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.

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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.

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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.