Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Week Twenty-Five: A Journey to Iran

In March, my friend Carlos forwarded me a copy of Anissa Helou’s Saveur article, “Iran:  The Land of Bread and Spice,” and I’ve been looking forward to my week of Iranian cuisine ever since.  With so many colorful descriptions of dishes flavored with nuts, fruits, and spices, I knew that a focus on preparing this classic, storied cuisine would be both delicious and enlightening.  Because Persian cuisine is the root of Middle Eastern cuisines, many of the dishes featured in the article compelled me to consider their influences on those adapted by other regions I’ve written about this year or discovered through local restaurants and friends.  As I read about the preparation of Iranian rice pilafs, or polows, I immediately considered how it compared to the Uzbek plov I made last month and the Palestinian Maqloobeh my friend Lana prepared for me last year during Ramadan.  In addition to my intrigue regarding the dishes’ influences and preparations, I looked forward to trying new dishes that combine fruits, nuts, and fresh herbs to create interesting flavor profiles.

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)

Shirin Polow
The most traditional preparation of rice in Iran begins with soaking the rice in salted water for a few hours before cooking it.  After soaking, the rice is parboiled and drained.  Oil and seasonings are added to the bottom of the pot (in my case olive oil, saffron, and milk), and similar to the process of my plov, the rice is steamed by mounding it into the center and poking holes in it while it cooks in the covered pot.  In addition to steaming the rice on top, this process crisps the bottom and creates a crust called tah dig.  The crust is broken up into pieces and mixed with the steamed rice to add flavor and texture.  The “jeweled” part of the dish included Orange Peel candied in saffron and rose water, fresh carrots, pistachios, and almonds.  Without a doubt, this dish was the star of the week, and its “jewels” certainly created delicate spikes of unexpected flavors.

Kufteh (meaningpounded 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)

Drani-e Bedemjan
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.

Ash-e Reshteh
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.
Still, it wasn’t a bad dish.  It’s the kind of dinner that you want to eat next to a fire while watching the snow fall in a cozy cabin.  I definitely don’t recommend it for a summer night in Miami!

Khoresht-e Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Stew with Chicken)

Khoresht-e Fesenjan
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.
After reading many, many recipes for this dish, I decided that the one posted on the West of Persia blog seemed to embody the most authentic ingredients and preparation.  It certainly tasted delicious although it was not what I expected.  Maybe it’s because I spent so long researching the pomegranate in the dish, but I expected the foremost flavor to be the tartness from the pomegranate.  Instead, the walnut flavor was the most prevalent with only hints of the sweet-tartness of the pomegranate and earthiness from the cardamom pod.  I used chicken thighs for my stew, which held up well to the heaviness of the walnut and pomegranate mixture.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, another great week of food! I have a question about your eggplant and yogurt dip...did you just use plain yogurt, or did you use plain Greek yogurt? It sounds very similar to a garlic baba ghanoush that we've made. It would be very interesting to try it with yogurt added!