Monday, October 20, 2008

sekanjebin (thick sweet mint-and-vinegar syrup)

When I came across my Portuguese friend, Jorge/ʒɔRʒ/ a few weeks ago, he told me that his fiancée and he had just "drank the last drop". I couldn't remember what he was referring to, so realising my confusion he told me: "the sweet mint drink". I had to think hard to remember how long ago was it that I had brought Clara and Jorge a bottle of sekanjebin; It was about a year ago, when they had another one of their great Portuguese parties after coming back to US from Portugal, sharing port and cheese, alongside fantastic homemade octopus salad and other Portuguese delicacies... and as a gift, I had offered them a bottle of sekanjebin. They should have been too tough on themselves, drinking it in very small quantities and sharing it only with very special friends and family members (otherwise how could it have lasted for a year?!). So, I thought instead of giving Jorge a fish, I teach him how to catch fish*. My friend, Jorge, now you owe me a lesson on all the nuances of octopus recipes!

The sweet mint and vinegar drink goes back to a long time. At least 800 years ago, as it has been mentioned by Rumi, the persian poet in his six-volume poem-book: In the 1st volume Rumi narrates the saga of a Prince, where things go wrong, and to demonstrate how badly things got screwed up, he mentions that, paradoxically almond oil caused skin dryness, whereas sekanjebin, ironically, caused surplus of yellow bile, leading to the excess of choleric humour**. The term Rumi uses is serkangabin, which is a combination of serke (vinegar) and angabin (syrup, sweetness). Whether the recipe used 800 years ago is exactly the same as the one we use nowadays, I have no idea. Even if not exactly the same, for sure it contained vinegar and sugar, so it would be pretty close, and remember, its eight-hundred years; how many recipes do you know that have remained intact after eight centuries?

The Persian word sharbat (ie syrup) comes from the Arabic root (sh,r,b) meaning to drink, where other words as sharāb (wine), mashroob (any alchoholic drink), and sharbat are derivatives (sharbat is the only soft drink derived from the root!). In Persian, sharbat is a refreshing summer drink made up of water and fruit, fruit juice or herbs, sweetened and thickened. According to this definition, lemonade is a sharbat, made from fresh squeezed lemon juice, sugar and cold water. However, most sharbats are prepared in a more elaborate manner.

Among the well-known persian sharbats there are the more common ones such as limoo (keylime), albāloo (sour cherry), toot-farangi (strawberry) and beh-limoo (quince & keylime). The less common ones include rivās (rhubarb), golāb (rosewater), zaferān (saffron), shāh-toot (blackberry) and tameshk (black raspberry ). How common is sekanjebin? It depends on the household. At our place, sekanbebin was the normal flora! of our kitchen cabinet and it could be found almost all year around, as it was my Dad's favorite (Was there anything with my dad's humour that went well with the drink? No idea!). On the other hand, I've had friends that had never tasted it and knew it only as an old traditional Persian drink, existing in old books and grandma's recipies. Still, I think sekanjebin is the most traditional among persian sharbats, and definitely the most unique one.

Before explaining how to make sekanjebin, let me emphasise not to mix up sharbat with sorbet, which is a French word derived from sharbat/sherbet, and usually refers to a non-dairy frozen sweetend fruit juice/puree. In US, sherbet and sorbet are sometimes used interchangeably, which leads to more confusion.


* A Persian proverb meaning to give sb the more basic skills of doing sth rather than offering them the end-product. An example would be teaching sb how to make sekanjebin instead of giving them a bottle of the boisson!

** Yellow bile has a warm and dry quality, and if anything, sekanjebin would be cold and moist, quite the opposite of choleric.

Sekanjebin continues here

Ingredients (yields around 2 litres: 40-50 servings)

Edibles needed:

1.5 litres of water
3 kg sugar
2 bunches of mint
2 cups of white vinegar (500 ml) (See below)

Non-edibles needed:

wooden spoon
cheese cloth (seive can be used if cheese cloth not available)

One point to mention before explaining the recipe is the type of vinegar used. At home the most commonly available vinegars are white and red ones; white vinegar would be a diluted solution of acetic acid, whereas red vinegar would be obtained from fermented macerated grapes. In contrast, in US, red vinegar (and even sometimes white) is made from fermentation of alcohol (hence wine vinegars). I personally play it safe, using the white vinegar to avoid adding flavours I'm not used to in sekanjbin; I dont want any other flavour from the vinegar except the tartness of acetic acid.

Start with cutting off the 1-2 cm end of the mint stalks. Wash the mint thoroughly. À la grandma, the mint stalks are tightened together with a piece of string (similar to making a bouquet garni), so that it'll be easier to remove at the end. I find it difficult to tighten up the mint after giving them a thorough wash, as they dont stay together afterwards. Besides, I've got to filter it anyway to get rid of the floating mint pieces, so I go without the bouquet garni, but if you feel like doing something fancy, go on.

At home sometimes confectionery sugar (khāke ghand) is used instead of sugar, or to replace some of it. The reason is that confectionery sugar is a by-product of cubing the sugar cone: persians drink their tea with cube sugar (ghand), and the uncubed sugar comes in ~1.5 kg cones. So you've got to cube it at home to obtain cube sugar; the by-product is confectionery sugar: the very fine sweet powder, and since making sharbat needs a good amount of sugar, the powdered sugar could be used for this purpose. (You can also buy cube sugar at stores, which a lot of people would do nowadays; however it is too soft, and immediately dissolves into tea, whereas the home-prepared cube sugar gradually releases its sweetness until you are finished drinking your brewed beverage; the details of making Persian tea would be for another post)

Making sekanjebin starts with preparing the simple syrup, which consists of 2:1 weight ratio of sugar and water: Place the water, sugar and mint in the pot and bring it to a boil. When it starts boiling, reduce the heat so it makes only small bubbles (ie to parboil), and the syrup would start thickening. It would be roughly around 30 minutes from the start of the boil. When reached proper thickness add the vinegar, give it a few stirs, and wait for another 4-5 minutes. Dont let it boil too much with the vinegar as the vinegar will evaporate quickly. Turn off the heat. You're almost done!

More on the the proper thickness: With other syrups its very important to get the thickness called ghavām in persian (not the early 20th century prime minister!): How to know whether its got to ghavām stage? I just look at the viscosity when its dribbling from my wooden spoon back into the pot; the most objective! way is to place a drop on you fingernail where it should stay and not run. If not thick enough (not ghavām āmade), it might grow mold; this would be of more concern if the sharbat is kept for a long time*; mold formation more likely happens for those sharbats that contain fruit juice. If you think its too tricky to get the right consistency for preventing fungal invasion, keep the bottle in the fridge.

The final touches on making sekanjebin: Let your syrup cool down, then pass it through the cheese cloth to get rid of the broken mint parts (my mom had a spare cotton scarf for filtering purposes). Give it a good squeeze as there is plenty of the syrup having soaked into the mint. Discard the mint. Your syrup is ready. bottle it and keep it somewhere cool. (fridge is good, not necessary as mentioned above)

How to serve:

i) You can use it as a lettuce dip.

ii) Add cold water to it: you have a refreshing drink! The amount of water is quite up to you depending on how sweet you like it; I prefer it with only a tinge of sweetness.

iii) Peel and grate a cucumber, preferably an English cucumber (through large pores), add sekanjebin syrup and water, and you have a refreshing dessert.

Nooshe jaan (Bom apetite!!!)


* like Jorge's ! However Jorge, dont worry; I personally make yours, so the thickness has been properly taken care of.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

khoresh e rivaas (rhubarb stew) Part II

Now that you've got all the ingredients, we can pursue with making the stew.

Rhubarb stew is similar to celery stew, to a second-order approximation* I would say. In the category of green herb stews, I would group
rhubarb and celery stews together apart from ghorme sabzi, since both of the first two have the aromotic herbs (mint and parsley) compared to ghorme sabzi herbs**.

Pick the mint leaves and discard the stems. For the parsley, cut the stems off leaving only 2-3 cm of the stem with the leaves. Wash the vegetables thoroughly, rinse and pat-dry (or if you've got a salad spinner go for it; I don't have room for one at my place). Now the difficult part comes, which is chopping the vegetables. Green vegetables in persian cuisine are chopped to different fineness depending on the dish, and the size is not even the same for all stews: ghorme sabzi has got the finest, while for rhubarb or celery it would be chopped less fine. If you've got a food processor go for it (however you dont want the vegetable juice get squeezed out, so keep an eye on how much your green vegetables spin in the food processor). In the traditional way (or if you dont have a food processor, like me) you do it with a chef's knife: it should take ~10-15 min at least; anything less than that is too coarse for the stew, and would not yield the proper texture. And the knife-chopping skills to deal with the green herbs, even if you've gone to culinary school, doesnt help: its very special to persian cuisine (which as I mentioned in the first post, cooking rice I, is not taught even at the prestigious CIA!); you should have acquired the skill in a Persian kitchen..., so get yourself a food processor.

I'll tell you later what to do with the chopped herbs.

Cooking persian food starts with the onions; it would be used in almost every dish, and stews are no exception. Onions enhance the flavour of the dish as they are aromatic vegetables: same as mirepoix in French cuisine or soffritto in cucina italiana, which acts as the flavour base. However, there are two differences: First, onion is the only thing we use; there's no celery, carrot or garlic along it. Second, the onion in a mirepoix or soffritto is just sweat, whereas in Persian cuisine its sautéed/pan-fried.

Is that all I've got to know about the tear-causing vegetable? No way! Onion in persian cuisine is cut lengthwise from top to root (lyonnaise style), not the old-school grid method or the radial method. I prefer the lyonnaise shape/texture for stews as it yields quite thin stripes, while other methods give chunky pieces of onion in the stew. Add 1-2 fat pinches of salt to the onion as this will bring out the juice and fasten the process; Add 3-4 tbsp of vegetable oil and bring the heat to medium. In Persian cuisine, the onion is sautéed in the same pot and at the same time with the meat searing. However, I do it separately, as it gives better control on each one's doneness. Besides, when fried with meat, some onion slices get too browned while others are still translucent. Your onion is done when it turns goldish-brown, and the last 2 minutes is tricky as the time-discolouration curve is quite non-linear at that end!(its also non-linear at the beginning, but that wont be a problem). No need to mention you've got to keep stirring the onion regularly, and for the second half of time constantly. There are still nuances on how to avoid the onion going from yellow translucent to getting dark-brownish; If ignored, your onion will be over-done and you've got to do it all again (it did happen to my mom and she had to re-do it, but that was when my auntie called her on the phone!). That, I will leave to be figured out through trial-and-error (hint: Dont ever think of an ice bath or anything similar; its not asparagus or haricot vert).

Try to remove as much fat off from the meat; I'm not saying so for health reasons (which is more than true); lamb in US has got a strong animal-fat odour, which if not discarded will over-power the stew fragrance (my half-Azeri grandma had the same complaint when I once mentioned this to her). Cut the meat into "ghorme" style, which is cubes of ~2-3 cm each side. Pour 2-3 tbsp of oil in the pot (or dutch oven if you've got one) and start searing the meat. What does searing do? When taking Cooking 101 you were told that ...Cant remember, thats fine! Contrary to common belief, searing does not seal the flavours in the meat; it enhances the flavours through caramelisation and other chemical reactions. When the meat is almost done add the spice mix; sautéing spices in the oil for a minute or two will augment the aroma.

When the onion is done, add it to the meat, and then add about half a litre of water (~ 2 cups) to the pot, bringing it to boil. Meanwhile work on the chopped green herbs. Sauté the chopped green herbs for 8-12 minutes in 2-3 tbsp of oil, until it starts turning darkish green (for ghorme sabzi you sauté for 20-25 minutes, however mint will burn if sautéed that long).

Khoresh rivaas continues here

When the water along with the meat and onions reaches a boil, turn it down, so that it is boiling, yet with very small bubbles (reez-joosh, remember the Eskimos?!), add the sauteed herbs, taste the saltiness and add more if needed,and then put the lid on. It should be on the stove for another hour or so.

Start working on the rhubarbs. When buying rhubarbs, go for the thin ones (which I've found only at farmer's markets). when later on I was telling my half-Azeri grandma about my latest culinary adventure, we were both surprised; she that I hadnt peeled the rhubarbs, and I that there were no skin to peel off. (The rhubarbs are sold with the leaves trimmed). So until I come across a rhubarb happily living in the soil, I dont know whether its that thin ones dont have a skin, or there is a skin which departs the journey to the market early in the trip. Anyway, cut the rhubarb into 3-4 cm pieces, then wash and dry. (And who can keep her hands off and avoid sprinkling salt on a few pieces and enjoy the crunchy tart rhubarb). You will sauté the rhubarb pieces, so no water is allowed in the pan. Pour 1 tbsp oil in the frying pan, and when hot enough, add the rhubarbs. Do not stir by spatula, just toss over (as you've seen in cooking shows). Stirring will mash the rhubarbs. Do not sauté more than 3-4 minutes; otherwise they'll become too mushy.

After waiting for an hour or more (that's what makes persian stew unique, both in taste and required time!), take the lid off, and see how much water is left. If there is more than 1.5-2 finger phalanx-length (its not more absurd than inch or foot, is it?!) of water on top of the stew ingredients, bring up the heat only a bit and let it boil with the lid off (No rolling boil). Then add the rhubarbs gently, and let it boil for 5-7 minutes. Leave the rhubarbs more than that, and the rhubarb will get mushy and as Alton Brown says, "that is not good eats."

Your stew is ready. Prepare the rice as mentioned in the previous posts.

When serving, the stew is ladled in a deep dish, and then added to the rice in each individual's plate, and if you have tahdig (either rice or bread) cover that with 1-2 tbsps of stew, break it into pieces, and wait a minute or two so that it will absorb all that juicy stew. When stew is around, every kid wants a larger chunk of tahdig, each complaining that their share is smaller than their siblings, and the desire does not go down with age, until there is no tahdig-eating teeth (yes, this is the word-by-word translation from Persian!) . Tahdig with khoresh, regardless of the type of the stew, is a persian delicacy.

Nooshe jaan (bon appetit!)


* There are still subtle differences between celery and rhubarb stew: the former needs a tart ingredient to be added, while rhubarb doesn't as its tart itself. Besides, rhubarb cooks pretty fast compared to celery: due to this, the way to prepare rhubarb and the time to add it to the stew is different from celery.

** ghorme sabzi herbs: chive, parsley and fenugreek herb. At home you go to the green grocery and ask the vendor for "ghorme sabzi" herbs(or those for any other dish), and you will be given the right herbs at the proper weight ratio for the stew. Its here in US that I've got to pick each of them separately, at different stores.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

khoresh e rivaas (rhubarb stew) Part I

When I came across rhubarb last week at the Farmer's market, I was sure that this would be the last rhubarb for the season. My rhubarb experiences this summer were limited to raw rhubarb dipped in vanilla-sugar (that's so British!) and a rhubarb compote. It was a couple of weeks where I looked for rhubarb at every farmer's market I came across, but I was told that its too late. So, when I saw the red sticks at the Cambridge campus, I didnt hesitate. And where were they going to end up? A rhubarb stew.

Its funny that the very first stew I'm writing about is a dish I've never had before. Notice: its not that I've never made this before, I've never tasted it before! Rhubarb stew wasnt among the dishes my mom made, and I never came across rhubarb, as it was not a very widely-used vegetable at home. Not that unusual dishes didnt appear in my mom's kitchen; However rhubarb stew was not among them.

Let me tell you a bit about persian stews. If you recall from the rice cooking posts (cooking rice, post I) persian style rice is prepared either as polou or chelou; Chelou, the plain rice is served with stews or kebabs.

Persian stews (khoresh) are slowly cooked dishes made up of meat (mostly lamb or chicken) with green herbs, vegetables or legumes. If you perform a Principal Component Analysis (PCA) on Persian stews, 4 factors (aka eigenvalues) will explain most of the variance: The first one would be the green herb stews. By green herbs I mean parsley, chives, coriander, fenugreek*, mint and basil). The green herbs are chopped very fine and the stews have a tart flavour coming from tart citrus juices added, dried fruit or the vegetable itself. Among this category there are ghorme sabzi (green herbs stew), karafs (celery stew), rivaas (rhubarb) and aloo** esfenaaj (dried plums with spinach). The second category includes stews that have fried (and not sauteed) vegetables in them: baadenjaan (aubergine), kadoo (courgette) and baamiye (okra) fall in this group. Next is gheyme which is small lamb pieces and is the meat ingredient of a few stews: gheyme lappe (split peas with potato chunks), beh (quince) ,etc and the last, but surely not the least would be the fesenjoon (walnut and pomegranate paste), prestigious enough to merit its own category. Is that it? well, like any PCA, there is the question of how many components to retain. Looking at the plot of eigenvalues (scree plot) and noticing where the slope changes dramatically, I will stick with 4, and pigeonhole the rest into the miscellaneous category(morgh o aloo bokhaaraa i.e. chicken with dark dried plums, loobya sabz i.e. green beans...).

Khoresh rivaas continues here

The meat that goes into the stew is either lamb or chicken (duck, quail, pheasant are less frequently used). Fish is not a common ingredient as it doesnt fit the long and slow process of making persian stews, although it could be found in stews prepared in Northern and Southern parts of Iran (bordering Caspian sea, and the Persian Gulf, respectively). If red meat is used, lamb is the best. Beef is not the most proper meat for stew as it is too tough and not flavourful enough, so better forget it. I agree, lamb is a bit pricey, but it is worth it. Remember, you are going to spend at least 2-3 hours making a stew, so do it properly!

Which cut of lamb to use? well, I'm not going to explain all the lamb cuts here (that you should have learned in culinary school !). The lamb cuts at home are not exactly the same as the ones you get from your butcher (or mega-market) in US; for example you would rarely find a whole half cut (shaghe) in US; neither would you find blade chops or tenderloin at home. However, as lamb's anatomy is rather similar whether it grazed in North America or Middle East, the most frequently used cuts are shank (maay-che) and shoulder (shaane), which are among the least tender parts of the lamb, making them suitable for the long process of cooking in water. Backstrap (raaste) can also be used, which is lean and easier to remove the fat when doing smaller gheyme chops (although one would usually save this tender cut of meat for kabaab). In US, the meat labeled as stewing is mostly cut from shoulder, so go for that if you're planning to make a stew.

The other point is that lamb meat at home is obtained somewhat differently from that in US (although the anatomy of the ruminant is similar!). The animal would be slaughtered by a deep swift incision in the neck (severing jugular veins, carotid arteries, trachea and oesophus, and sparing the spinal cord), similar to the way Kosher meat is prepared. In Halaal***preparation of the meat (same for kosher), since ruminants have ejecting blood, a large volume of blood will gush out of the animal's body after slaughter (the spinal cord is intact, so the heart keeps bumping the blood out), then the carcass would be hung upside down for long enough to drain the body of blood (For kosher meat the blood drainage process is continued with treating the meat with kosher salt). In contrast, in Western world the animal is slaughtered after being stunned, and thus the blood doesnt exit the carcass. Which one is tastier? it depends on the dish you're preparing: if you are making a medium-rare juicy steak, I'd definitely go with the latter, while for stew preparations, the former one is preferred as you dont want the metallic taste of blood. This difference might be barely noticeable for chicken, however, for lamb or beef its more pronounced. However, this difference is not huge, and it doesnt lead me to the Middle Eastern butchery to get my lamb: I'm happy with Savenor's (not to mention that I'm also friends with the head butcher).

Edibles needed:

250 gr mint (0.5511 lb !!)

250 gr parsely (0.5511 lb)

500gr lamb meat (1.1022 lb)

500 gr rhubarb (1.1022 lb)

1 medium sized onion (any kind of onion would do, preferably not red onion)

1/2 litre water (~2 cups)

1-2 pinches of advieh khoresh i.e. persian stew-type spice mix (nutmeg, black pepper, red pepper, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, coriander and cardamom)

2-3 pinches of salt

4-5 tbsp of vegetable oil

Non-edibles needed:

frying pan

stew pot (or even better dutch oven)

large cutting board (or food processor) for chopping the green herbs


Get these stuff, and check next week to learn the nuances of making the rhubarb stew!


* I'm referring to the leaves of the plant (shambalile), which is so hard to find fresh in US, not the seeds used as spice.

** In Hindi (and to my knowledge, also shirazi dialect) aloo means potato, but not in Farsi: thats the word meaning plum for non-shirazi Persians!

*** Halaal in Islam is what Kosher is in Judaism.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

khaagine (sweet omelette with saffron and rose water syrup)

The sweet omelette dish is more of a regional dish rather than a nation-wide popular food: Its well known to the Azeris* living in Iran. So if you ask a non-Azeri for khaagine, you will receive a plain omelette or scrambled eggs if you're lucky (or more likely a wierd look!); However Azeri's know you are asking for one of their delicacies, geyghanaa in their Azeri language**.

And how do I, not being Azeri know this dish? Well, I've got Azeri blood: my grandma (ie my mom's mom) was born to an Azeri mom and a Kurdish dad, so thats where the Azeri influence comes from. Not only did I get acquainted with a few Azeri dishes, but also to Azeri-style cuisine, which is no different from other aspects of Azeri-style life: neat, meticulous and done to perfection. There is no doubt that Azeris* are among the best cooks in Iran and definitely an Azeri grandma is a culinary asset (a half-Azeri grandma will also do!): not that because I'm 1/8 of that origin, their marvelous culinary skills speaks to that and I think I know a few reasons for that. However the nutritional anthropology (or anthropological cuisine, I dont know which is more appropriate) will be for another post: today I'll just explain the recipe.

While I called it an omelette, the French term is not the best word to describe this tasty dish: the texture of this dish is somewhat different from an omelette. The dish does
faire de souffler (ie puff) when cooking, but it cant be called a souffle either as its completely different (no beaten egg whites, no custard...) ... so lets just call it khaageene.

khaageene continues here

Edibles needed:

5 eggs
2.5 tbsp flour (all-purpose flour works great)
2.5 tbsp sugar
1.5 tbsp rose water (you can find it in a Persian or Middle-eastern store)
1 pinch of saffron
4-5 tbsp of canola oil
2/3 cup of hot water (~ 180 ml)

Non-edibles needed:

frying pan with lid
2 mixing bowls
2 spatulas (the larger the blade, the better)
whisk (you can use a fork or a pair of of forks instead)

Break the eggs in the mixing bowl and whisk*** for a minute or two. then add the flour to the eggs. Wait a minute? You're not sifting the flour through the sieve? You're not doing so to incorporate air into the mixture? NOPE! So what else would you do with sieve if you have flour around???

Well, sifting the flour into the eggs is the way I learned to do it. However, since flour and eggs are the only ingredients of the batter, it would need a lot of muscle to get those two mixed together and the batter free from flour lumps.
So I've developed an alternative easier trick (a nerd would call it a technique contribution in the field!): I skip the sifting stage (it does no harm if you do so, its just not necessary), and then pass the batter through the sieve into the other bowl, pushing it through the sieve with a spatula or the back of a spoon. This way all those flour lumps break apart and become part of the batter, making the batter homogeneous. Some of the batter will still stick to the back of sieve, so give it a good whipping move (or use a spatula) to get all the batter into your bowl. You should have a smooth batter now.

Put the oil in the frying pan and warm it up on medium. I assume that 325 F (160 C) would be proper temperature for your batter (
I say so based on canoli oil's smoke-point). However, I didnt grow up using infra-red thermometers in the kitchen, so I stick to the old method, which could be used for almost every batter: drop a tiny amount (the smaller, the better) of the batter into the oil. If the oil is hot enough, that drop should coagulate immediately. Remove that fried drop, give the batter a quick stir and pour the batter into the pan. Shake the pan gently so that the batter covers all the pan. Put the lid on and wait for 5-7 minutes.

Right after pouring the batter, start making the syrup: bring 2/3 cup of water to boil, stir in the sugar and rose water. Get the saffron ready (Look at Cooking Rice, Part II for details of saffron preparation). If the lid is transparent you would see that the batter puffs, increasing in thickness 3-4 times. Take off the lid (isnt the puffed batter beautiful?), resist the temptation to cut it into pieces, otherwise
it will absorb oil and get too greasy. You've got to flip it whole. How? well, thats where the 2 spatulas come handy. Slightly lift the khaagine with one, put the other spatula on top, and flip. Then place it back gently into the pan. put the lid back on and wait for another 3-4 minutes. Take the lid off and discard as much oil as you can (I use one spatula to hold the khaagine, and with the other hand tilt the pan so the oil gets out. Pour the syrup and start cutting the khaagine into pieces at this time (I prefer roughly cut squares of 4-6 cm), and bring the heat to medium-high . The syrup would soak into the khaagine. After ~4 minutes, the syrup would be thick enough, and the dish is ready. If everything went ok, you should end up having a somewhat thick yellowish syrup covering the egg-mixture with a sweet saffron-and-rose-water fragrance.

I like mine to have a subtle sweetness flavour: sweet enough to go well with the rose water and make it a light dessert, yet not too sweet to over-power the eggs. You can adjust it according to your taste.
nooshe jaan (bon appetit)

* And here I dont mean dwellers of the country Azerbaijan, but the residents of the Iranian Azerbaijan provinces, which are of the same ethnicity of our North-Western neighbours, and both speak a somewhat similar language to Turks; When one ethnic group ends up in multiple political borders there are lots of trouble, and this is the most benign.

**And just to make it more confusing, in Turkish (or Istanbul style Turkish as Azeri's refer to, as they also call their own language Turkish) geygaanaa (Kaygana) is sort of a yoghurt-based doughnut made from beaten eggs, milk, flour and filling; more like a traditional omelette and in addition saffron is never used.

***If you dont have a whisk, use a fork or even better, a pair of forks. Hold both forks with one hand side-by-side. This way you will have a gadget with twice the number of a fork's prongs!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kashk o baademjaan (Aubergine Puree with Whey)

Every nation has an aubergine dip: The Greeks mix the charred vegetable with tomato, walnut, vinegar and make melitzanosalata (aubergine salad). In the Levant it is mixed with tahini and called baba ganoush. The dwellers of Anatolia, masters of preparing this dark purple berry*, make a range of dishes, from Hunkar Begendi (aubergine with lamb) to saksuka (dip with paprika, tomato and red sauce). The Sephardi Jews mix the grilled plant with mayo and lemon juice, to have a pareve dish** called Chatzilim Pareve. In India, there is Baigan Bharta, where grilled aubergine is mixed with green peas and Indian spices. And when it comes to Persians, they have their very own Kashk o baademjaan.

There are two different things about the Persian dish compared to the other ones. The first is that we fry the aubergine in this dish instead of grilling, roasting, char-roasting or steaming it. The second is using persian whey, which is whitish paste obtained from the left-overs of curdling milk into cheese.

I hope you are not wondering what aubergine is. For the readers in North America, its the same as eggplant. Its not my francophile side, trying to make myself sound more food savvy using the French phrase. Let me explain. I have a phobia towards eggplant. Not the vegetable, only the word. I grew up learning English where color has got a "u" before the last letter, larder is used for the place storing the food stuff at home (instead of pantry), and chips is fried julienned potatoes (like fish & chips, and I do miss that greasy fried haddock and the fries soaked in malt vinegar served in a newspaper cone), while crisps are the dried thin slices of potato sold in packs in the supermarket. My first encounter with the word eggplant was at the age 22 where it made no sense (it still doesnt): what has the oval body exiting the posterior opening of a chicken got to do with a plant, and the whole word combination with the elongated purple vegetable?!!! ten years after being introduced to the word, and living for almost three years where people make a weird look if you ask for aubergine, I still dont feel comfortable with eggplant.

What type of aubergine to buy? At home baademjaan (the persian word for aubergine, and its etymological ancestor) is a slender vegetable, while the ones you find in US suffer from the nationwide obesity problem, and are too plumpish. And whats wrong with the plumpish vegetable? it makes you fat! I'm not kidding, I'm quite serious! The plumpish vegetable has got lots of air pockets, so when you fry them they absorb a lot of oil, and this oil will turn into fat into your body and .... (The other issue with the non-slender ones is they've got more of the bitter juice). At home, my mom used the slender ones, peeled them, dried them in the sun for a few hours with a little bit of salt sprinkled atop, and they were ready to be fried. In Boston, well the sun is not potent enough (and definitely not reliable for culinary purposes), so I do a few extra steps with the plumpish ones.

* weird isnt it? but its true. Botanically speaking, aubergine is a berry!

Food that contains no dairy or meat content, and thus can be consumed with either of them.

Kashk o bademjaan continues

edibles needed:

2-3 aubergines (see note above)
2-3 tbsp + 1 tbsp kashk (persian-style whey)
1 white onion large size
2-3 cloves of garlic
2-3 tbsp of hot water
4-5 tbsp of kosher salt
8 tbsp of vegetable oil
1.5-2 tbsp dried mint
2-3 pinches of ground black pepper
1-2 pinches of advieh i.e. persian spice mix (nutmeg, black pepper, red pepper, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek and cardamom)

non-edibles needed:

large frying pan
small frying pan
medium-sized pot
wooden spoon
lots of paper towel

To buy the best plumpish aubergines, go with those which have got a shiny dark purple colour, and are heavy for their size (thus having less air pockets inside). Peel and make slices of ~ 1 cm thick. Get a plate and pour the kosher salt (koshering salt to be technically correct) in it. Dip both sides of the slices in the salt and leave in a colander for around an hour and put it on top of a bowl. Just as the salt would absorb the blood of meat during the process of preparing meat in the kosher manner, it does the same with the bitter juice of the aubergine: After the first minutes you can see the liquid is gradually oozing out of the sliced aubergines. When the liquid gets out, the pockets collapse, absorbing less oil when fried, and the alkaloid-rich juice, giving aubergine a bitter flavour is also extracted, thus making the dish more tasty.

After an hour or so, wash the slices under running cold water, and rub them so any salt attached would be removed, otherwise it would be too salty. Give each slice a gentle squeeze between your palms, and leave them on paper towel and cover with another layer. A little press on the eggplant-sandwiched-paper towels will get all the moisture out of them.

Put 4-5 tbsp of vegetable oil in the large frying pan and when the oil gets hot, sautee the crushes of garlic for 2-3 minutes, and get them out (dont throw away). This will infuse the oil with a garlic fragrance. Make sure there is no moisture covering the aubergines; otherwise you will get splashes of hot oil when the slices are placed in the pan. Put the aubergine slices in the pan, not more than one layer at a time and fry each side for ~7-10 minutes until each side is crispy and golden. Continue till you have all the sliced aubergines fried. If the aubergines absorb all the oil, add 1-2 tbsp at a time. Dont worry about atherosclerosis! a lot of the oil will be sponged out and discarded later.

Place the fried aubergines on paper towel, so they are as least greasy as possible. Slice the onion and fry it in oil for 12-15 minutes till its golden brown. Add the spices (black pepper & mixed spice ) to the onion in the last 3-4 minutes so the spices give out their fragrant oils. Spare 1-2 tbsp of fried onion for decoration, and put the rest in the pot with the aubergine slices and the fried garlic. Add 1-2 tablespoons of kashk (whey) and same amount of hot water, and on low heat mix all the ingredients with the wooden spoon until all get mashed up. Taste and add more kashk if desired. The saltiness should come from the juice-extracting procedure; if not salty enough add as desired. Through mixing and mashing, you can feel whether you need more hot water or not. If you want it to be non-vegetarian and enhance the flavour with meat, use beef broth or bouillon cubes***. However, I usually keep this dish veggie and have meat flavour when I'm making the twin dish, halim baademjaan, which wolud be for another posting.

The same garnish (see below) would be used for haleem bademjoon and Aash Reshte (Persian thick noodle soup with green vegetables and beans). To garnish, place the mush in a plate and flatten. Mix one tbsp of kashk with water so it becomes thinner. pour over the aubergine. Add the crushed mint to one tbsp oil and fry for 1-2 minutes and put on top. Add a pinch of mixed spices and fry in 1/2 tbsp of oil, then add the yellowish oil in drops over the kashk and the aubergine. Top with the fried onions you've left aside. The garnish is up to you. However, dont get too much caught in it as the dish would get cold. Serve with pita bread.

Nooshe jaan ! (Buon appetito)

*** Watch the salt contents of the bouillon cubes. Otherwise you'll end up with a salty dish, and keep wondering for a day why it got so salty. It happened once to me!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cooking Rice, Part II

you've got the rice, washed it, added salt, -soaked it and waited for a few hours. Perfect!

edibles needed (yields 3-6 servings,depending on the nationality of end-product consumers!):

1.5 cups basmati rice (you've already pre-soaked it)
4-5 tbsp of salt (you've already added to the rice)

2 litres (8 cups) of water
1-2 pinches cinnamon (if making bread tahdig)
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil (canola or sunflower)
1 knob of butter
1 pinch of saffron (if affordable!)
1 roll of lavash bread (or white tortilla) (if making bread tahdig)
hot water (some!)

non-edibles needed:

pot (a 3-4 litre one would do)
kitchen towel
colander (
the smaller the pores, the better)
wooden spoon
small plate
(nylon spoon could be used instead)

Next, get a colander, and place it in the sink. (wash up the dishes from last night, so your sink has got enough room!)

The next steps would be
somewhat similar to making pasta, so I'll make comparisons and mention the differences.

Pour the salty water covering the rice into a pot and add more cold water so the pot is half-way full: you would have around 2 litres of water
(~ 2 quarts, for non-SI readers!). Set the stove on medium high and wait until the water comes to a rolling boil. Add the rice to the boiling water.

Oil: to add or not to add? same as pasta, if you add oil, (and that would not be more than a few drops) its only to decrease the surface tension of the surface and prevent the water bubbles break the surface and make a mess. I dont.(I mean add oil, I do make mess!)

Wait for ~ 4 minutes, by now the water should have come back to boil. take a grain of rice and check for its firmness. It should be al dente, which for rice would be feeling some resistance under your teeth. If not
al dante yet, check every 2 minutes until it reaches the proper consistency. Pour the whole thing into the colander, and start pouring cold water on it. You would not do this with pasta, however with aab-kesh rice you want to remove the excessive starch and salt from the rice. In addition, you want to stop the process of cooking, otherwise the temperature is still high to allow rice continue cooking, leading to the grains sticking together, and as Alton Brown would say, this is not good eats.

Let the cold water pour over the rice for 30-40 seconds, during this time you would be tossing the rice around with your hand so that all the grains get washed and cooled.

Cooking Rice, Part II continues

If you were making pasta, you were done. However, we continue with steaming the rice (actually when we persians make macaroni we treat it as rice and add another step before eating the final product; the details of that would be for another post)

While the water in excess drains out, thanks to gravity, let me explain a few things.

First, let me tell you more about the colander. At home (i.e home home, in other words Tehran home, not Boston home) we have rice colanders. The pores are small enough to stop the rice getting out, but more importantly they are wide and shallow, which allows the rice not only to get washed and cooled faster, but also the bottom layers of rice are covered with less rice on top and thus turn out not too mushy. For the purpose of high-pass filtering, I use a mesh colander, but until my mom sends me a proper rice colander, I've got no other alternative.

And If you've kept wondering what the other stuff in the rice pictures is, that is called tahdig (literally meaning bottom of pan), the crispy crunchy golden-brownish crust. It can be made out of bread, potato slices or the rice itself.

I'll explain the bread and rice tahdigs here and leave other varieties for future posts.

Wash the pot with luke-warm water and quickly dry it so there is no starch left in the pot. For bread tahdig, (see picture of the previous post) put the stove on medium, add 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil (I use canola or sunflower oil), wait a minute, add a pinch or two of cinnamon (thats where the brownish colour comes from), swirl the pot so that the cinnamon gets around uniformly, and place a roundish piece of lavash bread.( If you cant find lavash at your supermarket, you can use white tortilla instead, however it gets a bit chewy). How to get the bread at the right size? Oops, I forgot to mention, when your pot is still empty and at room temperature, put a roll of bread, place your pot on it upside-down, and with a knife or pizza-cutter cut around the edges of the pot so that you can get the bread at the same size of your pot. Put rice in the pot so that it will soak in the oil and cinnamon. If you're making rice tahdig (this post's picture), skip the cinnamon stage, add 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil and let it heat up for 2-3 minutes. The rest is similar regardless of what resides at the bottom of your pot.

Give the colander a good shake so you can get rid of as much water sticking to the rice as possible and then add the rice gradually. I get away with the nylon spoon and use the gadget my mom used: a small plate. It will give you better control, and with a proper hand-shaking movement, you can swift the rice gradually inside the pot and not dump it. If you are making rice tahdig, the first layers of the rice (~ 1-1.5 cm) would be your tahdig. Proceed untill all the rice has been moved into the pot. With a spatula or wooden spoon bring the rice into the centre, forming a cone so that the rice is not in contact with the walls of the pot. With the end side of your wooden spoon, poke 8-10 holes inside the pile of rice all the way down. This will help the steam move up. Bring back the heat to medium low. Drizzle 1-2 tbsp of oil or melted butter over the rice heap* and
cover the pot's lid with a kitchen towel **

and the yellow grains, yes the colour comes from the drug spice, saffron. yes, it is expensive***, but a little goes a long long way. In addition, in my opinion the way Italians or Spaniards use it is not very cost-effective. Using the whole threads doesnt make sense to me. Saffron gives off a lot of colour and fragrance, but much more and at a faster rate if its ground. So instead of using tens of threads for each serving, use ground saffron. Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to ~40-50 threads saffron and put in the grinder. The sugar granules will help grinding the saffron. Keep in a dark bottle (or closed cupboard) so that the light doesn't fade the colour, drop a lump of cube sugar (it is believed to preserve the fragrance, but its also a pain getting it out every time) and keep the lid tight.

The saffron I use, of course it traveled all the way with me in my 2*32 kg
allowed luggage (I don't know how many pounds that would be!) when I made the trans-Atlantic journey, and I do remember so vividly the day that the golden threads became part of my would-be kitchen paraphernalia: on a Saturday morning in August 2005 I went kitchen-shopping with my mom before coming to states, pondering whether to buy a rice-cooker, getting turmeric, persian spice mixture, a Teflon pot and frying pan, kebab skewers.....

To get the most of colour out of saffron, the best way is to brew it. (yes, coffee is not the only thing you brew!), For saffron that would be putting a pinch of the ground spice in sort of a bain marie (double boiler). To get it done quicker and faster (cooking is only one of things I do on a Saturday), I instead use a saucer and a cup of boiling water. I dissolve the saffron in 2 teaspoons of boiling water in the saucer, and put it on top of the cup of water. After ~ 10 minutes I get enough colour out of my saffron. Thinking its too much of a procedure? fine, just add a teaspoon of hot water to the saffron and stir while trying to crush the powder. Start this process at a time so that you get your saffron done when steaming the rice is finished.

After an hour of steaming, the rice would be ready. If you're making rice tahdig, you would need another half an hour to get it crispy enough. The rice will not get over-steamed, so no need to worry.
Get the rice out of the pan (with the same plate you used to transfer them at the first time), and spread it in a big dish, so that it cools just a bit, and the grains don't stick. Add 2-3 tbsp of rice to the dissolved saffron and mix so that most of the grains get soaked and pick up a yellowish stain. Add a knob of butter**** to the rice: the heat of rice will make the butter gradually ooze through and make it buttery. Top the yellow grains on the rest of the rice. (There are more details of what to add at the end, also depending on what the rice would be served with, so I'll skip that for now)

Until you figure out the precise time needed to get your tahdig at the right texture (varying with your pot, stove, rice...,) under-cook the tahdig rather than over-cook it (ie burning it). Take a look at your tahdig, if its not done, you can keep on heating it until you get the desired texture. Just keep your rice warm till the tahdig arrives.

Now, you've managed to cook the basic dish in persian cuisine, congratulations! Enjoy your meal!

Noosh e jaan!
(bon appetit)

* For the persian readers, a heat-and-flame diffuser (shole-paskh-kon) would not be necessary, since the flames in stoves I've seen in US kitchens are not strong enough, so you would not get a burnt tahdig. On the other hand if you do use one, you've got to wait way longer to get the crunchy layer formed.

* Just to make you realise how many special rice-making equipment I lack, I would add that the stoves we've got at home have a special cooktop (rice cooktop), which is larger than usual and the cooktop has got pores all over the surface (and not only at the circumference), thus
the flames and the heat would appear more uniformly to the pot. In that case, you should use a heat-and-flame diffuser (shole-paskh-kon). Otherwise, the bottom layer will be black instead of golden brownish!

* Again for the persian readers, if they are wondering, why there was no water-and-oil mixture (aab-roghan) added after the first 5 minutes of steaming, here comes the reason: my personal experience has yielded a not-so-perfect rice with adding the water component, as the water would make the rice at the bottom soggy instead of generating steam. Again, this has got to do sth with the stove, rice,...that I'm using in Boston.

** Put the lid in the middle of the towel, and bring the corners together at the exterior surface of the lid, and by the way, we do have another gadget in the kitchen, made up of cloth 4-6 cm thick just for htis purpose! (called dam-koni, literally meaning the steamer, one that helps steaming)

*** You can get a small container of Spanish saffron at Trader Joe's for around 5 bucks. If you're willing to pay more go for the French, Italian or Iranian version.

**** I
n the old days people used animal fat instead of butter or oil, which gives it an extraordinary fragrance, but health awareness and/or economic conditions, has made it a less common practice. However, if you want to have the experience, pay a visit to a Middle Eastern store. It would be in a can with a picture of a cow!!!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cooking Rice, Part I

Imagine you've enrolled in culinary school. You've done with the poultry module, the fish module..... You've learned how to bake bread, make cheese, do pastry.... You've mastered French, Italian and Chinese cuisine. Now you've got to fulfill the requirements for Middle Eastern & North African cooking. Among this group of cuisines (Moroccan, Turkish, Tunisian, Lebanese, Persian.. ) you choose Persian cuisine. *

What would be the first lesson you would learn? Got it! cooking rice.

A professor of psychology in one of US colleges (bringing up memories of the days he was dating a Persian girl) mentioned that:

"Persian rice is unique, the process takes a week, they pre-soak it, leave it for a day, then boil it, then steam it…It tastes awesome. It’s the best type of rice I’ve ever had in my life.

As I mentioned when I gave a lecture at Harvard** on How to Cook Persian-style Rice, just as Eskimos have around 50 words for snow, using different ones for "falling snow" and "fallen snow", Persians have different names for rice, depending on the way it is prepared.

Rice is the main staple in Persian dishes and its prepared in a rather different way compared to other cuisines.

Let me tell you a story: a Persian friend of mine goes to an East Asian country for a science conference. At lunch he sits next to a Japanese guy and both start complaining about the quality of the rice they were eating. "This is bad", says my friend, and "Yeah, its horrible" replies the Japanese guy. They keep on nagging until after a while my friend realises that while they are both unhappy with their rice dish, they would feel disgusted at what the other person thinks as the ideal rice! That is my friend considered its too sticky, while the Japanese guy thought its not sticky enough!

Yes, persian-style rice is not sticky, its not supposed to be sticky, and it should not be sticky (except for kate, a particular type that people living near the Caspian sea prepare). Since the rice is fluffy and the grains are well separated, its difficult to eat it with a fork, thus you need a spoon.

Yes, we eat rice with a spoon and I cant think of eating rice with a fork, except for risotto.

Rice being the main staple in persian cuisine, can be prepared in a variety of ways. It might be drained (aab-kesh, literally meaning water-drained) after being parboiled and then steamed. Alternatively, it might be steamed after the water has evaporated through boiling (dami). Among the terminology, there are two other ones: Polou and Chelou, the former being used for rice mixed with meat, vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes and nuts, while the latter is applied to plain rice served with stews or kebabs: A useful (counter-intuitive) mnemonic is polou, starting with "p" is NOT plain!!

The scientist would say polou vs. chelou and dami vs. aabkesh are orthogonal axes regarding each other: that is your rice could be either polou or chelou and at the same time either aab-kesh or dami .


* This culinary school is definitely not CIA, as to my knowledge although having master chefs from 16 different countries, they don't teach Persian cuisine!

** Don't get me wrong! I don't teach at Harvard (at least Harvard does not offer any culinary degree!) Actually I had to take a course on Instructional Styles during my second year and give a 5-min mini-lecture on whatever topic I prefer, so I picked up one which would be fun and of most interest to a general audience.

Cooking Rice, Part I continues

I will give instructions on how to make aab-kesh. Although involving a few more steps, it gives way better results and there is less room for things going wrong. So why bother with learning dami? the fact is its believed draining the parboiled rice would remove some of the nutrients during the procedure. This is probably true, however, at least nowadays rice is not the sole source of nutrients, so don't worry about malnutrition if you aim at making the higher quality version.

To get started, you need rice. The type of rice which I find in US most similar to various persian rice is (long grain) basmati. Of course, this is not exactly the same as persian rices: the ones at home (the high-quality ones of course) give off a fragrance even when uncooked, and if not, you faire de "haah" ***, and then your olfactory apparatus would be pervaded with the aroma. Anyway, basmati is the best available choice, and the rey is pretty good (another persian rice terminology refering to the increase in length of a rice grain after cooking).

What I do is go to an Indian store and get my basmati rice over there. Recently I've been getting Zafarani, but you will be happy with any other basmati you find there.

Remember, if you want to to have rice for lunch, you've got to make the decision the night before! The reason is that you need to wash and pre-soak the rice for a few hours. My mom also inspected the rice in advance, making sure there were no pebbles, but that is not necessary with rice bought in US (at least till now people have not reported encounters with them, nor have the dentists!). Washing is done with cold or lukewarm water, covering the rice, emptying the water and repeating it 3-4 times. It removes both the excessive starch coating the rice and the smell of the burlap, from which most rice sacks are made of. Pre-soaking is just covering the washed rice with cold water, adding 2-3 tablespoons of salt for each cup of rice, and leaving it away for a couple of hours.

Are you saying I've got to decide on what to eat for lunch before I've had dinner the night before??? Well, the more you pre-soak the rice, the better the quality you get. However, if you do it for even half an hour or less, provided you don't skip any further step, the rice will still be delectable.

Wait till the next post to pursue your Persian culinary adventure!


*** As if warming up your hands with steam from an exhalation in a Boston-like winter weather! (isn't there any English verb for this action?!!)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Blog

On Monday February 25th 2008 at 9:12 pm sipping a mango-flavoured tea at café gato rojo I decided to set up my food blog (this is NOT another Amelie Poulain!) and not to wait for anything in particular to happen: No adviser-settling, no new pilot data, nothing, zippo.

However, me being the obsessive person I am, had to figure out a good number of things in advance. So it took me a while...