Vernal Equinox

I live in Hanover, New Hampshire, a small college town up the east coast that welcomed me with winter nights of 30 degrees below. I come from Tehran, a populous metropolitan encircled by mountains, polluted with honking horns, inspection failed minibus exhausts, cigarette stubs, and empty cheese puff bags. I’m used to expecting a temperature increase even before the spring commencement, the mark of the Persian New Year, an ancient holiday that survived the post-Islam occupation. However, my first first-day-of-spring in Hanover was avalanched with snow, so when this year the sun came out to shine down an 82 degrees, I found it a pleasant surprise. Hello Spring; Happy New Year to me.


The Hyacinth: symbolizing the coming of Spring.

My sister flew in from Tehran for the event, bearing treats, many of which, she was oblivious of smuggling into the country, until attempting to put on her boots and finding bags of sumac drupes shoved into the toes, and fresh narenj, sour oranges grown in the Caspien Sea region, in her jacket sleeves- my mother is quite the criminal.

The narenj was sent for squeezing over the traditional New Year meal, herb rice and saffron coated fish, that we ate with sides of pickled garlic and an olive medley marinated in ground walnuts, garlic, and pomegranate mollasses.

We stayed up, the Vernal Equinox striking 1:14 am, which was an easy task. Of the many edible offerings my mother sent over via my younger sister, I had saved the box of chickpea flour sweets for the occasion, which we ended up getting through with a bottle of Parampampoli the guinea pig, the sustained victim of all my kitchen creations,  brought over (all the way from Italy), boiled, and flambeed.

I dipped the delicate bite sized sweets into the warm, sweet, coffee liqueur, a successful recipe of cultural mixology. We went through two saucepans of the Parampampoli, a honeyed product of Grappa rarely found outside the guinea pig’s native region (he’s a small town boy from Bassano del Grappa), found in Trentino and the north of Veneto and nowhere else, let alone outside of Italy, and half of the box of melt in your mouth sweets, native to Qazvin, a province located northwest of Tehran.

Like every holiday, Norouz (No meaning new, rouz translating to day) is about family and food. We sat by the “haft-sin”, the table setting of Seven S’s, and took photographs to be sent to my parents, and of the dinner table at the end of the night to be kept for our eyes only, which hosted empty ice cream cartons, uninhabited bottles of pinot grigio, grappa, parampampoli, pistachio shells, and a plate which once held chickpea flour sweets which now barely contained even crumbs.

Elements of the Haft-Sin; the table setting of Seven S's and beyond, that is out for the first 13 days of the new year

Vinegar: symbolizing patience and old age
Samanou: wheat germ pudding, symbolizing affluence
Sumac: symbolizing the sunrise
Senjed: dried oleaster fruit, symbolizing love

Ferdowsi's "Shahnameh", "The Book of Kings", a Persian epic poem of over 50,000 couplets, written a thousand years ago, rhyming historical and mythical tales of Persia

Happy Norouz to all Iranians, Afghans, Kurds, and everyone else who celebrates the vernal equinox as the beginning of the new year, and Happy Spring to all.


Better Bolognese

The best thing in this world must be onions caramelized in bacon fat and splashed with Marsala. The second best is to hear an Italian say that your bolognese is one of the best they’ve ever had.

I have been envied by the Italian guinea pig, which is flattering when it’s because I make a better bolognese. I was a victim of hatred when he secretly tasted the sauce simmering on the stovetop. He admitted it was better than his, and as an Italian he was ashamed, embarrassed, and unpleasantly surprised. His misery made my day. The flush of emotions led to him challenging me to cook the pasta as well- now that I make such a good sauce. With all the meals and whatnots I had prepared, up until that lunch, I had never set foot in his territory. His pertinacity made my palms sweat; the stakes were high and so rose my blood pressure.

I had been so intimidated I even refrained from labeling my spaghetti sauce as a ragu or bolognese, and kept with merely “spaghetti sauce”, what I assumed would be a safer tag. I thought all was well when that had passed, but now I was to make the pasta, and for a zealous critic. I put on a pot of water to boil and I let my sauce continue to simmer on a different burner; time was what made it delicious. I had patiently browned a puree of carrots, onions, and garlic. Into some finely chopped onions past the stage of translucency and onto goldenness, I mashed the innards of sweet sausage to brown, then deglazed the pan with the last of a bottle of Marsala. Everything was engaged with a can of plum tomatoes in tomato juice, who I playfully poked and bursted, before they cooked out enough to be broken down and dissolved into the thick meat sauce. After bubbles chaotically surfaced, I put down the heat as low as it goes and left it to cook, for hours. Time fixes many things, including deep flavors.

Typically, Iranians treat pasta as they would rice. Which means, the pasta is drained, then put back in the now oil bottomed pot, and left to steam, lid on- an atrocious offense in Italian cuisine. The guinea pig once told me Italians tend to do the same, treating rice as they would pasta, leaving us to conclude that each of us should just stick to our own starchy staples. I needed to break the stereotype, and save Iranians of at least one of the many well-deserved embarrassments they’ve gained: overcooking pasta.

I did not breathe until I heard “Minchia”, one of the many Italian words reserved for penis, expressing surprise- in this case kind of like a pleasant “holy shit”.

Speaking of cock, call me cocky, but this Iranian girl can cook spaghetti.

Small, Dark, and Handsome

It was just around the end of the academic year when construction started at the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College. When we returned for the summer term, we walked into the main hall where clusters of furniture- couches and coffe tables, tables and chairs for four- replaced the previously empty corridor that once served no purpose but being a mere hallway echoing our footsteps (with the exception of scattered bar stools facing the paneled windows). And on the other side of the wall, a bakery pushed back the periodicals into a back room.

I first came across King Arthur Flour accidentally, when a friend and I were looking at apartments across the river in Vermont. We stopped and walked the aisles of kitchen goods, too pricey for graduate students of the humanities, purchasing nothing, but admiring the clean and simple appeal of the gadgets and bake mix packagings. Deciding to treat ourselves to something sweet from the bakery instead, we found nothing to choose from; at 4:00 pm the bakery was raided empty with the exception of a loaf or two of bread. Of course, we’d have to go back.

Life was made easier when King Arthur came to Dartmouth, offering me the opportunity of frequent and accessible indulgence. It started with their sticky bun, my regular pick, a swirl of buttery intricacy glued with cinnamon glaze and decorated with chops of pecans, but my recent revelation was their flour-less chocolate cake.

It’s small circumference barely shares the size of the palm of my hand, but its deluxe richness screams for sharing; despite its deceiving size, devouring it on your own is a mistake.

The cake (I’m not sure if it technically qualifies as a cake, and if cake is a meriting label for this creation) was dense and decadent, clinging to the insides of my mouth like it would never let go, my tongue fighting to clear the gooey delight off of the roof and send them down my throat.

The sticky bun holds the title for my most frequent King Arthur pastry purchase, but for special occasions this small, dark, and handsome treat takes the cake.

Pizza for a Price

In the midst of cooking a mid-week dinner and upon the Italian guinea pig’s return from the Co-Op food store carrying a brown bag of the missing ingredients, we reached a verdict; pizza Friday night. He carped on how I never told him my corner market carried dough, I declared innocent, as he had never explicitly sought it.

When Friday evening came and our laptop screens hit the keyboards, we roamed the grocery store to see what spoke to us. I was quiet, and took a step back, allowing the Italian to lead the way, which resulted in raddichio, sweet sausage, and a bag of dough. Our last minute arrival at our early closing Upper Valley market, 8 pm the last call, was the reason drapes were already closed over the local and specialty cheese refrigerator, and we were locked out of reach from fresh mozzarella locally kneaded and stretched across the river in Vermont. Having a beautifully aged sharp cheddar at home, we decided a milder cheese would work as a bed to the more powerful purple waxed cheddar, and for that, I thought of the Jarlsberg wedge in my fridge’s cheese drawer (although the letters printed on the drawer spell out MEAT). Little did we then know this $5 worth of Norwegian cultured cheese would cost us more than a Benjamin.

At home, I diced a slice of pork belly we had asked the butcher to wrap up for us on our last super market visit. Our theory was why buy processed bacon when you can have the fat strips shaved fresh on demand.The diced belly went into a dry hot pan, and crisped in it’s own rendering fat. I removed the browned bacon and added an entire sliced onion, that would, with an addition of salt, slowly caramelize  into a sweet, savory, and rich pizza topping- an ideal compliment to the sausage, and a counterbalance to the bitterness of the radicchio. The onions were my only firm contribution to the process- I chose not to embarrass myself or get my nose in a foodie Italian’s business when it comes to pizza and pasta, as he takes two steps back when I, as an Iranian growing up with Persian cuisine, put on a pot of rice. But, I’ll have to at least mumble the fact that, while the guinea pig had his doubts, in the end it was those perfectly pig fat caramelized onions that took things to Utopia. In the meanwhile, the Italian used a cellophane wrapped wine bottle to roll out the dough as he stood over the floured table right outside the kitchen.

He brushed the dough with diced tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano. And when that went into the oven, with the pork belly fat sauteed onions in one pot, the browned sweet sausage in another, the crisped bacon resting on a paper towel, and the radicchio was roughly sliced and diced, time came to grate the cheese, when we realized the cheese had been left not in my fridge, but in the guinea pig’s. I was given directions to watch the dough, as he went back to his apartment, luckily a seven minute drive from mine, to fetch the wedge. It would be okay, the dough needed a head start in cooking- everything else was pre-cooked and only the cheese needed to melt. I grated the half block of cheddar and waited. I waited more than I thought I would; these Italians are always late after all, “on time” translating into a quarter past the negotiated time. I roamed the shelves of the refrigerator and chopped some flat leaf parsley, when I got a text that read, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes. I will explain later.”

The explanation was, while a possible blame on the guinea pig’s Italian-ness, not from an aspect of tardiness, but stereotypical Italian driving. Pulled over for going 70 miles per hour with the speed limit of 35 by the Hanover police- that honestly have nothing to do but give out traffic tickets and issue court summons to underage drinkers of   Dartmouth College’s undergraduate world. The officer mellowed when he heard the reason for speeding, “We have a pizza in the oven and I went to get the cheese,” showing the nibbled wedge of cheese. The officer smiled, and maybe even gave a chuckle, (no one could have come up with a lie like that; it was clearly innocently honest) reducing the fine to $100 from what would have been more, elevating the monetary worth of the half pound of cheese. Jarlsberg is similar to what we plainly call Swiss cheese, the guinea pig and European world know as Emmental, in the sense of appearance, both having holes or eyes, and fat, both on the skim side, which, considering all the animal fat that went into our toppings, extra essential oil was the last thing we needed from a cheese. Alongside a couple of beers, the thin crust layered with tomatoes, topped with sweet caramelized onions, sausage, crisp bacon, still crunchy radicchio, and lots of cheese, garnished with fresh parsley, was worth every penny, maybe one of the best mouthfuls of pizza I’ve experienced.

The lighting and photo does the flavor no justice. I was in too much of a hurry to start devouring to patiently snap a decent depiction

(I’m hoping JarlsbergUSA sends me to EatWriteRetreat, and this post can be my ticket.)