Although I found inspiration from this article, I discovered several highly-opinionated reviews of the featured recipes, which is not altogether unusual. Many recipes for international cuisine featured in major publications are often scrutinized by readers with intimate knowledge of a specific country’s cuisine. Sometimes, the scrutiny is warranted, especially when a recipe claims to be authentic, which is why I study dozens of recipes for the same dish in order to find the common components. Other times, I find those “outraged” reviewers to be a bit misinformed albeit emotionally attached. This is likely because they only knew a version from a specific region in a country or perhaps had a mother who took liberties with the dish. In general, though, I find that these recipes capture the spirit of the dish even if they are not 100% authentic.
Shirin Polow (Jeweled Rice Pilaf) and Kufteh (Herbed Meatballs in a Tomato-Plum Sauce)
Kufteh (meaning “pounded meat”) is a general term used for meatballs. In Persian cuisine, the meatball consists of a little meat mixed with rice, yellow split peas, vegetables, and lots of fresh herbs. In some cases, the mixture is simply made into a round meatball and cooked in a tomato sauce, but I also found several recipes where the mixture is actually wrapped around something else, including dried sour plums, walnuts, and even lamb chops. I opted for wrapping mine around dried sour plums and serving them in a tomato-plum sauce. The tartness of the plums and sweetness of the tomatoes created a nice balance with the heartiness of the meatballs.
Borani-e Bedemjan (Eggplant & Yogurt Dip) and Ash-e Reshteh (Noodle Soup)
I wanted to make at least one meal that captured the simpler flavors of Iranian cuisine. I began with a dip that included roasted eggplant, caramelized onions, and garlic mixed with yogurt. I blended the dip with my immersion blender and chilled it in the refrigerator for about an hour before serving. I topped it with walnut pieces, fried garlic chips, and saffron. While the flavor of the dip was nice, the best bites were those loaded up with garlic chips, walnuts, and saffron. That combination topped on salted pita chips provided a satisfying taste of crunchy, smooth, cool, sweet, and salt with the odd twist of saffron.
Reshteh is a noodle similar to linguine that is used in a popular vegetable and bean soup. I made a version that included kidney beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, brown lentils, onion, chives, and parsley. I topped it with caramelized onions and garlic chips. All in all, I liked the soup, but I did not find it to have any particularly genius points to it. In the soup’s defense, part of the reason for my disappointment may have been user-inflicted.
- First of all, I think I cooked it for too long with the noodles, because when I checked the pot, the noodles had soaked up so much of the broth that it wasn’t very soupy, instead it was like a noodle dish with a bean sauce.
- Second, the recipe called for an optional garnish of powdered whey mixed with water. Every picture I found of this dish showed the drizzle of whey over the top, so I assumed that it was an important element. When I went to Whole Foods to purchase powdered whey, I discovered they only carry vanilla-flavored powdered whey, so I decided to ditch this option out of convenience.
- Third, and finally, I was so caught up in a conversation with my friend Katrina who had joined me for dinner on the night I made this dish, I forgot to make the mint oil to drizzle over the top. I remembered it after we had already starting eating the dish and I was saying something about how the soup needed just a little something special to punch up its flavor. Perhaps, this was the “something” and I just missed my opportunity to better understand its true flavors.
Khoresht-e Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Stew with Chicken)
When I read about this dish in the Saveur article, I couldn’t wait to try it. Interestingly, this is one of the recipes that included several harsh reviews from Iranians who insisted that this was absolutely not a proper Khoresht recipe. The two biggest points of contention were the inclusion of spinach in the recipe and the large amount of pomegranate molasses.
- I did not find spinach in other recipes, so I think that ingredient may be a bit of an embellishment.
- The reviewers criticized the use of pomegranate molasses, instead of pomegranate paste, and they also questioned the amount included in the recipe. I think the root of the issue lies in the quality and origin of the pomegranate molasses used in the stew. I found more recipes that called for pomegranate molasses than those calling for pomegranate paste. Still, I thought maybe a trip to my local Middle Eastern market to actually see these ingredients and read their labels might help me resolve the issue. Sure enough, my market did not even carry pomegranate paste, which is likely the reason most recipes do not call for it. In a more interesting discovery, I think I solved the point of contention regarding the molasses. The molasses bottled in the United States included sugar syrup as an ingredient, whereas the bottle from Lebanon touted itself as 100% pure concentrated pomegranate. I purchased one of each bottle and went home to taste them. Both packed a seriously tart punch, but the one bottled in the United States had less of an edge. I would not say it was “sweet” by any means, but I could taste the difference. Likely, someone using the bottled product with sugar would need to use a larger amount to achieve the rich, tart flavor profile of this stew, which would result in an underlying sweetness not generally associated with the dish.
All in all, I was not as romanced by this week's dishes as I was by the article from Saveur. In all honesty, I enjoyed the research more than most of the dishes. Admittedly, though, I’m still thinking about the flavor imparted by the small amount of candied orange peel with saffron and rose water in the rice pilaf. Without a doubt, this week’s work was worth every effort just to discover that beautiful dish.