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



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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.

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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.

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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.

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