Delayed Opening

We’re in the month of March with the first day of Spring exactly a week away. My mother, who now has an iPhone and has gotten all “appy”, keeps Vibering me photos of Tehran: the street vendors with bowls and bowls of spotted goldfish (the freshwater fish, not the Pepperidge Farm snack), hyacinth flowers in full bloom, all against the backdrop of blue skies. The weather also warmed up a bit here over the weekend, above zero temperatures gave us hope that we were no exclusion from the arrival of Spring. Then, yesterday, I got out half an hour earlier from work, due to inclement weather. It had been snowing non-stop all day, the flakes growing as giant as frisbees in the afternoon. And for the first time, in all of the New Hampshire-Vermont winters, my car was stuck. It took me fifteen minutes and a shovel to get me on the road to home. And while I was driving up my road, I saw someone coming down the street on cross country skis, and people walking up the sidewalk on snowshoes, and I thought for a second, where the hell in this world am I?

Happy New Year to my Persians. Hopefully your Spring is not as blistering.

I’m off to work- we had a delayed opening by an hour and a half.

From Food Capitol to Tech Capitol

Sadly, I’m moving on from my week in Portland. I am having a difficult time saying goodbye to the purple hair, tattooed bodies, gauged earlobes, delicious street food, and friendly, laid back population. I’m remembering walking pass the block-long que outside of Voodoo Doughnuts that was extreme anytime of the day- or night, any day of the week; the model shoot by the pedestrian light while I strolled over to the food carts, and the homeless man who suggested the bacon cheeseburger dumpling, his favorite item on the Dump Truck’s menu, before going back to sorting out trash.

Now, I’m in Mountain View, home of Google headquarters, in Silicon Valley, Northern California. This is tech-capitol. Why, they have even bred their own car, Tesla, and quite a fancy one she is. But not once have I been blown away by a meal. And so close to San Francisco- I was expecting differently.

What they do offer, are wonderful markets, and a diverse variety of them. A fifteen- twenty minute walk from our summer apartment (complete with an outdoor pool and small, but efficient gym), are an array of markets: Mi Pueblo, a small, Mexican, predominantly Spanish speaking shop where you can find tamarind pods and cheap little avocados. The Milk Pail Market: a produce shop that’s too small a space to comfortably fit shoppers and allow them to leisurely maneuver their carts around the fruits and vegetables, cheeses, and European treats, with glorious prices. My most recent proud purchase: Organic strawberries for $1.29. And in a different direction and a little more of a walk, there’s Rose: a Persian market, with lusciously arousing orange blossom honey that goes perfectly with their “sarshir”, a delightful cream which traditionally is supposed to be the top layer of fat skimmed off of boiled milk then left to chill. I enjoyed the two together over a thick slice of their Challah. They also have white cheeses by the pound, olives and Middle Eastern style pickles, and a butcher counter with not only halal meat, but also organs- sheep organs, and right below you’ll find the skewers. Kabob away.

So, although I haven’t been impressed by any restaurant here in Tech-Central, I have been enjoying grocery shopping more than ever, along with the mild temperatures, sunny days, cooler nights, and pleasant breezes.

Food Cart Capitol; Nong’s Khao Man Gai

I don’t know how I’ve gone without telling you about Nong’s khao man gai. I’m honestly in awe that I haven’t even mentioned it; I’ve been preoccupied raving in person to every face I encounter. That and the fact that I’m lazy and have yet to transfer the photos from my camera to my laptop.

So, I’ll call this my last blog post on Portland, and dedicate it to my last meal there. It was towards the last days of my trip. I was walking back from Downtown to the hotel, alone, hungry, and my feet nearing exhaustion in my Toms. I saw a sign quoting Nong’s Khao Man Gai is open, with long-necked chickens in three blocks at the top, and an arrow to the left. The logo clicked familiar- a food cart in one of the downtown pods closed earlier than closing hours. Later, I’d learn that yes, because after the lunch rush, they easily run out of food, and go home early.

The signs took me to a block down and around the corner from where I was staying, to a little shop, with food to go, and a few tables and chairs to eat in. The wall was covered with reviews, newspaper clippings, and photographs, including Amanda Freitag standing outside the downtown cart. For those who don’t watch the Food Network as religiously as I do, Amanda Freitag is a regular judge on Chopped. If you’re thinking you have no idea what I just said, well, she’s a big deal.

Before you go to think my trip was merely a culinary one and not educational at all, I will share with you a little history lesson I learned that day myself. Nong came to the 9-10 or so years ago. She worked her way up from kitchens to her own cart, which is serving up just one thing, chicken and rice. If there’s just one thing on the menu, it has to be damn good.

The to-go shop, though, goes beyond their standard and large sized chicken and rice, giving customers a vegetarian and pork option. I’m neither a vegetarian, nor a fan of pork unless dried, smoked, cured into its bacon, proscuitto,… form. I ordered the khao man gai. Chicken and rice. You’re given an option of white meat, dark meat, or mixed. White meat.

1-poppy_7486

I carried my paper bagged lunch to the hotel, and luckily, it’s bottom didn’t steam off until I was inside my room, propping it on the table. In front of me, I had a plastic tub with its lid sealed shut, a small cup of sauce, and a parcel, wrapped in waxed paper and secured with a rubber band. At first, I thought she must have forgotten to put my chicken and rice in there, or she misunderstood my order. But then, I unwrapped it, slowly and carefully, and there it was, my chicken and rice, and another little cup of sauce.

2-poppy_7487

It appeared bland, white chicken atop white rice, decorated with a few sprigs of cilantro and thin cuts of cucumber. I took a fork and it was tasty. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and I could bet my left hand that rice was cooked in the same liquid the chicken had bathed in. I opened up my tub of soup, and found it to be rather a broth, but delicious and comforting on another glum Portland afternoon. I went back to the chicken, and poured one of the sauces over it, and suddenly good became magical.

3-poppy_7488

They bottle that sauce, and with good reason. It should be found in supermarket aisles right next to the Kikkoman for all I know.

It was a perfect meal for a cold, rainy afternoon; homey and comforting, simple and delectable, with a soy ginger sauce that took it to the next level. Seven dollars had never made me so full. And I don’t know what went into the making of it, but it felt decently healthy. As soon as I mouthed the last grain, I thought to myself, we can’t leave Portland without the guinea pig trying this.

Khao man gai did not end up being the guinea pig’s favorite of the food carts. I think his heart leaned towards the wood-fire pizzas that came straight out of a legit wood-burning oven in a cart called Pyros. Yes, a real oven inside a food cart. I can’t imagine the temperature highs in there.

1-poppy_7583

But, I can’t blame him. The guinea pig I mean. For not putting Nong’s on his top list. It was a rare sunny day in Portland, and we set out to have lunch at their downtown cart, not the airconditioned to-go shop, hitting the busy rush and the harsh noon sun. I’ll admit, the chicken wasn’t as tender, and the hot tub of broth wasn’t as comforting when your back is exposed to UV rays and sweat is trickling down your face. This is why cloudy with a chance of rain suits Portland best.

When waiting in line at the cart, I spotted Miss Nong herself, black cap, black top, hair dyed bleach and half tattoo sleeves- blending in perfectly with the inked Portland scene. She was stopping by I guess, to check on things, because it seems now she’s doing too well to run the joint herself. She has a quirky white guy to do it for her.

The guinea pig and I will just have to go back sometime, and try Nong’s once again, but on a cloudy day, with sprinkles of rain and breezes of cool. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a day like that in Portland.

4-poppy_7490

Food Cart Capitol; Off the Carts

This one is for JC, who firmly believes that my all-from-scratch soups are oh-so-good they should be shared with the rest of the world by being readily available on supermarket shelves. My soups even scored number two on her Top Twelve of 2012 list of favorite eats– how humbling. So, naturally, while in Portland I tasted the best soup I’ve ever had, of course I thought of her.

It all started on a Tuesday night when the guinea pig and I went on a dinner date; he suggested to go someplace nice that night, not necessarily fancy but not a stand on the side of the road either. I put on my orange strap wedges and chose the venue: Farm Cafe, which ended up being a block down from our hotel. I made reservations for 7:30 and we were unusually on time. Our hostess was spacey. She wore round spectacles and short pigtailed hair and a blank expression on her face, fitting right in with the Oregon scene. We sat outside under the shelter of an umbrella; you never do know with Portland skies, and ordered  beers. The guinea pig and I both love trying all things local when we travel, especially microbrews. I did find Oregon beers a little too hoppy for my New England taste; their IPAs do not tickle my fancy. Many of our bar adventures did not include vast options of local microbrews on draft, but the Farm Cafe offered a decent variety, and I was able to avoid another hoppy IPA for a dark, heavy stout.

2-photo 5

We were sitting comfortably in our light jackets in the patio with lines of lightbulbs decorating a brick wall and grape vines climbing up the entryway, when our appetizers arrived, baked brie and a bowl of the soup of the day, both to share between the two of us. The guinea pig fell for appearances, diving into the fancy brie, that came hot in a white porcelain boat topped with pine nuts and strawberries that had melted in its own sweetness in the oven. I started the soup, mixing in the black pepper sprinkled on top. Oh that soup. Only inhaling its aroma and warmth was ecstatically satisfying. Beer, cheddar, and leeks. Must I say more? Executed unsurpassably. It couldn’t have been done any better; I doubt it could. It was beautifully smooth, like one of those  Venus commercials where a silk scarf slides off of their recently shaven, perfectly airbrushed legs, but all on my tongue, the background music playing and my taste buds rejoicing.

4-photo 1-5

5-photo 2-5

We exchanged appetizers. I tried the brie, gooey and warm, sweet from the fresh but baked strawberries, crunchy from the pine nuts, and crispy from the crusty bread. I am a cheese-fanatic. While I have not yet met anybody who does not like melted cheese, I am admittedly a bit of an extreme. So, I surprised myself that although I had no criticism for the baked brie, I wanted the soup back. I thought, it might be my lucky day, since the guinea pig prefers his soup chunky and not blended into baby food, maybe he’ll push the bowl back without my intervention. I’d get what I want and not come off as greedy. Imagine how I felt when I heard him make love to the soup, my soup.

But could I blame him? This was a bowl blended into the perfect consistency of harmonious flavors. The good news is that my last bite, before the entrees were brought out, ended back on the soup: beer, cheddar, and leek. And all’s well that ends well.

6-photo 1-6

7-photo 2-6

Surely dinner did not end at appetizers. It ended on a sweet note, with dessert. The guinea pig and I couldn’t come to a unanimous decision so we thought to get two and share; one a chocolate molten cake with coffee ice-cream, the guinea pig’s choice, and another a tart rhubarb  crumble with a scoop of cold vanilla bean melting a-top. And these came after entrees, my dijon-spicy eggplant and breadcrumb veggie-burger that came in an almost doughnut-like of a bun, and the guinea pig’s rabbit on spaetzel. Yes everything was delicious; what a wonderful dinner that was. But that soup; I will never forget that soup. If it was not the soup-of-the-day and a permanent menu item, you would have found me skipping out on the food cart scene and at the Farm Cafe every lunch and dinner with a bowl of cheddar, beer, and leek.

3-photo 3-2

1-photo 4-1

JC, if you find yourself in Portland, (Portland, Oregon obviously), I do hope it’s when the Farm Cafe’s soup of the day is their cheddar, beer, and leek again.

Food Cart Capital; Dump Lunch

I find Portland to be very diverse, not ethnically or “color-wise” per se, but culturally, or sub-culturally should I say; hippies, goths, pierced, inked, sober, high,… all co-existing in this peculiar city. And it is the people that make it peculiar.The city is naturally located in a beautiful corner, with rivers and mountains and greens, but is overshadowed by an overcast of clouds and mists of rain, and cracked streets and filth spotted sidewalks, which give it shabbiness and character. Portland does have character.

I walked over the bridge past the long line that still stood patiently outside of Voodoo Doughnuts (which I have yet to try), into the heart of downtown, passing by rows and rows of food carts, not stopping until I got to one particular one: Dump Truck. It’s a yellow cart that stands higher than it’s neighbors, getting me on my tiptoes to reach for my order, selling nothing but dumplings (Ah, now you get it). In fact, they offer a dessert dumpling- think apple pie- though I did not try it and so have nothing to write about there.

5-photo 3

6-photo 2-3

What I ordered was also non-conventional of a high, if not higher magnitude. My lunch was a box of eight bacon cheeseburger dumplings, steamed. I filled a little sauce cup with their “secret sauce”, what they suggest for this particular dumpling of theirs, and a cup with sweet but spicy chili sauce, just because I like it hot.

7-photo 1-3

4-photo 1-4

1-photo 4

 I took my box, gratifyingly warm, with the sauces, a plastic fork, and a few napkins, and walked a few meters over to the red brick square and set up. I sat on the stairs, poked my fork into a dumpling, thinking I should have ordered the sampler, instead of putting all my eggs in the same basket. I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, in what awaited me inside. My mind had created the anticipation of crumbles of hamburger meat, crispy crunchy bits of bacon, and an ooze of American cheese. It was far from what I had expected, and gladly so. The Dump Truck made it work. It was surprisingly… enjoyable, this bacon cheeseburger dumpling of theirs. The bacon was mildly rendered, soft but thin and delicate, and hallelujah, I detected no slices of American cheese; it was more like a sauce, almost like a light gravy, but cheesy and meaty. And there were onions- I think it was the onions that brought it all together.

2-photo 3-1

The secret sauce though, was strictly unnecessary- even nasty. Although I only know of Hamburger Helper through tv commercials and passing by the boxes in the supermarket aisles, the addition of the sauce made me think I was eating pasta and Hamburger Helper with ketchup on top. And their Secret Sauce did remind me of ketchup, but tangier, and of a lighter color, transforming a creative and surprisingly delicious dumpling into a reminiscence of McDonald’s. I see no reason why their “secret sauce” should remain a secret- I for one would never be interested in stealing the recipe. I did prefer it with the chili sauce, although only a touch. It didn’t need sauce at all if you ask me; I didn’t want to mask the interesting flavors of itself with something from a squeeze bottle, and its innards were moist from what I’m calling the gravy, to survive without being dipped into anything else.

3-photo 2-4

And so, I had my bacon cheeseburger dumplings under the Portland clouds while people watching the homeless with a cardboard sign begging for money for food and weed, French speaking tourists giggling as they heard their voices echo in the center of the square’s corner, and a young man cautiously climbing the stairs next to me, feeling the ground ahead of him with a long branch before his every step. After making the last step, holding his arms high and victorious, he yelled, “You thought I was blind, didn’t you?”.

You must agree, Portland does have character.

Food Cart Capital- First Impressions

Today I write from Portland. Not Portland, Maine, a mere three hour drive from home, where the sun shines and the breeze cools your shoulders, while the birds whistle and the cold ocean waves slap the rocks on shore, and I sit looking out to the lighthouse, indulging in lobster, the best there is, sweet and just hauled in from the water, served with clarified butter and a nut cracker, boiled to order in the ocean water that now trickles down my arm. I write from Portland, Oregon, located in the Pacific Northwest, inland from the coast, giving me sunburn on Saturday, rain and cloudy skies on Sunday, and temperatures lower than what I had pictured for late June anywhere on the West Coast.

It’s a city whose scenery, unlike it’s East Coast namesake, did not take my breath away. It’s population and energy is what immediately had me sold. We arrived too early for hotel check-in, on the only sunny day we have yet seen, and perfectly in time for their Saturday Market. So, we dropped our bags and walked across the long bridge over the river right into the rows of food and art stands packed with locals, tourists, and a heavily inked population. Tattoos seem to be quite popular in Portland, and I’m secretly wishing if only I had my sister here with me, because this would be the perfect place to get a first piece; she would go first, and then hold my hand while she distracts me from the pain and buzzing sounds. Boh, as the guinea pig would say. I should just get a henna tattoo next Saturday Market.

A small corner among the vast of my knowledge acquired through the Food and Travel channels, is that Portland is the food cart capital. Move over NYC. Rows and rows of trucks stand parked, permanently, along the streets of downtown, or propped in parking lots, some catering to the business crowd, some to the hungover late night bingers. And so, secretly, I was psyched to come to Portland just for the food carts really. Surprise, surprise.

Image

My first day here though, was a mere introduction, spent happily at the Saturday Market. For lunch, we chose to stand in the longest queu of famished crowds, for a greek cart whose name I shamefully forgot, or did not ever catch. Angelina’s possibly? I ordered a beef and lamb gyros, and still not sure of the pronunciation, j or g, will I ever know? I asked for the works, strips of crisp cucumber and crumbles of feta that were actually impressingly quite tasty. No tomatoes, of course, and no onions, just the greens. And a baklava for dessert.

As we stood in line, soaking up the line, people passed and said aloud what I was hoping, “Look at the line for this one. It must be good.” Oh, but it was. We sat by the fountains and bit into the wrap, and the yogurt dressing dribbling down my chin and fingers was divine. Day one in Portland, street food contently in my belly, my first impression was a positive one.

Image

Hot Chicks

Last night I fell asleep on the living room sofa, before ever getting into bed or showering the perfume of smoke and meat off my body. While April nears its end, traces of Spring are only sparsely being seen in Hanover still. Warmer temperatures will stop by, but seem too shy to stay. So yesterday, we were content with sixty-so-degrees of Fahrenheit, and made our way across the river to Norwich for a barbecue, with the guinea pig’s office mates and their families or +1s. The wind was trapped inside the shade of the gazebo that shelters the picnic tables from  the sun, where we sat to exchange conversation. It was a diverse bunch of picnickers,  from Pakistan, India, Vietnam, and Iran and Italy, making for a diverse outdoor meal: Vietnamese sweet barbecued drumsticks and wings, charred on the grill until their skin was crispy and their insides sensational and moist, leaving your fingers deliciously sticky enough to lick them clean, and an Indian wheat pudding with raisins for dessert, that was creamy and gritty simultaneously in each spoon.

My contribution is not one hard to guess. Yes, kabob of course, jujeh kabob, pieces of marinated chicken skewered and cooked over fire. Originally and in Iran, younger chicken are chosen, sacrificing their futures for a more delicate bite, hence the title “jujeh”, meaning chick. The night before, the guinea pig was given the more unpleasant task of skinning and de-boning chicken breasts before knifing them down into pieces while I prepared the marinade in the bottom of a bowl. He continued with the dirty work, moving on to slicing onions, and I undertook the more elegant step of the process, spooning out thick strained yogurt into my red glazed ceramic bowl. I boiled water, and when the kettle started to whistle, I switched it off and poured it over a generous pinch of pestled saffron. Everybody knows that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, making it the most luxurious of seasonings, but not everybody utilizes it correctly, thus not getting its full potential. Throwing a saffron sprig straight into your pot of what is to become risotto Milanese is an example of incorrect utilization, at least in the eyes of the Persian. A Persian will take the time to pestle his/her saffron with a small chunk of broken off sugar cone, gently and patiently, then storing the powder in an airtight container, and every time, seeping a pinch or so in some hot water, letting it brew before adding it to rice or stew. The saffron flower blooms to expose its stigma, three orange strands of saffron that will add aroma and color to cuisine and beyond, but, use it sparingly; when I said generous, I meant a generously sparing helping– pinches, never a half-cup of the powder, as saffron can be poisonous if consumed in a large quantity. In fact, on the fields outside of Mashhad in Iran, where saffron is cultivated and cropped, the workers wear masks, and are the highest paid amongst the working-class. But back to my kitchen, I added the orange liquid of brewed saffron resting at the bottom of a glass to the yogurt, turmeric, salt and pepper, and stirred to see it turn an intense shade of yellow. The guinea pig’s labor was mixed in, and never did raw chicken look and smell so good to me. We plastic wrapped the top and put it in the fridge, and called it a night.

The fire needed work, and after yesterday, I will say that computer scientists don’t have the skill or muscles one can rely on for an outdoor barbecue. They do much better inside, with numbers on a screen, exercising their forefingers at a slow but steady pace against the left button of their mouse. It’s a shame that the girls had to take matters into their own hands, briskly fanning paper plates above the lit charcoal, spreading the heat and working their arms. Hence my stench of smoke and now defined shoulders. I come from a place where making kabob is a man’s job, but alas, times have changed.

1-poppy_7056

All’s well that ends well. The kabob was a beautiful yellow outside crusted with black char, and tender and juicy and despite it being breast, not the least bit dry. And, if I may say so, I have gained some defined, and quite sexy shoulders.

2-poppy_7057

A Survey to Savor

Until my book arrives, for reasons withheld, I am semi-retiring from the kitchen. But I will not leave you with nothing to savor.

.


Sweet Maple Sausage, French Toast, and an Egg, Easy Over, Nice and Runny:

Yes, I cook breakfast too. However, as much as my guinea pig enjoys a good burger or a hot dog with all the works, I cannot get him to relish a big American style breakfast. He prefers simple butter and jam, but to get him go ooh and aah you have to feed him breakfast Persian style: good white cheese, walnuts, cucumbers, and bread cooked in an oven of pebbles.


3-poppy_6289

.

Tortellini in an Earthy Mushroom Broth:

No, I did not make the tortellini from scratch. It was store bought, found in the refrigerated aisle, stuffed with cheeses, and not so amazing. But it’s really all about the broth. I rendered down diced onions with fresh baby bella mushrooms, and dried porcinis, reconstituted in a bowl with hot water, drained, and nicely chopped. I kept the reconstituting water; it holds that porcini aroma and essence, and later added it to the rest of the liquid, my homemade chicken broth. My secret might just be that bowl of dirty water most throw away, but I like to call it porcini broth, and it makes the flavor as fancy as the name.

1-poppy_6468

.

Parsley Drenched, Paper Towel Dried, Fried Shrimp:

I don’t deep fry. For one, I really only have olive oil on hand: a nice, dark, extra virgin, pungent bottle reserved for salads and such, and a five-liter jug of lighter olive oil for cooking. I don’t own a kitchen thermometer either, although I should buy one next time I find myself browsing the cluttered backside of the nearby TJ Maxx. For these I used fresh parsley in my beaten egg mixture and my homemade bread crumbs, of which I ran out of halfway through the breading process, leaving me with no choice but to make do with just flour on my last batch, which became flour, egg, flour, instead of what it should have been: flour, egg, breadcrumb.

1-poppy_6227

I like dunking shrimp into a mayo/yogurt sauce spiked with grated pickles, a bit of either grainy brown mustard or even less of dijon, chives, and dill.

4-poppy_6234

.

Oven Baked Red Snapper:

While we’re on seafood, let me tell you about our arbitrary snapper encounter. The guinea pig and I were shopping at a grocery store other than our usual, and decided to browse for some fresh seafood for a quick dinner. The seafood lady the exceedingly chatty but nice type who means well so you find yourself answering her every remark with an endearing smile rather than being infuriated. They didn’t have what I was looking for, whatever I wanted at the time, and their salmon was only farm raised. The guinea pig asked what was fresh, and she pointed to the snapper, saying it came in this morning. And so, we said we would give it a go. As she wrapped them in paper, she gave us her serving suggestions, “They’re really good with ranch dressing.” Sure, that’s the next thing we’ll pick up from the store, ranch dressing. I may not have taken her word of advice, and instead, baked them in the oven with green onions, capers, and sun dried tomatoes. But, outside of the Hidden Valley, she was right, it’s a delicious fish with a sweet flavor profile, and I’d do another red snapper any day.

2-poppy_6231

.

Overpriced Lamb with Portobella Red Wine Tomato Sauce and Rosemary Butter Orzo:

Sounds fancy? It was. But the lamb was mostly bone with an exaggerated price tag. But that’s the Co-Op for you, everything is exaggerated. We stood in front of the butcher originally looking for rabbit; I have never had rabbit, and the guinea pig’s plan was to make rabbit in tomato sauce, but when the store failed to deliver, I had to take matters in my own hands. The Co-Op always seems to carry everything but what I’m looking for. This time, they had plenty of veal shanks, but I didn’t have six hours for osso buco. I’m sure, next time I walk in with the objective of osso buco, again, they will have everything, sheep organs and whole rabbit, everything but veal shanks.

1-poppy_6353

I seared the lamb then made the sauce, and returned the meat back with the tomatoes and mushrooms.  I heated a joyous amount of butter with chopped, fresh rosemary, and tossed the orzo. This was a rare occasion where I treated my orzo like a pasta; I normally tackle it like a wild, brown, arborio, non-basmati, non-Iranian rice, sautéing it with onions, letting it brown and toast, then adding stock and stirring, in layers, almost as if I were creating a risotto. I’ll then add vegetables or seafood, and cheeses. It may be a crime to do this to a pasta shape, but even the guinea pig has fallen for it, and he’s Italian, so I think I’m off the hook.

3-poppy_6358

4-poppy_6359

The Art of Cooking

I have asked my mother for a cookbook, “The Art of Cooking” by Roza Montazami, which I just realized holds a title very similar to Julia Child’s. Iranians never were good at respecting copyright issues, but I don’t know, so shame on me for making assumptions and stereotyping. While we are on the subject of piggy-backing off of what has already been said and done by others, why not I cook my way through it, like the already been-there-done-that Julie/Julia Project, what Julie Powell did with Child’s French recipes? But 365 days of rice based meals would do no good. By the time of our wedding, the guinea pig and I would be the fattest couple to wed, with our stomachs five steps ahead of us walking down the aisle. Hell, I’ve cut down on the bacon fat already. I shall take it slowly, one recipe per week give or take, depending on time and grocery access, because in the upper valley, there aren’t many middle eastern specialty stores. You have to drive either three hours north to Montreal, or two hours south to Boston for that. And I’m not saying I won’t.

The thought, of asking for the cookbook, struck me during our phone conversation. With an over eight hour time difference, I can’t pick up the phone at anytime and call my mother at times of desperation, like with my ghormeh sabzi incident. Typically, she calls me in the mornings, her late evenings. When I boasted how I made it from as scratch as possible, (well, except for having grown my own herbs), she said, “You know originally ghormeh sabzi didn’t even have spinach. They use that for it’s water content. I think it takes away from the aroma of the herbs though.” What are mother’s for but to shut you down at the height of your excitement? When the guinea pig and I visited for 10 days during the winter holidays, my mother made a big batch of ghormeh sabzi, the best anyone had ever had and couldn’t get enough of, and my friends cordially invited themselves over for the leftovers the following afternoon as well. She told me that that did not contain spinach, and generosity with the cilantro is what made it so irresistible  So I thought, I need a reference for times when I can’t reach my mother, because what you can find on Persian cuisine through a google recipe search is of no use. I have sent her on a quest, either to buy me a copy, or more romantically, find me her old, shabby copy, neglected in one of the storage room boxes, after having travelled from Tehran to San Diego and Chicago and back. Wish me luck. I’m secretly rooting for the latter, hoping that same book finds its way to Hanover, New Hampshire in a couple of weeks.

Onions and Turmeric



3-poppy_6453

Persian food is not meant to be pretty. It’s meant to taste delicious. Everything may seem overcooked, but time works to the advantage of Persian stews, just be sure to never ask an Iranian to make spaghetti, that’s all. The hours help everything ‘settle down’ and fall into place, where and how they should be, developing flavor and depth. You might see chefs “perfectly” cooking the lamb thrown at them in a television challenge to a medium rare, claiming it’s the only way to cook lamb, otherwise it becomes tough, chewy, dry, and inedible. Iranians, unless Westernized, don’t enjoy a bloody steak. They like their meat brown and well done, but so moist it dissolves in your mouth without much chewing required. They’ve been butchering sheep as their primary choice of meat for centuries, and have been “overcooking” it to tender perfection. Medium rare is not the only way those sheep can be cooked.

It’s simple. Think of osso buco. A tough shank, usually veal, that’s seared, then simmered for hours in sauce until it falls off the center bone to the point where it needed to be tied in string before hand. The idea is the same. The meat is browned then simmered into the stew until it “flirts on your tongue”, as my sister once said. (She said this in reference to chocolate however; she is not a big consumer of meat).

Iranians rarely ever cook meat without two things, onions and turmeric. My mother cannot sauté raw meat or poultry without the accompaniment of some diced onion and the yellow powder, even if it’s chicken meant for Stir-Fry that will later be joined with soy and peanut butter, or ground beef that will meet tomato sauce and be topped with bechamel between layers of lasagne- and my mother does make a delicious lasagne. I will admit that I, too, have been somewhat sucked into the superstition, adding at least a sprinkle of turmeric for most any of my creations.

Since a while, the guinea pig has been putting in requests for ghormeh sabzi, more hinting his craving rather than explicitly asking for it. He’s had my mother’s, which sets the bar far out of reach and intimidates me enough to not want to consider it an option. After a month of procrastination and the sensation of guilt, I checked my freezer to see if I had any sabzi stored for times like these. (Sabzi, means greens, and ghormeh means boiled or pot roasted meat; Ghormeh sabzi is a dark green stew, made with meat and kidney beans-black eyed peas if you’re from the Turkish heritage, and sabzi, a mix of finely chopped spinach, parsley, cilantro, chives, and fenugreek, respectively.) I thought I was in luck when I found a ziplock of the herbs already measured, chopped, and sautéed, but it must have been a bag that was long neglected because it had a stench of freezer to it, similar to, and maybe worse than, the scent and taste of chopped frozen spinach. It may just as well have been the perfect opportunity to change what was for dinner that night, but once I decide on a menu, my mind is a difficult one to revamp. And so I went to the Co-Op, and bought my herbs fresh, chopped them in my small handblender attachment, and added them to a heated pan of oil. Even my mother doesn’t do the dirty work herself; she has a guy who does it for her. He takes her order of how many kilos worth she wants, and he washes and grinds everything into bag that she will fry then divide into portions and store in the freezer, and consume long before the stench ever sinks in.

I would not complain if I had more kitchen space or a proper, decent capacity Cuisinart, but still I cannot say too much; my kitchen smelled pleasant and of fresh herbs. Oh, I do hope I didn’t lose anyone at “cilantro”; the guinea pig too does not care for cilantro, but will do a happy dance for this stew. I believe whatever it is about cilantro that turns some people off, is cooked off in this dish. I had a professor who was a strong abhorrer of the herb, but could not believe how much she enjoyed the bowl of cilantro infested ghormeh sabzi my mother passed along to her. But then again, that was my mother’s.

I soaked my rice and started my stew. I lightly fried a half onion in some light olive oil with a generous pinch of salt until they were translucent enough to accept the meat. I had bought half a pound of stewing beef, half a pound of stewing lamb. I opted for half and half after seeing the lamb at 12.99 per lb, the beef at half that price. The meat browned and I added the turmeric, yellow and spicy, and fried them for another two minutes. Then I added the greens that were sautéing in a neighboring pan, gave them a stir, and added water, brought it to a boil with the kidney beans. I soak mine overnight and precook them separately and drain them before adding them to my stew, but you can drop them right in. If you do decide to use your legumes from a can, please rinse them off first- don’t dump them directly in the pot. I then turned it down to a simmer, and gave it time and dried limes- whole, crushed or powdered- whatever you can get through airport security; I am content with the substance in its legal powdered form,- until everything was settled down into place.

5-poppy_6458

It needed those three hours to turn from a bright green to a dark shade of forest, almost black. And it continued for another 45 minutes for the bottom of my rice to crisp, while I grated cucumbers to a bowl of yogurt and dried crushed mint. The guinea pig enjoys his ghormeh sabzi with all the works;  yogurt, cucumber, and mint, and a quarter of a raw onion to bite  as he goes. Manly, yes.

7-poppy_6465

4-poppy_6455

6-poppy_6460

Like I said, Persian food is not meant to be pretty in pictures, but tasty, comforting, and damn delicious in person.

I did doll up the yogurt, however.

2-poppy_6449

Now I shall call my mother and boast of my Sunday dinner, because I made mine entirely from scratch, dirty work and all.