Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Cooking Persian at Home
Just in time for Nowruz -- the Persian new year and the first day of spring, my friend and I decided to cook up a Persian feast and if I may say so myself, it was a smashing success.
Considering it was my very first time, I was pretty happy with how the dishes turned out. They included lentil salad (salad-e adas), meat patties (kotlet-e gusht), saffron steamed plain rice, herb kuku (kuku-ye sabzi) yogurt and cucumber dip (mast-o khiar) and pomegranate Khoresh with chicken (khoresh-e fesenjan ba jujeh). My friend made ash-e jow, an aromatic barley soup and rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi), both of which were delicious.
We used the cookbook, New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij, as our guide and purposely made some dishes that are new year staples, such as the herb rice representing rebirth and fish representing life. The herb kuku is made out of egg, which represents fertility.
We started with the barley soup, which was packed with flavor and vitamins. It had herbs, chick peas, kidney bean and everything else healthy and nutritious you could think of. The lentil salad was nothing special. The breaded and pan-fried meat patties were made out of lamb and the accompanying tomato sauce added a refreshing touch to the meatiness and crunchiness of the lamb and potato patty very well.
The herb kuku is essentially an omelet with loads of herbs, including parsley, cilantro, dill and fenugreek, which I had never worked with. Discovering new ingredients I had never used while browsing the narrow isles of Iranian food markets in Westwood was part of the fun. Most of the ingredients are available in any market, however. I found the fresh herbs in the Iranian markets to be much more fresh. We bought lavash bread from our favorite Persian bread place, Shahrzad Restaurant.
The fresh herb rice and roasted striped bass were a great pairing as well. The pomegranate khoresh with chicken was my favorite to make, not only because an Iranian friend had unknowingly challenged me to make it (he recommended against making it because of its difficulty level) but I got to use another new ingredient, pomegranate paste, which was the base flavor of the chicken. I used drum sticks and thighs because I like dark meats and braised them for over two hours. The result was a slight sweetness (from the pomegranate concentrate and butternut squash cubes that were added) and slight nuttiness (from the finely ground walnuts) with a hint of saffron -- wonderful fall-off-the-bone braised chicken unlike any I've had before. This went very well with full-bodied red wine.
I also made white basmati rice for the first time. I had made the mistake of making brown basmati rice in my regular rice cooker before and it had always come out undercooked. I was glad I managed to accidentally make the rice with the crust in the bottom (tah-dig), thanks to my stove that has a function to keep things warm. While I had it on warm, the golden crust formed and gave a great crunch to the rice. The yogurt and cucumber dip was also different from the ones we usually get in the restaurants around West LA. It was so much more complex. It contained raisins and walnuts that added great texture and dimension to the sauce, whereas most restaurants usually seem to keep it simple with yogurt, dill and garlic -- or at least that's all I taste.
The bottom line is, I had a great time venturing into a new cuisine that was totally new to me and discovered dishes not served in restaurants that I would never have a chance to try unless I got invited to a home-cooked Persian meal, which may not happen very often. Thanks to YT for suggesting it and I urge you to try experimenting with new food and ingredients. Now that we've tried these dishes, we feel more confident that we could whip up something more improvised next time around. And the recipes were not that difficult so were less intimidating for first-timers.
We finished our feast off with some freshly made saffron/rose water/pistachio ice-cream from a new Persian store called Super Sun on Westwood Blvd. just south of Sta. Monica Blvd. It was the perfect ending to our Nowruz celebration. So, get out of your comfort zone and try something new! And Nush-e Jan! (I'm guessing this means bon appetit because all the recipes in the book ended with that phrase. Anyone care to confirm this?)