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Corby's Table
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Persian Appeal

Eggplant Kuku
Celery & Mint Khoresh
Rhubarb Khoresh
Saffron Steamed Plain Basmati Rice
Rice with Tomato
Rice-Stuffed Chicken


June 3, 1999

I've long been interested in Persian food, harboring as I do an intense desire to visit Iran now that U.S.-Iran relations are approaching something like normal, and having spent a good deal of time reading about the rice dishes that were created there -- dishes in which each grain of rice remains separate, unlike risotto. Much as I love the self-made sauce that the starch on short-grain rice creates in risotto, I grew up on fluffy rice, and I prefer it. And using varieties similar to the ones original to Iran (the closest we can buy are fine basmatis) shows how richly flavored rice itself can be.

Persian food, as its adherents call it, mixes meat with fruit, and I suppose I'm so drawn to it because of its strong sweet-and-sour character, and also its subtle but persistent use of spices. Najmieh Batmanglij has written several books on the food of Iran, but the recently published A Taste of Persia is the most complete. She's no Paula Wolfert, who has made a specialty of the Near East; she isn't an indefatigable researcher. Instead she gives basic information distilled from a lifetime of experience -- more than enough information to get you started -- and very appealing recipes.

Discuss this column in Post & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

Help! My Child Is a Vegan! -- April 1999
Stephanie Pierson's useful new guide for teenage vegetarians, and those who love them anyway.

Seasons and Seasonings -- March 1999
A seasonal guide to cooking from the garden by Amanda Hesser, a young woman who knows and loves food.

Seductions of Rice -- January 1999
Selections from a new guide to the universal grain's many flavors.

A Passion for Pastry -- December 1998
Two books that will have you dreaming of the perfect holiday dessert.

Soup With Style -- November 1998
A look at the new book by Barbara Kafka, a cook who takes a fearlessly original approach to soup.

Mangia, Mangia in the Mountains -- October 1998
A trip to Abruzzo with Anna Teresa Callen, whose new book draws on culinary memories of this less-traveled Italian region.

Adventures in Grains and Greens -- August 1998
Paula Wolfert's latest Mediterranean explorations.

Vegging Out -- July 1998
The ultimate guide to eating your vegetables.

America's Favorite Crustacean -- June 1998
Jasper White gets up close and personal with lobster claws, tails, and tomalley.

A True Taste of Tuscany -- May 1998
A rare book that shows Italy unromanticized -- and more appetizing.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound.

Batmanglij groups the book by type of dish, and one of most straightforward is kuku, a kind of frittata-cake with baking powder and flour which bakes in the oven. I've had similar dishes from neighboring cuisines, and love the way the savory ingredients -- in this case eggplant, onions, garlic, and saffron -- mellow when mixed with eggs and unite completely after a few hours at room temperature.

Who knew when reading the headlines about the cult leader that khoresh was a long-cooked, heavily spiced vegetable-and-meat stew? This dish can restore honor to the name, and win a different kind of convert: "All the morning the stew would simmer," Batmanglij recalls, "perfuming our house until lunchtime. I recall those days every time I visit people who are making this dish, especially if they live in apartment buildings: The haunting scent greets us in the elevator and drifts up long corridors, drawing us to friends' doors." I give two examples of the stew here, related both in technique and ingredients: one based on celery and mint and the other on rhubarb, like celery in that it’s long and stringy and is far better when braised. Garlic, turmeric, saffron, and lime are rarely absent from khoresh and other Persian dishes, and will turn seemingly pallid vegetables into emblems of an exotic cuisine.

Najmieh Batmanglij  

The most famous emblem is, of course, long-grain rice, and I'm eager to try Batmanglij's master recipe of how to make fluffy rice. Once you get the technique down, try it in a recipe as seemingly plain as "rice with tomato," which includes eggplant, green pepper, and numerous spices -- and which will be both balanced and fragrant.

I've tried to choose recipes that won't make you feel that you've had to spend hours preparing one dish. But I do want to include rice-stuffed chicken, not just for the dried cherries, slivered almonds, raisins, lime juice, and saffron, which remind me of a number of my mother's dishes (including Georgia Country Captain), but for the teaspoon of dried rose petals. The thought of them transports me to flat-patterned, highly ornamented mosques. The color and complexity of the dish bears out the archaeologist Phyliss Pray Bober's thesis about food echoing culture, which she amplifies in an ambitious new book called Art, Culture, & Cuisine -- one I read as part of a marathon effort to go through all the season's cookbooks; I included it in an upcoming survey for The New York Times Book Review. A Taste of Persia doesn't have intellectual heft, but it certainly made me want to learn, and cook, more.

    -- Corby Kummer


Excerpts from A Taste of Persia, by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage)


Eggplant Kuku

Kuku-ye bademjan



Servings: 4
Prep Time: 30 min.
Cooking Time: 45 min.

2 large or 6 small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into thin strips 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1 egg white, lightly beaten juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup vegetable oil, butter, or ghee 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. Peel the eggplants, cut them lengthwise in quarters if they are large, and salt them to remove bitterness if necessary. Brush each side of the eggplant pieces with egg white to reduce the oil needed for frying.

2. In a skillet, heat 4 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onion and stir-fry for 10 minutes, until translucent.

3. Add the eggplant and garlic and stir-fry 10 minutes longer, until all sides are lightly golden brown. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

4. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Pour 4 tablespoons of oil into an 8-inch baking dish lined with parchment paper.

5. Break the eggs into a large bowl. Add the parsley, saffron water, lime juice, baking powder, flour, salt, and pepper. Beat thoroughly with a fork. Add the eggplant, onion and garlic and mix thoroughly.

6. Pour the mixture into the dish and bake uncovered for 45 to 50 minutes, until the edge is golden brown.

7. Serve the kuku from the baking dish or unmold it by loosening the edge with a knife and inverting the dish onto a serving platter. Remove the parchment paper. NUSH-E JAN!



Celery & Mint Khoresh

Khoresh-e karafs



Servings: 4
Prep Time: 30 min.
Cooking Time: 1-1/2 hrs.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, butter, or ghee 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
5 stalks celery, washed and chopped into 1-inch lengths (4 cups chopped) 1 teaspoon salt
3 cups chopped fresh parsley 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or 2 tablespoons dried 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken or meat (lamb, veal, beef), cut into thin strips 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water (optional)

1. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the celery and stir-fry 10 minutes. Add the chopped parsley and mint and stir-fry 10 minutes longer. Set aside.

2. In a medium pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir-fry 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the chicken and garlic and fry 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the celery, salt, pepper, turmeric, lime juice, and saffron water and stir-fry 1 minute longer.

3. Pour in 2-1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 40 minutes.

4. Taste the khoresh and adjust the seasoning for salt and lime juice. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

5. Serve hot with saffron steamed rice. NUSH-E JAN!



Rhubarb Khoresh

Khoresh-e rivas



In Iran, rhubarb has been reputed since ancient times to cleanse the blood and purify the system.

Servings: 4
Prep Time: 30 min.
Cooking Time: 1-1/2 hrs.

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, butter, or ghee 2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken or meat (lamb, veal, beef), cut into thin strips 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 cups chopped fresh parsley 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or 2 tablespoons dried
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water (optional) 1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1 pound fresh or frozen rhubarb, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. In a medium pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir-fry 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the chicken and fry for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the salt, pepper, and turmeric.

2. Pour in 2-1/2 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

5. Meanwhile, in a skillet heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the parsley and mint, and fry for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the aroma rises from the skillet.

4. Add the parsley and mint mixture, saffron water, tomato paste, and lime juice to the chicken. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 10 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Transfer the khoresh to a deep ovenproof casserole. Arrange the rhubarb on the top and cover the casserole with aluminum foil. Pierce several holes in the foil and place the casserole dish in the oven. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender. Remember, rhubarb is fragile: The pieces must be cooked, but not to the point that they are falling apart.

6. Adjust seasoning. If the khoresh is too sour, add 1 tablespoon sugar. If the rhubarb needs more cooking, continue until it is soft.

7. Serve hot with saffron steamed rice. NUSH-E JAN!



Saffron Steamed Plain Basmati Rice

Chelow



Servings: 6
Prep Time: 5 min.
Cooking Time: 1-1/4 hrs.

3 cups long-grain white basmati rice 1/2 cup vegetable oil, butter, or ghee
8 cups cold water 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 tablespoons salt 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 4 tablespoons of hot water

1. Pick over the rice carefully to remove its many small solid particles of grit.

2. Wash the rice by placing it in a large container and covering it with lukewarm water. Agitate gently with your hand, then pour off the water. Repeat five times until the rice is completely clean.

3. In a large nonstick pot, bring 8 cups of water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil. Add the rice to the pot and boil briskly for 6 to 10 minutes, gently stirring twice with a wooden spoon to loosen any grains that stick to the bottom. Once the rice rises to the top of the pot, it is done.

4. Drain the rice in a large, fine-mesh strainer and rinse with 3 cups lukewarm water.

5. In a bowl, whisk together 4 tablespoons oil, 2 spatulas full of the rice, the yogurt, 1/2 cup lukewarm water, and 1 tablespoon of saffron water. Spread this mixture over the bottom of the rice pot. This will form the golden crust, or tah dig.

6. One spatula full at a time, gently mound the remaining rice onto the tah dig layer. Shape it into a pyramid to leave room for the rice's expansion.

7. Cover the pot and cook the rice for 10 minutes over medium heat.

8. Mix 1 cup cold water with 4 tablespoons oil and pour over rice. Sprinkle on the remaining saffron water. Place a clean dishtowel or 2 layers of paper towel over the pot to absorb condensation, and cover with the lid to prevent steam from escaping. Reduce the heat to low and cook 50 minutes longer.

9. Remove the pot from the heat and cool it, still covered, on a damp surface for 5 minutes to loosen the crust.

10. There are two ways to serve the rice. The first is to hold the serving platter tightly over the uncovered pot and invert the two together, unmolding the entire mound onto the platter. The rice will emerge as a golden-crusted cake, to be garnished with edible flowers and herbs, then served in wedges. The second serving style is to spoon the rice into a pyramid on the serving platter, taking care not to disturb the bottom crust as you do so. After the pyramid is shaped, detach the crust with a wooden spatula and arrange it in pieces around the pyramid or serve it on a small side platter. NUSH-E JAN!

Note: You can use any kind of pot to make this rice, but nonstick pots make unmolding the rice much easier.

Note: If using American long-grain rice wash the rice once only.

Note: To reheat leftover rice, place the rice in a saucepan with 1/2 cup water and place over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.



Rice with Tomato

Dami-e gojeh farangi



This rice cooker method of making Eslamboli polow uses virtually the same ingredients, but is simpler and less messy to make than the stovetop method. This results in the same combination of flavors as the traditional method but one loses some of the delicacy of seasoning and the sophisticated layered effect. This method can be used for any polow recipe using ground meat.

Servings: 6
Prep Time: 20 min.
Cooking Time: 1-1/4 hrs.

3 cups long-grain white basmati rice 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons oil, butter, or ghee 1-1/2 tablespoons salt
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 large eggplant (about 1 pound), peeled and sliced with bitterness removed 4 large, fresh tomatoes, peeled and puréed, or 4 cups tomato purée, or 1 12-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and puréed
1 large green pepper, seeded and sliced 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
1 pound ground chicken, beef, or lamb

1. Pick over and wash the rice per the master recipe for plain basmatic rice.

2. In the rice cooker, heat 3 tablespoons oil and stir-fry the onion, garlic, eggplant, and green pepper for 10 minutes. Add the ground meat and stir-fry 10 minutes, until golden brown.

3. Add the salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron water, and stir-fry 3 minutes.

4. Stirring gently, add rice and tomato purée. Cover and cook 40 minutes.

5. Unplug the rice cooker and allow to sit for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and place a round serving dish over the pot. Hold the serving dish and pot together tightly and flip them to unmold the rice. The rice will be like a cake. Cut it into slices and serve. NUSH-E JAN!

Variation: Replace the ground meat with 2 pounds of flounder, cut into 1-inch pieces.



Rice-Stuffed Chicken

Morgh-e tu por ba berenj



When we first moved to America I tried using this traditional Persian rice stuffing with turkey instead of chicken. Ever since, I have delighted Thanksgiving guests by combining the traditional turkey with the unique flavors of a Persian stuffing. The stuffing can be made with wild rice, creating even more of a Persian-American blend. If you use wild rice, check the package for cooking instructions.
Persian spice mix (advieh)

The spice mix called for in Persian recipes is sold at Persian groceries, but it is easy to make at home. This basic recipe takes only a few minutes to make, and produces about 1/2 cup:

2 tablespoons dried rose petals
2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons cardamom
1 tablespoon ground cumin

Thoroughly mix the ground spices and the rose petals. Larger quantities can also be mixed and stored in an airtight container.


Servings: 4
Prep Time: 35 min.
Cooking Time: 1-1/2 hrs.

1/2 cup long-grain rice 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 small frying chickens (about 5 pounds total), or 4 Cornish game hens 1 cup chicken stock or water
2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup dried barberries, cleaned, or 1/4 cup dried tart cherries
1/2 cup vegetable oil, butter, or ghee 1/4 cup slivered almonds
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced 1/2 cup raisins
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon dried rose petals 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1/2 tablespoon Persian spice mix (advieh)

1. Pick over and wash the rice once.

2. Wash the chickens in cold water, pat them dry, and rub them with 1 teaspoon salt.

3. In a skillet, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and fry for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the rice, advieh, rose petals, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper, and stir-fry for 2 minutes.

4. Add the chicken stock, cover, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes Preheat oven to 400°F.

5. Add the barberries, almonds, raisins, lime juice, and saffron water. Mix well and remove from heat.

6. Stuff the chickens with the rice mixture and truss them.

7. Place the chickens in a greased ovenproof dish or roasting pan, paint each with 1 tablespoon oil or melted butter and cover loosely with aluminum foil.

8. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 1-1/2 hours.

9. Serve the chicken in the baking dish or on a platter, with bread, raw vegetables, fresh herbs, and salad. NUSH-E JAN!

Variation: Rice-Stuffed Chicken Breasts
Lay two large, boneless chicken breast halves flat, skin down, and using the flat of a large knife, press down to flatten as much as possible. Place half the rice mixture on each breast, roll up, and pin closed with bamboo skewers. Place side by side in a greased baking pan, cover, and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, cut each breast diagonally in 2-inch pieces and serve with bread, raw vegetables, fresh herbs, and salad.


Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Copyright © 1999 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes and links from A Taste of Persia by Najmieh K. Batmanglij. Mage Publishers: Washington DC, 1999. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 0-934211-54-X. $17.95. Copyright © by Najmieh K. Batmanglij. Batmanglij photo copyright © Mage Publishers.
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