Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week #44 Persian

"You know, we could eat a boatload of caviar and still be entirely faithful to this blog entry," I submitted to my dinner date, Chef Don, as we breezed west through Los Angeles toward the sunset. He cackled with glee.

Persian is one of only two cuisines on the planet, the other being Russian, that can claim caviar as an authentic part of its cuisine, because Iran and Russia are the only countries that border the Caspian Sea, where the caviar-laden sturgeon makes its home. All the rest of the world's fish eggs are just that--fish eggs. As the saying goes, "Location is everything!"

Enticing as that gorging-on-caviar idea was, practical considerations--namely money--deemed that we resist the neighborhood caviar bars. Instead we blew through Beverly Hills and stopped at Baran Restaurant, in that part of West LA known as Tehrangeles, for its concentration of Iranians, their businesses and most importantly to us, their restaurants.

Within moments a basket hit our table filled with uniformly cut pieces of nan-e lavash, unleavened bread as thin and easy to handle as a stack of playing cards. We smeared them with soft butter and rolled up pieces of sweet onion inside. They were refreshing yet substantial.

 Next came an appetizer of tahdig, the wonderfully crusty rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot (check out my blog entry Do Not Soak This Pan to see my attempt at making some). It was smothered in two stews, one of lentils and the other of herbs and beef, which was so good I ordered a full entrĂ©e of the stuff. Tahdig is wonderful all by itself--a savory rice krispy treat for adults--but those stews were necessary: I'd been starving myself all day so I could savor more of this cuisine.

The herb-and-beef stew is called ghormeh sabzi, and it's considered the national dish of Iran. Made of beef, beans and assorted greens and herbs--whatever greenery is available in any particular region of Iran--it carries enormous flavor and is filling without being too heavy.

The boiled chicken, in the foreground (with ghormeh sabzi in the background) came with albalou polo, basmati rice flavored with sour cherries and saffron (picture below). Maybe chicken and sour cherries isn't the first combination you'd think of, but what a natural pairing. Just think about all the great dishes you've had combining chicken and lemon, or perhaps chicken and capers. As for the chicken, I couldn't pin down exactly what the flavorings were (and it looks more braised than boiled), but it was mildly hot and perfectly accented by the sweet and sour cherries.
albalou polo

Torshi is a dish of aged pickled vegetables, including carrots, eggplant and cauliflower with an array of herbs and plenty of salt. My tonsils are seizing up even as I type this--it's incredibly sour, and a tiny bit goes a long way. In fact, I brought most of it home with me. I plan to enjoy it for a really long time.

 I think faloodeh is what angels eat for dessert. This sublime rosewater granita with vermicelli has been around for a looong time, since about 400 BCE. It's sweet and rich yet light. The rosewater makes it rich, the ice makes it light and the vermicelli gives it a bit of chewiness. Vermicelli may seem like a strange ingredient in ice cream, but I believe that's what helps keep it frozen longer. Without those frozen starchy bits, the ice crystals would quickly melt away.

Confession time: Dessert didn't end there. Don wasn't familiar with Mashti Malone's, a veritable palace of Persian ice cream in Hollywood, so I had to remedy that deficiency in his local food knowledge. I figured we'd stop by and pick up prepackaged containers to carry home and enjoy later. But nooo, before I knew what was happening he'd ordered a couple of scoops--pomegranate and saffron. I held my order to a single serving of herb snow, which is similar to faloodeh but contains those wonderful gelatinous basil seeds. It was all heavenly.

One of the nice things about faloodeh--about granita in general--is that it's a great frozen treat that doesn't require an ice cream maker to produce. Time to share the secret:

Yield: 8 servings

2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
2 tbsp. rosewater (you should be able to find it in any Middle Eastern market)
2 oz. vermicelli
garnish options: lime wedges, sour cherries, chopped pistachios, fresh mint leaves

Stir together sugar and water in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, stir in rose water and allow to cool to room temperature.
Place noodles in a glass or metal bowl and add just enough boiling water to cover them. Let stand for a few minutes, until the noodles are soft. Drain noodles, rinse under cold water and drain again; then cut noodles into one-inch lengths.
Stir noodles into rosewater mixture in a shallow dish and set it in the freezer.
After an hour, reach in and stir and break up the ice crystals with a fork. Repeat periodically over the next two or three hours, until you have a nice crystally sweet dessert.
Serve with the garnish of your choice.

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