Sunday, July 3, 2011

My First Foray into Persian Cooking

I just received my copy of Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.  I've been intrigued by Persian cooking since I came across a few Persian recipes in a Middle Eastern cookbook.  Main ingredients in Persian cooking include a lot of foods I really enjoy: pistachio nuts, pomegranates, onions, garlic, dried fruits, and fresh herbs.

Instead of starting with something simple, I decided to throw myself in and make pistachio soup and Caspian olive and pomegranate salad.  Realistically, I should have picked just one of these and then accompanied it by something simple.  Instead, I spent a long time in the kitchen.  In the book, the picture of the soup is a nice, light green.  Because pistachios are green, right?  The recipe called for raw pistachios, and I can only get roasted.  So, maybe that's why my soup wasn't green.  Regardless, when I first sat down to eat, Dave and I were extremely skeptical because it didn't look anything like the picture.   The color, was, in fact, kind of off putting.  But, we were wrong to doubt the soup!

The spice mix was perfect, a nice body from the cumin and coriander and just a little kick from the cayenne.  The soup didn't taste like cream of pistachio, instead, it was pistachio with a little garlic, some cumin, and a little bit of sour tang from the orange and lime juices added at the end.  I didn't deviate from the recipe other than to omit the garnish entirely because I can't get barberries without ordering them online.  This soup can be made vegetarian by substituting vegetable broth for for chicken broth.  Even though I was halving the recipe, I added the full amount of garlic, spring onion, and leek, so the recipe below is how I made it.  If you want your soup less leeky, just use half a leek. 
I can't walk from the kitchen to the dining room without sloshing my soup all over the place.

The salad is a Caspian olive salad.  The book notes that the combination of walnuts, olives, and pomegranates has been popular in the Caspian region for hundreds of years.  In my salad, I used hazelnuts since Dave is allergic to walnuts and I'd like to keep him alive.  I didn't have some of the ingredients for the dressing, so I improvised a little.  Instead of pomegranate juice, I mixed 1.5 Tbsp of water and 1.5 Tbsp of pomegranate molasses.  I also have no angelica powder.  Actually, I didn't even know what it was until I googled last night.  I really loved this salad!  I was skeptical of nuts as a main ingredient in a salad, but it worked!  The nuts, tart pomegranate seeds, and salty olives all balanced out.  The cucumber seemed only to provide a crunch, its flavor was overpowered by the other ingredients and the salad dressing.  The mint provided some necessary cooling since dressing has red pepper flakes. I left out the pistachio oil because once again, I couldn't get it. 

These two dishes went well together.  But, the salad involved a ton of chopping.  Making both of these dishes together felt very labor intensive.  Unless you want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, I'd serve the soup with something less complicated like a simple green salad or some bread.  And I'd serve the salad with a less complicated main dish.  

Pistachio Soup
From Food of Life
Serves 2

1/2 c raw shelled pistachio nuts
1 Tbsp olive oil or butter
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 leek, cleaned* and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 Tbsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste, depending on how brave you are)
1 Tbsp flour (I used all purpose, the recipe specifically calls for rice flour).
4 c chicken broth
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp grape molasses
1/4 c bitter orange juice or mixture of 1 Tbsp lime juice and 1/8 c orange juice.  (I used the latter)

1) Make sure there aren't any shell bits in your pistachios.  Then put them in a blender or food processor and grind them until they are crumbled into a relatively fine powder.  I recommend using a blender because it can create a finer powder than a large food processor.
2) In a medium sized pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add all the ingredients from shallots to cayenne pepper.  Saute for 3 minutes.  Add the flour and stir for one more minute.  Be careful!  Make sure the flour doesn't burn. 
3) Add the broth, stirring constantly.  Scrape up any brown bits.  Stir the broth constantly until it boils.  Then, reduce the heat until it's simmering.
4) Add the pistachios, salt, pepper, and grape molasses.  Simmer, covered, for 55 minutes.  Stir occasionally because the pistachio powder tends to clump up a little on the surface of the broth. 
5) After the 55 minutes are up, stir in the citrus juice.  Adjust the seasoning if needed and serve. 

Caspian Olive Salad
Slightly adapted from Food of Life
Serves 2

Salad dressing
1/4 tsp grape molasses
1/4 tsp pomegranate molasses
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp pomegranate juice
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp paprika

1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper 
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tsp pistachio oil (I omitted this)
1/2 tsp angelica powder (I omitted this)

1/2 c hazelnuts, toasted** and chopped.  If using hazelnuts, only chop them a little.  (The original recipe calls for walnuts) 
1/2 c green pitted olives, chopped
1/2 c pomegranate seeds
1 gherkin cucumber, peeled and diced
1 spring onion, chopped (green and white parts)
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped

1) Mix all the salad ingredients in one bowl.
2) In another bowl, mix all the dressing ingredients.
3) Pour the dressing onto the salad and mix well. 

* To clean a leek, chop off the really dark bits and the root end.  Then cut in half lengthwise.  Run it under the water, separating the layers a little.  Make sure all the grit is washed out.  Otherwise, it'll add an unwanted and dirty crunch to your meal!
** To toast the hazelnuts, heat a small pan over medium high heat and add nuts.  Let them sit in the pan for a little bit and then shake it to make sure all sides of the nuts get exposed to the heat.  When they start to smell toasty, transfer them to a bowl.  This doesn't take long, just a minute or two.  Alternatively, if (unlike me) you have a toaster oven, just toast them in that.  Make sure they don't burn!


Taste of Beirut said...

I am a huge fan of Persian cuisine and this soup is intriguing; I have two Persian cookbooks that I consult on occasion. As far as the pistachios, I soak the nuts in cold water

Scienter said...

I'll try that next time, I'm definitely making the soup again! Hopefully I can get some raw pistachios next time.


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