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The Flavors of Persia

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Persia was the trade hub for the ancient world. Animals, textiles, metals, gems and foodstuffs all passed through its ports. Ancient Persia was quite the cosmopolitan empire with influences from India, Egypt, Syria and more.

The foods of Persia are exotic and reflect thousands of years of tradition. Pomegranates, pistachios, rose water and almond pastes are just a few of the flavors of Persia that we cherish today.

Jews have a long, tempestuous history in Persia that dates back to biblical times. The books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles and Esther contain references to Persia. Present-day Iran is the home to the largest Jewish community living in a Muslim-majority country.  

Chef’s comment: Where has this food been all my life? Persian food has the same sensibility that I have with ingredients and how to handle them. The cuisine takes advantage of seasonal and fresh ingredients. There are no bags of frozen vegetables, over-processed packaged products or jars of dusty dried herbs. This food scream fresh. The flavors are simple and elegant. I love it!

Herbed Meatballs with Rice

Kufteh Berenji

The meatballs are so fragrant with herbs and brightly flavored tomato-saffron broth. This recipe is a keeper all year round and elevates the meatball to a new status. Persian food is redolent with fresh, fresh, fresh ingredients. Each ingredient is aromatic and amazing on its own. When they come together it is pure harmony.

Serves 6-8 as a first course

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total: 1 hour

½ cup yellow split peas

1 cup Basmati rice

2 eggs, whisked

2 teaspoons Persian Spice mix*

1 large onion, grated

1 pound ground beef or turkey

2 cups chopped fresh parsley

1 cup chopped fresh dill

½ cup chopped savory

¼ cup chopped tarragon

2 cups chopped scallions

 2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup tomato juice

2 cups chicken stock

¼ cup fresh lime juice

½ teaspoon saffron threads

  1. Pick over the rice and peas and rinse
  2. Cook the rice and peas covered for 30 minutes until cooked thoroughly
  3. Place the ground meat, fresh herbs, grated onion, spice mix and cooked peas and rice into a large mixing bowl. Knead the mixture thoroughly until it resembles a smooth paste. You can do this by hand or with the aid of a mixer fitted with a paddle at low speed.
  4. In a large sauté pan lightly coated with olive oil, add the sliced onion and garlic and sauté until lightly caramelized. Add the tomato juice, chicken stock, lime juice and saffron. Simmer for 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
  5. Shape the meat mixture into meatballs and gently add them to the simmering sauce. Cook until the meatballs are cooked through (about 15 minutes).
  6. Serve with fresh pita and plenty of sauce. Garnish with pomegranate, chopped mint and toasted pistachios

 Celery and Mint Khoresh

Khoreshes are a sort of stir-fried stew that are common in Persian cuisine. The ingredients vary from season to season and are treated with care. No over cooked soggy vegetables in these dishes. Everything is cooked to highlight bright flavor.

Serves 4

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total: 45 minutes

Extra virgin olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, sliced

1 pound boneless chicken breast or turkey breast, cut into large dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

6 celery ribs, cut into 1 inch segments

1 cup chicken stock

¼ cup fresh lime juice

½ teaspoon saffron threads

2 cups chopped flat leaf parsley

½ cup chopped fresh mint

  1. Place a large sauté pan, lightly coated with olive oil, over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is golden brown and caramelized (about 10 minutes). Add the chicken and garlic and continue to cook until the chicken is golden brown (about 5 minutes).
  2. Add the chicken stock, lime juice and saffron to the pan. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the celery has softened. Add the fresh herbs and stir to combine. Adjust seasoning with salt, freshly cracked pepper and lime juice.
  3. Serve with saffron rice and garnish with additional parsley, mint, pomegranate molasses drizzled over the top, thinly sliced limes

Saffron Rice

I love this crispy, textured rice dish. The rice is cooked twice and develops a golden brown crust that is nutty flavored and very crunchy while the rice on the inside of the molded cake is soft, fluffy and fragrant.

Serves 4-5

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 1.5 hours

Total: 1 hour 35 minutes

1 cup Basmati Rice

1 teaspoon saffron threads

Olive oil

Garnishes: chopped dill, chopped mint

Preheat oven to 350

  1. Place the basmati rice and saffron  in a medium sauce pan. Add 2 ½  cups of water, cover and simmer over medium heat until the rice is cooked through (about 20-25 minutes).
  2. Place a large sauté pan, generously coated with olive oil, over medium heat.
  3. Scoop the cooked rice into the pan and pack the rice by pressing it firmly into the pan. Cover and bake in the preheated for 30 minutes until the rice has formed a crust. You can peek at the crust by gently pulling the rice away the side of the pan with a spatula.
  4. Invert onto a platter and garnish with fresh herbs.

Rosewater Rice Pudding

This creamy comforting dessert is as familiar as your grandmother’s rice pudding and yet strikingly different. The rose water and saffron are exotic and fragrant. The pale yellow dessert is beautiful and makes the perfect finale for a meat meal. I like to pass bowls of garnishes and let my guests adorn their own bowls of this delicately perfumed comfort food.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time 25 minutes

Total: 30 minutes

Serves 4-5

1 cup short grain rice (I use Arborio)

4 cups water

2 cups sugar

½ cup rose water*

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons rice flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Pinch of ground cardamom

Suggested garnishes: chopped pistachios, chopped almonds, fresh mint, Pomegranate

  1. Boil the rice with water, rose water, sugar and saffron threads until the rice is cooked completely and very soft.
  2. Whisk the eggs yolks and rice flour together. Stir the mixture into the slightly cooled rice. Add the cinnamon and cardamom.
  3. Chill thoroughly or serve warm. Garnish as desired.

*Rosewater is a distillation of rose petals. Rose oil is made from distilling crushed rose petals and is used in cosmetics and perfumes. Rosewater is a by product of this process.

Rosewater is commonly used in Persian and Indian recipes. It is used in desserts as well as savory dishes.

In Europe, rosewater is used to flavor marzipan, marshmallows and scones.

Last year, my husband and I were in Paris and visited many patisseries owned by friends. Rose scented desserts are “in;” we saw and ate them everywhere in Paris. We passed by a shop everyday in Le Marais that only sold rosewater products and baked goods.

Rosewater is an old ingredient that is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.  I encourage you to try it. I use it in Persian cooking, desserts, vinaigrettes and marinades. When first trying to cook with rosewater-go slow at first until you get a feel for it. A little goes a long way.

Rosewater can be found in many grocery stores, Persian or Middle Eastern stores and on line. Rosewater is a distillation and does not require hashgacha.

Laura Frankel is an Executive Chef at Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering and author of numerous kosher cookbooks including Jewish Cooking for All Seasons and Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes. To purchase her books, click here. For more articles by Laura, click here.
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