In February, I attended a winter board meeting for Les Dames d’Escoffier in Washington D.C. The evening we arrived, a lovely dinner was hosted in Georgetown at the home of a local Dame, who prepared a fabulous Persian meal.
The hostess was Najmieh Batmanglij. It was an extraordinary meal and Najmieh was no ordinary cook. She is a noted culinary historian, chef and teacher, whose cookbooks have established her as a leading authority of Iranian cuisine. Her cookbooks include New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies; Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen; Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey (hailed by the New York Times) and From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table.
The names Iran and Persia are used interchangeably. They are the same country, but the word Persia is commonly associated with the Gulf area (Persian Gulf), literature, language, music and food. Najmieh explains that Iran was called “Persia” by Westerners in ancient times. She says Persian cooking is one of the oldest cuisines in the world but the least known in the West. The first recipes were written 4,000 years ago in a cuneiform script on clay tablets. Yet we are familiar with Persian foods like peaches, pistachios, saffron and pomegranates.
The famous Silk Road, a network of ancient trading routes, was anchored by China in the East and the Mediterranean in the West. Persia lay at the crossroads where goods, spices, foodstuffs, recipes and ideas traveled from civilization to civilization. Aromatic spices like cardamon, coriander, cumin, saffron and cinnamon are still treasured in the Persian kitchen as well as fresh herbs like basil and mint.
Persian food is slightly exotic, highly fragrant, beautiful, healthy and incredible delicious! A reviewer of New Food of Life writes, “Like a magnificent Persian carpet, 1,000 years of Persian literature and art have been woven into the book.” Najmieh says Persian food is so important, it is often used as a metaphor for describing beauty: “peachy complexion, almond-shaped eyes and red apple cheeks.”
The appetizers at Najmieh’s meal included addictive Pomegranate & Pistachio Meatballs, from the book, From Persia to Napa: Wine at the Persian Table. (See photo above)
Three centuries before Marco Polo, a 10th century Arabic cookbook called for noodles by their Persian name, thought to have been served in a yogurt sauce. But rice plays the starring role in Persia’s meals. Elaborate rice dishes are commonly served for special occasions and festivals. The most revered part of the rice is the crunchy crust, or tah dig, that forms on the bottom of the pan while cooking. Steamed rice dishes are referred to as pilaf, pilau, polow or even palau. Fragrant basmati rice from India or Pakistan is similar to Persian long grain rice and can be substituted. Like Chinese rice, it should be rinsed in cool water several times to remove excess starch and create fluffy rice.
I have eaten rice throughout Asia, but Najmieh prepared one of the most exquisite dishes I have ever eaten. The “wedding rice,” shown below, was filled with a variety of fruits, nuts and spices. There were thin slivers of candied orange peel, pistachios, almonds and chopped barberries plus orange flower water and saffron.
Barberries are deep-red, sour, edible berries used in Persian and Afghan cooking. When dried, they resemble dried cranberries and are best stored in the freezer to preserve their freshness. They have many uses including rice dishes, desserts, curries, even salads (photo below).
Kebabs are one of the most popular Persian dishes and after tasting Najmieh’s chicken kebabs (Jujeh Kebab), I could see why. They were laced on fig-wood skewers (from her yard) and had been soaked in a yogurt-saffron marinade three days before grilling. Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine wrote that Najmieh’s kebabs were one of the “top five tastes of the inauguration weekend.” I have included the recipe below. Najmieh often prepares this recipe using small Cornish hens, cut into pieces.
Persian cooks are influenced by ancient Greek medicine and the role of food as a means of maintaing the body’s balance and good health. Foods are classified “hot” or “cold.” This factor is considered when creating dishes and menus. Walnuts (“hot”) are often combined with pomegranates, (“cold”) to create a delicious dish with a healthy balance. We dined on a creamy Persian stew known as a khoresh, in this case a vegetarian version made with ground walnuts and tart-sweet, crunchy pomegranate seeds (immediately below). Najmieh mixed in cubes of sweet, golden winter squash. The dish was unusual and very delicious, especially paired with the golden saffron rice.
A refreshing salad was sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, a tangy vinaigrette and addictive pistachios candied in a sugar glaze. They were crunchy and sweet; everyone nibbled on them and they nearly disappeared before the salad was served. The meal ended with a sweet Persian pastry perfumed with rosewater, and glass cups of fragrant, hot mint tea.
Persians love dried and fresh fruits; peaches, apricots, cherries, quince and pomegranates – native to ancient Persia. They have a real sweet tooth, as evidenced in sweet touches found in many savory dishes and in pastries like baklava. Fortunately, there is a counterbalance to the sweetness with tart flavors like sour cherries, lemon or lime juice, pomegranate juice and barberries (below).
Since ancient times, flowers have play an important role in Persian people’s lives, and this extends to their cuisine. Food is often flavored with roses and rose water or orange blossoms and orange flower water. Flower and herb bouquets adorn foods, serving platters and tables.
Here are two of Najmieh’s wonderful recipes to try. Serve them with cooked basmati rice on the side. In the future, I hope to share her recipe for Persian Wedding Rice. Nush-e Jan!
Najmieh Batmanglij’s Persian Kebabs
Najmieh suggests marinating the poultry for three days for the best results. The succulent chicken cubes that I tasted were meltingly tender and flavorful. This recipe comes from Najmieh’s cookbook, New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.
Instead of Cornish Hens, you can use 4 pounds chicken drumettes or 3 pounds bonel
ess skinless chicken thighs, cut in 1-1/2 inch pieces.
- 1/2 tsp. ground saffron dissolved in 2 TBSP. hot water
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled, and crushed
- 2 tablespoons zest of LIME
- 2 tablespoons yogurt
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 4 Cornish hens, about 4 lbs., each in 10 pieces
- 5 SMALL tomatoes, halved
- 6 flat, swordlike skewers
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 cup butter, melted
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 (12-ounce) packages of lavash bread
- 2 limes, cut in half
- Basil sprigs
In a NON REACTIVE large bowl, combine half the saffron water and the lime juice, olive oil, onions, garlic, LIME zest, yogurt, salt, and pepper. Beat well with a fork. Add the pieces of Cornish hen or chicken and toss well with marinade. Cover and marinate for at least 24 hours and up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Turn the chicken twice during this period. Start a bed of charcoal 30 minutes before you want to cook and let it burn until the coals glow evenly. (You can use a hair dryer to speed up the process.) Otherwise, preheat the oven broiler. Skewer the tomatoes. Spear wings, breasts, and legs onto different skewers (they require different cooking times).
Add the juice of 1 lime and the remaining saffron water to the melted butter. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Mix well and set aside. Grill the chicken and tomatoes 8 to 15 minutes, until done. Turn frequently. The chicken is done when the juice that runs out is yellow rather than pink. BASTE THE GRILLED CHICKEN JUST BEFORE REMOVING FROM THE FIRE.
Place a whole lavash bread on a serving platter. Remove the grilled chicken from skewers and arrange the pieces on the bread. Garnish with lime juice and sprigs of parsley. Cover the platter with more bread. Serve immediately with fresh herbs, torshi (Persian pickles), and french fries.
Yogurt & Cucumber Dip or Soup (Mast-o khiar)
This refreshing recipe comes from Najmieh Batmanglij’s cookbook, New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh or dried mint
1 dried rosebud and 2 tablespoons petals
Prep time: 15 min.
Cooking time: 1 hour refrigeration
- 1 seedless cucumber, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup raisins, washed and drained
- 3 cups whole-milk yogurt
- 1/2 cup sour cream (optional)
- 1/4 cup chopped scallions
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill weed
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
- 3 tablespoons chopped shelled walnuts
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
In a serving bowl, combine cucumber, raisins, yogurt, sour cream (if desired), scallions, mint, dill, garlic, and chopped walnuts. Mix thoroughly and season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Garnish with 1/2 teaspoon mint, rosebud, and petals. Serve with bread as an appetizer. Four servings.
Note: For fewer calories and less fat, you may use low-fat yogurt in place of whole-milk yogurt and eliminate the sour cream.
Variation: This may be transformed into a refreshing cold soup by adding 1 cup of cold water (or more to taste) and 2 or 3 ice cubes to the mixture.