I have been a fan of Naomi Duguid's cookbooks for some time, having begun with the gift of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, co-authored with her (now) ex-husband, Jeffrey Alford. I have a few others that either she wrote or they created jointly, on rice and on chinese food.(For my review of the latter, click here.) Unlike some of the cookbooks I own, I cook from them -- especially that first book focused on the various foods along the river that defines much of southeast Asia. I love that book - because my partner found it in Alberta and lugged it back in her baggage on a difficult trip to see family, because we have cooked from it for years, and because. . . . it is a terrific combination of visuals, travel and recipes.(Not to mention sticky stains that shout out about the times we have cooked from it in the past.)
This past year, during holiday season 2016, my partner got me a new Duguid cookbook: A Taste of Persia. Subtitled A Cook's Travels through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, this new book has already found a place in my heart, helping to define a new period in the making of our home together. There are bits that are familiar; the book brings together travel reflections, beautiful pictures, and recipes. The colors are dazzling. And, there are familiar components of recipes -- I do love pomegranate molasses and we do own a terrific book by Paula Wolfert entitled The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean that includes some Georgian foods, for example. I have even eaten at an Iranian restaurant once upon a time at a professional conference.
This book re-inspired me to get in the kitchen, something I rarely do in Chicago and that has been a challenge for me for some time. I have felt unimaginative and uninspired. And yet, this book pushed me along and I have now created several entire meals from it when in Geneva. Here are a few comments on various recipes we have tried:
Soup: There is a notion of New Year's in The Taste of Persia which does not really connect with January 1. Yep, Persian New Year is not January 1. Called Nowruz or norouz, and celebrated this year around March 21, I have a vague memory of Alice Walker at Chez Panisse celebrating Nowruz. (Click here for what I found in trying to figure out if I made this up. And yes, this reminds me to think about all this in relation to Parsi.)
In any case, I took advantage of the pseudo connection and made the New Year's soup that Duguid provides for New Year's Eve or New Year's Day (I cannot recall which). The soup involves the color green -- as in spinach, herbs and beans of various sorts. It also includes noodles -- and I used gluten free linguini. I made it twice. The first time was perfect and the second was kind of awful because I used the left overs from the first time and added that to another batch. As a result, some of the spinach was wildly over cooked and kind of slimy. Do not do that. Here is what it looks like (not my picture) -- it might be Duiguid's but I am at a loss for how it popped up on google. My apologies to the copyright holder.
I have now made a kind of Persian herbed rice multiple times. It is absolutely wonderful and because you can use a wide array of herbs, it is not quite the same each time. This is an attempt to reproduce the recipe from memory:
- Soak 3 cups of rice (I used basmati) for an hour or two in water.
- Rinse rice and boil it for maybe 5-10 minutes maximum.
- Drain and cool the rice.
- Mix an egg with a few tablespoons of yogurt. Then mix that with a cup or so of rice.
- Get out a huge dutch oven and put a few tablespoons of oil and water in the bottom.
- Spread the mixture of rice, yogurt and egg on the bottom.
- Some time before this chop finely a mixture of herbs -- including scallions, flat parsley (I tried curly -- it just is too dull), cilantro, dill . . . (I always used dill). (The recipe says this ought to be a kind of pyramid shape. Mine is not.)
- Alternate layers of rice/herbs, til you get to the top, which should be rice. Then add about 3 Tablespoons of butter in bits into holes in the rice.
- Put a towel over the top and then the top of the dutch oven. The goal is to steam the rice.
- Steam for about 30 minutes. And then, put the container in about 2-3 inches of cold water in the sink. This is to release the wonderful crusty bottom created by the rice/egg/yogurt mixture as it cooks.
- Put it on a plate and serve. And eat it for a few days in various variations.
Th best part of this recipe is the combination of textures, flavors and, to be honest, the crispy bottom. I was kind of unduly proud when the rice came out with such a lovely crispy brown crust on the bottom. Hurrah.
Fesenjan: I had had this once upon a time in the aforementioned Iranian restaurant which was, I think, in San Diego. It consists of a protein in a sauce made of pomegranate molasses and walnuts. And, according to Duguid it can be tart or sweet. There are various aspects of what I have cooked from A Taste of Persia that seem to fit this general description. First, I made a duck fesenjan. It was a kind of peculiar brown color and somewhat tasteless. We think that may have been the age of the pomegranate molasses. But who knows. This was a variant on a recipe for chicken contained in the cookbook.
I also made a sauce which purports to go with fish and is also pomegranate molasses and walnuts -- and it was spectacular. See below.
Fish: We looked at several fish recipes and settled on a simply recipe which involved grilled fish. And no, we did not grill the fish. The first time, we purchased some cod and baked it, setting it on top of a layer of tarragon, drizzled with olive oil, and baking for about 15 minutes or so at around 350 degrees. We served it with the pomegranate seed and cilantro condiment described here (and appearing in the book on the page opposite the grilled fish recipe). We also served it with a condiment from elsewhere in the book, which was made by combining 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses, and 1/2 cup water, and cooking it down for a bit, then adding a cup of walnuts previously pulverized in the food processor.
The second time was used (of all things) thai basil under the fish (a whole red snapper). I stuffed some of the herbs into the cavity of the fish as well. This too made a terrific meal with the condiments described.
In several of these cases there were additional condiments: mint oil and saffron water. Both are easy and wonderful, especially when added to (a) the rice (mix one cup of the parboiled rice with saffron water and sprinkle on top of the other rice for a delightful scent and taste; and (b) both saffron water and mint oil in the soup. And, the cookbook encourages an indiscriminate luxury of herbs.
A failure and some challenges: While I knew some of the mystery ingredients in Duguid's book, I did not know them all. The three main challenges: barberries, chinese celery, and (blue) fenugreek greens. (I have no idea if the latter is the same thing as metthi which is fenugreek as described in Indian cooking. That too I have trouble finding except in Indian groceries.) In any case, the one failure was my attempt to make a green ajika. I was both missing key ingredients (chinese celery) and -- to be frank, this turned out to be inedible. There are 3 jars in the kitchen in Geneva. I have no idea whenI will throw them out.
today, in 2017, perhaps the rise of this book feels a tad political, given the "travel ban" that has been instituted. It was not written for that reason, but as a kind of culinary tourist, it did remind me to think about the real people affected by this xenophobia. There are down sides to food as tourism, of course, but there are also upsides to knowing the world just a tiny bit better.
Or check out her blog here.
And, then, make something with pomegranate molasses. Trust me.