We rarely use the term “Persian” now. It’s “Iran” and Iran carries oh-so many connotations in our world.
Let’s set aside the past 40 years of conflict and the nukes and the verbal thrashing about a treaty over nuclear development. Let’s step back and consider the train of history.
Persian history is almost as old as that of the Fertile Crescent lying west just over the formidable Zargos Mountains. It was ancient Persia that fought with ancient Greece and almost won. Between the periods of fighting that Eastern Persian culture traded and interacted with the Greek Western culture. In fact, our Western culture bears heavy influence from Persia and nowhere does that appear more today than in food.
In The New Persian Kitchen, author Louisa Shafia explores Persian cuisine and does some contemporary reimagining of the classic recipes. Classic, and for us unfamiliar, ingredients like rose petals, dried limes, tamarind, and sumac are employed in recipes with both vegetable and protein elements. The result here is an assemblage of 80+ recipes, some quite classic and some that no Persian emperor would have tasted — like an ice cream sandwich made with Saffron Frozen Yogurt and Cardamom Pizzelles.
There is not really one Iran or Persia but several. Mountain ranges and very dry desserts where no one can live divide the land into regions and each of those has evolved its own cuisine. The regions have similar foods — flatbreads and sweets — but each region presents its own style. And those styles reflect the neighbors: Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Northern India. Yes, ancient Persia once spread from all of Turkey east into India and the foods and preparations techniques have all been part of the culture for thousands of years.
Lousia argues that there is an inherent healthy aspect to Persian cooking. Those benefits stem from ingredients we, in the West, use infrequently: cardamom, dates, dried limes, mint, pistachios, pomegranates, rose water and rose petals, saffron, sumac, tamarind, and turmeric. Oh, you say you use mint? I’m sorry, but mojitos don’t count.
Here’s a rundown of the major chapters and selected recipes for your consideration.
In Starters and Snacks, yogurt and spices naturally appear:
New Potatoes with Dill and Lemon
Yogurt with Beets
Whole Grilled Fava Beans
In a land with hot summers and cold winters, Soups are central to the table’s fare:
Cold Pistachio Soup with Mint and Leeks
Savory Amaranth and turkey Porridge
Vegetable and Egg Entrees include some variations with flavor power:
Stuffed Tomatoes with Pistachio Pesto
Sweet and Smoky Beet Burgers
Potato Cakes with Tamarind Sauce
The Meat and Fish Entrees display a combination of ingredients from across that wide geographical area of ancient Persia:
Whole Roasted Fish with Oranges and Saffron
Turmeric Chicken with Sumac and Lime
Grilled Shrimp with Lime Powder and Parsley-Olive Oil Sauce
For one pot cooking the chapter on Main Dish Stews and Casseroles continues this theme of diversity:
Eggplant and Tomato Stew with Pomegranate Molasses
Barley Stew with Lamb and Rhubarb
Persian Gulf-Style Spice Tamarind Fish Stew
The Sweets chapter provides this quite distinctive Persian perspective on dessert. You’ll think twice when you read these ideas, some new and some very old. But the ingredients have been employed for three thousand years, so your second consideration is encouraged:
Chickpea and Almond Flour Icebox Cookies
Pomegranate Semifreddo with Blood Orange Compote
Date-and-Walnut Filled Cookies
Amaranth Rice Pudding with Rose Water
The recipes in The New Persian Kitchen are both old and new. The classic ingredients are here, sometime folded in new creations from Louisa and sometimes in dishes, like Saffron Rice, that have brought pleasure to endless families. Cook from this recipe and you’ll discover the power of pomegranate and the new ways lime can bring sparkle to a dish.
The recipes here are relatively short, typically less than a dozen ingredients and with just a few steps for the preparation. These are recipes first created in a very different time and world. Lousia has been true to that underlying theme, but presents you the classic flavors in both their original and now modern contexts. The New Persian Kitchen is a book that deserves your attention. There are meals for you here, wonderful meals with flavors you have not experienced but will surely treasure.
There are no little things, or so someone said to me. Several times before she left.
Anyway. It turns out, there are small things, tiny gems that can adorn a plate or a dish and promote it from good to great.
Take sour cream. By itself, white and stingy to the palate. Put it atop a bowl of steaming chili and you have a wonderful mix. Cold sharp sour cream contrasts with the blaze of chili, beans, meat, and sauce. Everything is better.
In Dos Caminos Tacos by Ivy Stark there is this small recipe — I almost said “little” — that you will use everywhere. Think of it as sour cream on steroids, good cilantro steroids.
Cilantro Crema can be put atop or in just about any dish: tacos, chicken, tamales. In fact, as I pictured it, just pair some of this crema with chips for an appetizer that is so very different than “mere” salsa.
Ivy notes that ideally this dish should be made with Mexican crema. You may have access to authentic crema through a local market. Here, we use sour cream just thinned with a dash of heavy cream. You can substitute crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt.
The amount of cilantro and chile is up to you. When you first taste this crema, it will seem understated and you’ll be tempted to add more “stuff” right away. Don’t, don’t at least the first time you make this. It needs 24 hours in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld and intensify. On Day 2, this will astonish you.
If you do need to make this side and use immediately, then adding more serrano and a squirt of lime juice should be a good start.
Of course, this recipe is just a template for you. If you are substituting that yogurt, you may be tempted to add some dill. Go ahead. Try it. Take a small step, not just a little one, towards creating your own recipe portfolio.
Yield: 2 ½ cups
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon minced scallions, including green parts
1 teaspoon seeded and minced serrano chile
2 cups crema or sour cream thinned with a little cream
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
In the jar of an electric blender, combine the cilantro, scallions, and serrano chile; puree until smooth.
Scrape into a bowl, fold in the crema and salt, cover, and refrigerate until needed.
Source: Dos Caminos Tacos by Ivy Stark [Countryman Press, 2014]
Photo Information: Canon T2i, EFS 60mm Macro Lens, F/4 for1/30th second at ISO‑100
Eat Mexico is a brilliant new cookbook by Lesley Tellez devoted to the street and markets foods of Mexico, particularly Mexico City. Lesley lived in the City for four years, learning about the food, documenting the recipes and even founding a company to take folks on food tours for the most authentic experiences possible. To learn a city, to learn its food, you need to be on your feet.
One of Lesley’s friends introduced her to this recipe and she’s been savoring ever since. If there is one recipe in Eat Mexico that demonstrates the lively imagination and even audacity of this book, here it is. Dried hibiscus flowers, usually employed in making tea, are hydrated, cooked, combined with cheese and offered in lovely quesadillas. It’s an appetizer that will please your guests before they even take the first bite. That photo, by Penny De Los Santos, is talking to you.
In Mexico, Lesley notes, the hydrated hibiscus flowers have chewy texture. Here, they tend to be softer and grittier, needing a thorough rinsing before you steep them.
Hibiscus Flower Quesadilla
Yield: serves 8
2 ½ cups hibiscus flowers
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ medium onion, chopped
2 serrano chiles, minced, with seeds
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
3 to 4 whole wheat pita pockets, or flour tortillas
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, sliced
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Pick over the flowers and remove any twigs or foreign matter. Rinse thoroughly in a colander under cold water.
Fill a medium saucepan with water and set to boil. Add the hibiscus and turn off the heat. Let sit for about 3 minutes, until fully hydrated. Drain and reserve the water for tea, if you like. Rinse the flowers under cold water to wash away any grit. Set aside.
Heat the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chile and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Stir in the flowers and a pinch of salt, and cook for about 2 minutes, until evenly combined.
Add the sugar and cook a few minutes more, stirring to coat. When the flowers have darkened to a deep-purple color, after about 3 minutes, turn off the heat.
Warm the pita pockets lightly in the oven or on a gently heated comal [flat metal Mexican cooking utensil]. Cut open the top half only, around the edge of the pitas, and tuck in a layer of cheese slices. Top with a layer of hibiscus flower filling. Place the pockets on a sheet pan in the oven until the cheese has melted, about 4 minutes. Cut into quarters and serve immediately, while the cheese is still oozy.
Source: Eat Mexico by Lesley Tellez [Kyle, 2015]