Maybe it’s just me and the reading material that I come across as I frolic and gambol through the world of food and cooking, but there seems to be quite a spate of all-things-Persian looping around in the blogosphere at the moment. My family and I lived in Teheran briefly when I was eight years old and my fondest memories are of picnics on a Sunday, up close to the mountains, with a small river meandering near our picnic spot. In terms of food, however, there is a blank unfortunately but I am sure I tucked in with great gusto because Persian food has just got to be one of the best cuisines to grace our palates and I am very glad to read more about it via Fae’s blog (faestwistandtango.wordpress.com) and via that of Anissa Helou (www.anissas.com).
If you want to skip all the bla-bla and go straight to the delightful perfumed Persian pulow recipe, now is the time to scroll down.
For those who don’t mind a bit of bla bla, let me tell you why I chose to cook a persian-style rice dish in the first place. Lovely friends from Denmark who used to live around here were visiting last week, and it wasn’t only my husband and I who wanted to see them — a little reunion was in order and the count was mounting, until it finally reached a total of 16. And that clinched it for me into having to put on a PBA (perforce buffet affair). Though I love ‘fresh’ and cooked at the last minute, it becomes unmanageable when dealing with this amount of people and so it’s a good idea to cook dishes the day before as much as possible. Not all foods taste better the next day so my solution is either to make lasagne and/or stews and soups … or else go down the ‘bits and pieces’ route. And the food of the Middle East or Near East is just brilliant for ‘bits and pieces’.
On the menu: hummus, tzaziki, baba ganouj, tomatoes stuffed with bread sauce, spinach, with raisin and pine kernels (actually an Italian recipe but it fitted well with the bits-and-pieces concept), raw carrots with lemon juice and salt as they used to serve in Beirut, cous cous with chickpeas, peas, almonds, raisins and pistachios (my own invention using what was left over from the rice recipe), meatballs with red pepper and spring onion salad (again, my own invention), chicken with hazelnuts as per the following recipe which I was enthusiastically making for the first time: thesinglegourmetandtraveller.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/chicken-roasted-with-saffron-honey-hazelnuts). And last but quite the opposite of least, the Persian rice, whose recipe was given to me by L., another lovely friend, and she too a friend of the Danish friends and who, like them, used to live around here but moved back to her native USA years ago.
Recipes can be like that you see, they know how to bring strong feelings of friendship to the fore again, in that mysterious Proustian manner. As I was cooking away, my thoughts were nurturingly heading out to all these friends, and the wonderful times we had together and the funny memories we can treasure today. Memories can also be faulty on occasion, however, and trick you! The part of my brain that deals with uncomfortable realisations and the I-told-you-so admonishments all but gloated when I took in how deceptive certain food names can be when it comes to the amount of time it takes to prepare them. Take hummus, for instance. Hummus. A dip, no? Goes well with pitta bread. Hmmm. It sounds like you could make it in a trice. Really? Okay, so first of all you have to soak the dried chickpeas overnight. Then cook them until they are tender (about 2 hours), straining off the scum that surfaces. Then cut and squeeze lemon juice, dilute the tahini, peel and chop garlic, and blitz the lot until you end up with the beguiling, smooth concoction that we all love and call … hummus. Baba ganouj is so much easier … prick the aubergines/eggplants and stick them in the oven until they are mushy, and then take it from there (I had to peel and finely chop 9 of them). Tzaskiki … slice the cucumber etc. None of this is difficult to do, we know that, but it does require plenty of time. (This is when it dawns on me for the nth time that the popularity of Italian food must be due in part to the ease of preparation and, usually, to the short times involved therein.)
It may sound as if I’m complaining or trying to be heroic but actually I am addressing those people who are a little worried about entertaining a large group of friends, i.e. those budding hosts and hostesses who are building up their experience in the kitchen and want to know about the practicalities to hosting a bigger table. It’s all about organisation and the tips are really all about common sense. You can’t cook one dish for 16 people! not unless you are a professional or very experienced home cook, the amounts are just too difficult to cope with. So, instead, cook many dishes, say six … and that way the proportions are much more manageable and the recipes easier to execute. However, bear in mind that you will need plenty of time, last-minute is pretty much out of the question.
Another practicality that is not often mentioned in blogs is … the cost of food. And I was nodding my head in acknowledgement as I read the following from Sally’s My Custard Pie Blog review on Nigella Lawson’s books: “While the book is a good reference to many basic recipes (sauces such as Béarnaise, making stock, a range of cakes) and tips for organising your larder and freezer, Nigella has never, in any of her books, even given lip service to considerations about budget.” (http://mycustardpie.com/2013/02/15/how-to-eat-nigella-lawson-cook-book-review).
Now, none of us like to spend time with niggardly people, least of all niggardly friends. However, food comes at a cost and we all have our budgets to respect. It seems a terrible shame to me to forgo the pleasure of inviting people to dinner simply because we assume that it would be too expensive. There are ways of cheerfully presenting food without being cheap about it. As part of my ‘bits and pieces’ dinner, for instance, I could easily have served proper, wild, line-caught salmon, oysters, caviar, foie gras … after all, these easily fit into the bits-and-pieces category, no doubt about it! And who knows?, maybe one day my budget will permit such largesse. In the meantime, a less costly bits-and-pieces dinner is no less appealing, no less delicious, no less comforting and satisfying if you present it in the right spirit and with the desire of having a good time. Why bother otherwise?
Just for the record … the persian rice contained the most expensive ingredients, all told: pistachios, almonds and saffron threads. And the organges had to be organic especially since we were using their zest.
Dessert? A beautiful, rich and creamy tiramisu was brought along by dear friend D.
I don’t have any ‘nice’ photos of the food, served on the table in proper serving dishes or bowls. What you see is a ‘before’ or ‘the day after’ shot … I was too busy enjoying myself and being in the moment to take photos during the meal itself.
The chicken and hazelnuts and honey … The meatball salad with red peppers, spring onions and parsely … Slices of raw carrots, seasoned with lemon juice and salt …. Spinach with raisins and pine kernels … Cous cous with pistachios, almonds and raisins … Baba ganouj … with a sprinkle of ground cumin and mint leaves … The stuffed tomatoes sharing a plate with the spinach on the following day ….The leftovers … with hummus and tzaziki too. Please note that not a single meatball was left!
Perfumed Persian Pulow
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (preferably white from the seeds)
1/3 cup raisins soaked in warm water for 5 min
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted in a dry skillet
¼ cup shelled unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped
¾ cup frozen peas, thawed and blanched in boiling water
1¾ cups basmati rice
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons EVOO
1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest
A large pinch of saffron threads, soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water and 2 tablespoons orange flower water
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee) or melted regular butter, to serve
Mix the cinnamon, cardamom, and sugar in a small bowl and set aside. Mix the raisins, almonds, pistachios, and peas in a second bowl and set aside.
Put the rice into a strainer and rinse under cold running water until the water runs clear. Transfer to a large bowl, cover with fresh cold water, and soak for 2 hours. Drain well. Put about 5 cups water into a large saucepan, bring to a boil, add a pinch of salt, then the rice. Return to boil and cook for 3 -4 minutes without stirring. Drain well and rinse briefly in warm water.
Heat the oil in the same saucepan, then reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Add layers of ingredients in the following order (you will have 3 -4 layers, depending on the size of the pan) – a layer of rice, a layer of the raisin/nut/pea mixture, a pinch of zest, and a pinch of the spice-and-sugar mixture. Repeat this layering pattern until all the ingredients have been used, finishing with a layer of rice.
Sprinkle with the saffron and its soaking liquid. Using the end of a wooden spoon, poke a few holes in the rice all the way down to the bottom of the pan. Cover tightly with a lid lined with a dish towel, so that no steam escapes. Cool over very low heat for about 20 minutes – or leave it on super low heat for even longer, as Iranian cooks do.
When ready to serve, remove from the heat, left the lid and towel, pour the clarified butter over the pulow, then fluff with a fork. Serve hot with other dishes. (A delicious crust will have formed on the bottom of the pan – this is known as the tahdeeg in Iran and is the most coveted part of the rice.)
NOTE: The need to rinse the rice is advised for this recipe because it is a “special occasion”, traditional dish and calls for this added step, which enhances the lightness of the dish.
Serves 4 – 6
I doubled the doses because I was cooking with 1kg of basmati rice.
The blanched peas … The freshly grated orange zest … Mix the cinnamon, cardamom, and sugar in a small bowl and set aside The saffron threads in water and orange blossom water …. The first layer of goodies on top of the first layer of rice …. The top layer. The leftovers the next day ….Some bits of the tahdeeg were a little too cooked (!) … so we removed them before eating the rest. All I can say is that it tasted better than it looked ….