone to stock up on their Ajil (mixture of nuts), similar to the Christmas mad rush. 


Barberries - Zereshk - زرشک



My first encounter with fresh zereshk was when I was too little to understand what the fuss was all about.  On a scortching hot day, we made a trip to the city of Birjand (far East) to visit a cousin of my father's.  Our journey began from Babol (City of narenj blossom) in the North.  The car was packed with family members and dad was the driver.  I sat on my aunt's lap for the entire journey.  My grandma Dade-Bajee, aunt Talaat, uncle Parviz and aunt Haleemeh came along too. 


We saw not much apart from dry desert, dust and occasionally a few cars.  I cannot recall how close to Birjand we were but Grandma spotted something.  She believed she saw zereshk shrubs. The zereshk shrubs were too precious to appear along the road full of ripe berries. Of course, no one believed her at first but her persistence paid off and the car was parked on the side of the road.  We got off the car but the extreme heat was unbearable. Every time a car drove past us we were covered with dust and our eyes were filled with dust.  A few steps on the soft sandy desert and we were sinking in the burning hot sand.  Even now I remember how hard it was just to pick a hand full of those berries under the burning sun.  I was immediately asked to return to the car for shade. The shrubs had tiny thick leathery leaves full of thorns protecting these delectable desert berries. In the hot summer day these clusters of red juicy egg shaped berries looked like little jewels hanging on the branches of zereshk shrubs.


Zereshk or sereshk is the persian name for barberry. Zereshk has dark red to purple red colour with tart taste and can grow in climate with cold winter and very hot summers. According to Encyclopedia, there is evidence that zereshk cultivation goes back to two hunderd years in Persia. This is one of the most highly prized berries in the world. Apparently, there are two types European and Persian Zereshk. Persian zereshk is seedless. The most popular way of eating zereshk amongst Persians is to serve with rice and as it is an exotic ingredient, it is mainly used in formal and festive food.  Zereshk juice, jam and roll ups are other common products. Zereshk is available in dried form. When buying zereshk, look for deep red colour and store Zereshk in the freezer to avoid browning.

It is best to soak it in cold water for few minutes then rinse under running water. The  way to prepare it is by melting little butter (vegetable oil also works well) in hot pan then add zereshk and sugar, sauté for about a minute and remove from heat or until sugar melted and zereshk is plumped up. Sautéed zereshk and dissolved Saffron is added to parboiled rice before steaming or mixed with cooked rice just before serving.




Zereshk is one of the ingredients that brings the flavour of Persia to your plate.



Sunday, 27 January 2013

Yoghurt and Cucumber Dip - Maast-O-Khiar - ماست و خیار‎

 
As far as I know, no one knows the origin of this condiment.  Perhaps, it is a derivative of the Greek Tzatziki.  Different variations of yoghurt and cucumber is made all over the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent.  Although different regions add their own flavours to it (walnuts, garlic, olive oil, spices, herbs, etc...) the main ingredients remain the same; cucumber and yoghurt.  Generally, a summer time condiment to make as cucumbers are in season and both ingredients are cooling in the ancient Chinese medicine.   Now days all of these ingredienst are found year long and what a great dip it makes for bread platters.


Here is  the recipe:
 
1 Cucumber, finely chopped
2 Cups Yoghurt
1 Clove Garlic
1 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Dried Mint (or chopped fresh)

Method:
  1. Crush the garlic and mix all ingredients in a deep bowl.
  2. Garnish with fresh mint leaves. Taste and add extra salt if its not salty enough.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Jewelled Rice - مرصع پلو، آجیل پلو، جواهر پلو




I am not quite certain whether this rice dish needs an introduction or a recipe. The one dish most people associate Persian dishes with is jewelled rice. Jewelled rice with it's dazzling colours is the crown jewel of the ancient Persian cuisine. Traditionally, it is served at celebrations such as weddings. Rice with heavenly saffron, nuts, orange peel and fruits doesn't get any better than this. It is an explosion of flavours and textures. Variations of this dish is made all over the Middle East.

 

This dish is a great symbol of going the distance for an amazing meal. There are so many elements in this dish, carefully prepared and proportionately added to rice that reflect the hard work required. Persians are famous for their hospitality and only the most perfect foods are served to guests. The greatest saying 'guests are God's friends' is on most people's lips.  As a child, I had no idea what it meant, and seeing my mother prepare the most laborious dishes for our guests was common, and I often wondered why feasting is saved for guests only.  Many years ago, people showed up un-invited at their friend's and family's doorstep and in some instances it was a burden to cook for them due to lack of refrigeration.  So, this proverb came in handy to remind the host that the guest showed up at their house by the will of God and it is the host's responsibility to treat them with utmost respect and generosity.  Glancing back at hosting guests in Iran and New Zealand, I realise that the way we host hasn't changed, but what has changed is of course the food itself, as we try to introduce different flavours to our every day cooking and to our friends of different cultures.


This is my signature Naw-Ruz dish.  It is not a traditional new year dish so, I have been breaking traditions a little, but it is a perfect way to introduce a Persian dish to friends as it is not too challenging to master and they can make this for their friends and family.  If you need the recipe, please ask :)


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Ghormeh-Sabzi - Persian Herb Stew - قورمه‌ سبزی


Persian dishes unite flavours of very simple ingredients rather than overpowering subtle flavours of each ingredient with spices or pungent sauces. A very simple ingredient that is not abundantly utilised in most cuisines are herbs. In Iran to this day, herbs take centre stage and without them cooking some dishes is impossible. There are not many traditional fresh salads and vegetable side dishes served with meals, but instead the use of vegetables and herbs has been incorporated in main dishes.  Eating fresh herbs with a meal is another popular way of eating lots of herbs. 

We decided to introduce the most loved herb stew now rather than later and seriously stress about the complexity of this dish.

Ghormeh-Sabzi is simply the queen of all herb stews. The North's eating culture is completely different to the rest of the country and Ghormeh-Sabzi can be served there for a family meal usually during winter. Generally, a laborious dish like this one is only prepared for loved ones and in special occasions to impress guests.  Mastering this dish is the pride and joy of every mother and wife. So important is this dish, that herbs used to be sun dried and kept in the pantry to be cooked when special herbs were out of season.  Of course now, fried herbs are kept frozen for convenience. 


Like all great dishes, the secret ingredients are plenty of love, patience and most importantly expertise.  A great tip for mastering this dish is first to know the flavour and texture of a great Ghormeh-Sabzi and secondly practise with your perfectionist hat on! 




Ingredients:

1 big bunch Parsley
1/2 a bunch Coriander (optional)
A hand full of Spinach Leaves (optional)
1 small bunch Fenugreek
1/2 a bunch Baby Leeks
4 Cups water
400g Lamb, cubed
1 Medium Onion, chopped
1 Can Red Kidney Beans (390g)
3-4 Dried Limes, halved and seeds removed
Salt and Pepper
Lemon Juice
Oil for cooking




Method:

  1. Finely chop all the herbs either by hand or in a food processor.
  2. In a fry pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil on high heat.
  3. Add the herbs and stir occasionally until herbs are soft. 
  4. Add a generous amount of oil, keep stirring continuously until herbs absorb all the oil and turn into a deep green colour.
  5. In a pot, brown onions with little oil.
  6. Add chopped meat and stir occasionally until the meat is sealed.
  7. Add water and simmer until the meat is just cooked (roughly 30 minutes).
  8. Add fried herbs, can of drained beans, dried limes and close the lid.
  9. Cook for a further 45 - 60 minutes.
  10. To check to see if the stew is done, look for a layer of deep green oil covering the surface of the stew.
  11. Adjust taste by adding lemon juice, salt and pepper.
 
A few points worth mentioning:
  • Fried herbs can be stored in a freezer bag and frozen until needed.
  • Coriander and spinach are not traditionally used in this dish, however it can be used as a substitute. As long as herbs are fried perfectly, it should not alter the taste significantly.
  • Dried beans can be used by soaking it overnight and cooking it with meat.
  • When frying herbs, if the colour has turned black, it's burnt and the delicate flavours are all lost and will taste slightly smokey in the finished stew.
  • Beef can be used instead of lamb. 

Friday, 18 January 2013

Mahi-Shekampor- Stuffed fish - ماهی‌ شکم پر




Caspian Sea (دریای خزر Daryā-i Xazar) is the largest lake in the world and it's coastline is shared by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. The fact that this massive sea is landlocked contributes to it's unique fauna. The Caspian Sea has Sturgeon in great numbers, which yield the most famous and prized sea delicacy; roe (eggs) that are processed into caviar. Apart from Caviar, all the fish from the Caspian Sea is not found elsewhere in the world. Mahi Sefeed (white fish) is the King of all fishes from the Caspian Sea and is not only a traditional New Year's Day meal but it is served any day for a humble family meal.


This dish is full of fragrant native herbs with carefully home cooked pomegranate paste and sun-dried pomegranate seeds. Traditionally, it takes hours and hours to fully cook and for flavours to come together. It is a labour of love with harmony in flavours.


On one occasion, I clearly remember my dear grandmother (Dade-Bajee) making this dish the traditional way. After cleaning the fish, she gathered a few twigs from trees. She carefully placed the small twigs on the bottom of a fry pan while she complained that the twigs weren't to her liking. She poured a little oil in the pan and filled the fish with a special stuffing with native herbs. She then carefully layed the fish on the twigs so that they won't touch the bottom of the pan and later stick to it. The fry pan was closed with a sheet of metal and on top of that hot burning charcoal was placed. The stove was turned on very low. After a good few hours the charcoal was removed and the stove was turned off. There it was, an amazing melt in the mouth heavenly dish.


A few decades has passed since I saw how the same dish was prepared. I have endeavoured to recreate the same dish my Dade-Bajee prepared for me, except I faced two main challenges; one the fish is nowhere to be found, and the time consuming method of cooking with charcoal does not fit into our hectic everyday lives. Perhaps one day, we could go back to the same region and try it with the same fish. Ensha-Allah!






Ingredients:

Whole fish, cleaned
Oil for frying


For Stuffing:

One bunch Coriander or Cilantro, finely chopped
Quarter of a bunch Parsley, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon chopped Mint (optional)
4-5 cloves Garlic, minced
1/4 Cup Walnuts, chopped
Half a Cup Pomegranate Paste
1-2 Tablespoon Sugar (optional)
1 Tablespoon Ground Dried Pomegranate Seeds (optional)
Turmeric, Black Pepper and Salt

Method:

  1. Mix stuffing and taste. Add extra seasoning if needed.
  2.  Season the fish by rubbing salt and turmeric on the skin of the fish.
  3. Half fill the cavity of a whole fish with stuffing.
  4.  In a large non-stick frying pan, heat few tablespoons of oil until very hot.
  5. Fry one side of the fish for five minutes on high until golden and crispy.
  6. Carefully, flip the fish. Cover and lower the heat.
  7. Cook for 20 minutes on low heat.
  8. Serve on a large platter with plenty of steaming rice and yoghurt.


Nooshe-Jan!
!نوش جان

Green Plum Stew - خورشت آلوچه



This dish is a true Caspian region dish, in particular in some parts of Mazandaran.  It is very similar to the Persian Omelet, except it is made from green sour plums.  In fact, Persians have very sweet tooth and a very sour one.  Sour snacks are equally popular to sweet ones.  Dried morello cherries and no sugar added fruit leathers with no apples to sweeten them were very popluar in my school years.  In New Zealand, green sour plums are a mission to find, and finally I was lucky enough to find some nice ripe ones with plenty of acid in them!

This dish is prepared in spring, just before the summer sun turns plums yellow and fills them with plenty of sugar. What I do recall from childhood is the abundance of green sour plums on every branch of a plum tree, so laden with fruit that to a child's innocent mind it seemed that the fruits were bothering the tired branches covered in soft cloud-like pale green moss. So magical were those trees that no doubtedly was an easy inspiration to a home cook for this seasonal dish. This is what sweet and sour pork is in the Oriental cuisine.

 


Here is the recipe:

400g Sour Plum (washed, can cook as whole or seeds removed)
1 large Onion chopped
1/4 Cup Water
3 Tbs Vegetable Oil
1tsp Tumeric
1 Tbs dried mint
4 Tbs Sugar (depends in ripeness and sugar content)
4 to 5 eggs
Salt and Pepper to season


  1. Saute onions with oil and turmeric over medium heat until onions are soft.
  2. Add the plums and saute for a further few minutes.  Add water, sugar and mint. 
  3. Cover and simmer on low heat until the plums are soft (about 15-20 minutes).
  4. Taste and add extra sugar to your liking.  (If extra sugar is added, simmer for another 5 minutes.)
  5. Break the eggs in the simmering stew.  Place the lid on until the eggs are cooked.
  6. Serve with steaming rice.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Salad Shirazi - سالاد شیرازی



This unsophisticated salad is a summer time salad when the fresh aroma of summer produce is wafted through the open air Bazaars. The name suggests that this salad is from the city of Shiraz however, it is made all over Iran with slight variations. It is typical of the northern region to use verjuice or bitter orange juice (Narenj) in salads or stews. Fresh basil leaves is also substituted for mint leaves.


4-5 Lebanese cucumbers
4 - 5 Tomatoes
1 small Onion
Juice of 1 Lemon or 1/4 cup verjuice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dried mint optional
Olive Oil optional



  1. Chop cucumbers, tomatoes and onion into cubes of same size. Place them in a large salad bowl.
  2. Pour lemon juice and sprinkle mint.  Add salt and black pepper to season.
  3. Toss lightly to mix. Refrigerate for about 1/2 hour before serving.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Yoghurt Drink - Doogh - دوغ


Doogh is a popular yoghurt based quencher and is usually drank with Kebab and rice during summer time.  Traditionally in Iran, butter is extracted from fat in yoghurt while in other parts of the world butter is exctarcted from cream.  Churning yoghurt into doogh and butter is a time consuming process.  Milk is collected in large clay pots (koozeh) used as a butter churn and a little yoghurt is added to make yoghurt.  Once yoghurt is ready, the churn is shaken backwards and forwards to separate butter granuels from yoghurt, which is collected and cooled to form balls of butter and the remaining liquid is served as doogh.



Doogh Abali is the most popular carbonated doogh commercially available, however to make this drink at home is an effortless task.  I prefer to make this with slightly sour yoghurt, plenty of salt and carbonated water (S.Pellegrino is best).  For every glass, add 2-3 tablespoons of yoghurt with water and salt to a blender jug and blend for a minute.  Add plenty of ice cubes in hot summer days!







Naz Khatun - ناز خاتون

The word 'Naz' in the Iranian vocabulary signifies glory, elegance, young or pride, and the word 'Khatun' is a female title of nobility and alternative to male Khan (Wikipedia).  Naz Khatun is a condiment but not aged like torshi.  It is prepared with grilled eggplant (aubergine), herbs and verjuice.  Traditionally, in Babol it is served with brown lentile rice and fried eggs in summer months when eggplants are in season.   However, different variations of it are made in other parts of the country such as; the addition of walnuts, pomegranate paste, unsweetened pomegranate juice or golpar-namak.  The eggplants are grilled whole on the stove (or charcoal), once fully grilled the skin is removed and the soft eggplant is mashed with a knife on a chopping board.  It is so common to hear this noise when one walks past homes around lunch or dinner time.  To the mashed eggplant then a herb and garlic paste is added with enough verjuice to make a thick soup consistency.  Raw onions are chopped and placed in naz khatun made of verjuice to reduce its bitterness before serving.
Here is the recipe:
  1. Grill one large eggplant on the stove until the skin is completely burnt.
  2. Place the eggplant in a bowl and cover with clingfilm.  This makes it easier to peel it later.
  3. Once cool, peel the eggplant and place it on a chopping board.  With a kitchen knife, blade facing the board, mash the eggplant.
  4. Place in a bowl.  Add the herb paste and verjuice.  Salt and pepper to season.
  5. It is best to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to let the eggplant soak in verjuice.
To make the herb paste:
Equal quantities of Anise Basil and Parsley
Garlic
Salt
You can still use the same old method of grinding the herbs and garlic with a stone in a back and forth motion on a chopping board, but now there is an easier way of making herb pastes.  In a food processor bowl, place half quantities of basil and parsley.  Add a few cloves of garlic and process until it turns into a paste.  Alternatively, using an electric mincer is a better option as the herb pastes will not have strings left over in them. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Sour Green Plums - گوجه سبز - آلوچه - هلی کتنی



The tallest sour green  plum tree in the neighbourhood was none other than the one in the front yard of my aunt's house.  In my humble and childish mind, she lived in the busiest, longest and narrowest cul de sac in the world where cars cannot even pass through its bended corners.

One spring afternoon when the plums are just ready to pick, she would sit under her tree with a large wooden chopping board, a round smooth stone to fit the palm of her hand, a bunch of mint and a handful of salt. Then the front door is left open while she keeps grinding the mint with salt to make a paste eyeing the outside in case some one walked past.  As soon as she saw someone walked past she called out their name and invited them to come in to eat some plums.  She sent them away asking them to spread the word.  This continued until most of her neighbourhood had some.   Now, the biggest question on my mind is whether that tired plum tree is still alive and whether this act of sharing and generosity is still continuing in that neighbourhood.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Golpar Namak - گلپر نمک




Golpar-namak is a mixture of salt and ground golpar or Persian Hogwood. You will find this spice mix in almost every grandma's spice collection to enhance the flavour of some of the simplest dishes. Whole golpar is also a stable pantry item for an old tradition of removing curse and stopping bad luck.



Golpar is the thin seedpod of Angelica plant. It is commonly referred to as "Angelica Seeds" which is an incorrect name for the tiny seedpods.  It has a distinct aromatic woody flavour with subtle bitterness. It is a perfect addition for Torshi (persian preserves and chutneys), sprinkled over sour plums, cucumbers and pomegranate.

As most regions of the world have witchcraft as part of their history, so do the Persians! In old tradition, golpar is believed to dispel bad omen and brings good luck when burnt. The eldest member of the family sprinkles golpar in a special metal plate filled with burning charcoal, it smokes and gives a pleasant smell. While reciting a special verse, the burning plate is circulated over the head of everyone in special ceremonies and family gatherings.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

ته دیگ - Base of the Pot - Tah-deeg

Tah-deeg means the bottom or the base of the pot.  There are a few options for Tah-deeg to choose from; saffron, naan, potatoes and of course just plain.  Before returning drained rice back into the pot for steaming, a little oil is added to the pot with some saffron or turmeric with or without sliced potatoes to cover the base or with a layer of naan.  With the aid of little oil the bottom layer fries and yields in a gloden crispy crust every one is dying to seize one before it runs out! 





Friday, 4 January 2013

Rice - Chelo - پلو



Rice is believed to have come from India to Iran via the Silk Road.  Nearly every meal has hot steaming fragrant rice as the centre piece.  Rice to Persians has only one meaning; Basmati.  A number of varieties of rice is grown in the Caspian region with Tarom Domsiah being the highest grade of Basmati resulting in the most fragrant, fluffiest, flakiest and the lightest cooked rice, even though it is a very low yielding crop however, quality goes before quantity for rice aficionados.  Iran has never been able to commercially export this grain and it has never been able to meet demand there.  Today, Iran imports rice from India and Pakistan however, the imported grains lack the distinctive flavour and aroma Tarom Domsiah has.


Persian rice is a new revelation for those that have tried sticky Asian rices.  There are two methods of cooking rice; one being Dami or Kateh, and the other is the most popular method of boil-drain-steam.  Kateh is the most simplest method which involves adding water, salt and oil to rice and cooking it on low heat until all the water is absorbed.  The latter results in a more fluffier and flakier rice which gives the rice connoisseurs the option of choosing from a variety of tah-deegs (crust of the bottom of the pot). 


The most elegant way to serve rice is to turn it upside down from the pot unto a serving platter to display the golden crunchy tah-deeg for everyone to fight over!  A humble home cooked meal usually has a platter of rice spooned from the pot and the tah-deeg cut into pieces and placed over cooked rice.  There is a never ending list of stews plain steamed rice is serves with so, mastering the steaming method is a rewarding experience!




Cooking rice the Persian way, step by step:

Ingredients: 
2 cups basmati rice or other good quality long grain white rice
2 tablespoon salt
Oil for tah-deeg
2 table spoon Oil or Butter 
2 litres water
2 tablespoon saffron dissolved
extra water


Method:

1. Wash the rice under running water until water runs clear and drain.

2. Bring water to boil in a heavy-based pot.  Add the rice and salt to the boiling water and stir few times until water returns to the boil.  Allow rice to boil for 5 minutes or until slightly soft and elongated. 

3. Drain rice in a colander (strainer) to remove the starchy water. Pour 1 cup of lukewarm water over the rice. Add 1 tablespoon of saffron to 1/2 cup of parboiled rice and mix well. 

4. Heat a non-stick or heavy-base pot. Add enough oil to cover the base. Pour saffron rice into the pot and spread to cover the base.  Spoon the remaining rice on top into heaped pile and reduce the heat. 

5.  Use the end of a wooden spoon and lightly push it few times into the rice, about 2-3 cm deep to make wells to trap steam. Cover the inside of the lid with a tea towel or two layers of paper towel. Put the lid on firmly. 

6. In a saucepan, heat 1/4 cup of water and butter or oil until bubbling. Add saffron and pour it over the rice and return the lid immediately. Cook for further 30 minutes on low heat. 

7. Remove the lid, put a serving platter on the top of the pot and turn the pot upside down to remove the rice completely into the platter or spoon the rice out carefully not to disturb the tah-deeg, then break the tah-deeg and arrange it around the rice or in a separate plate. 



A few points worth mentioning: 

It is best to practice this method of rice cooking a few time, as the amount of water and boiling time depends heavily on how long the rice has been aged after harvesting and on the variety of rice.


If you don't have a non-stick pot, use a heavy-base one. Once the rice is cooked, place the pot half way into a cold water for few seconds. 

Every region has it's own preferred method of cooking this simple grain such as; soaking the rice in water for a few hours before boiling.  In fact, it significantly reduces boiling time.