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.