BY NANCY ALLEN Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — My immigrant mother taught me that there is no better way to enjoy life than to cultivate friends through food.
During my Detroit area childhood, the Eastern European accents and food of my parents, family and their friends set the stage: I became a collector of the foreign and exotic.
As a young woman, I traveled to foreign countries and developed a passion for other cuisines. When traveling became less frequent, I collected cookbooks and prepared meals from other cultures; eventually I turned to teaching and writing about them. Hearing a slight accent in someone’s English is reason enough for me to beg a new foreign acquaintance to cook with me, or to issue him or her an invitation for dinner.
Imagine my delight when long-time friend, colleague and chef, Lynne Brach, asked me to join in preparing a Persian meal with Iranian student Nayereh Doosti for her fellow students at The Leelanau School. My heart leapt at the chance to meet this young Iranian and try my Persian cooking skills on her experienced palate and at hearing her stories of life in a very foreign culture — hers and ours. Although many in the United States have negative associations with Iran and other cultures, I have found that by shifting my focus from divisive politics to everyday people I’ve been able find warm and meaningful cultural connections.
Iran is a small part of what was the great, ancient Persian Empire, which at its height encompassed three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. At its greatest, the empire included modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace and Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and ancient Egypt as far west as Libya. In 1935 Persia officially changed its name to Iran (Land of Aryans), which is its name in Farsi.
As a chef and educator what matters most to me is Persia’s vast contribution to the culinary world. I think of Persia as a quintessential “mother” cuisine: so important and influential that we can find exotic echoes of it throughout modern world cuisine. Traffic on the Silk Road helped Persia to spread its cuisine (which was also influenced) from China to India to the Caucasus, much of Europe, Spain and to North Africa.
Persian chefs and cooks (usually women) introduced the first ice cream, elaborate rice pilafs called “polow” (strewn with raisins, dried apricots, pistachios and almonds); savory-sweet stews called “khoresh” (duck, lamb, chicken or vegetable and fresh or dried fruit stewed and abundantly seasoned with fresh herbs like parsley, tarragon, cilantro, garlic chives, dill, mint, fenugreek, cress, Persian basil and savory and aromatic spices like cinnamon and saffron). Also popular were delicious stuffed fruits and vegetables (like eggplant, peppers, grape leaves and cabbage) called “dolma” and wild birds, game, fish, lamb and veal (marinated in verjus, yogurt, pomegranate juice and sugar or vinegar and mustard, garlic, herbs or spices). They were stewed or roasted, or skewered and grilled.
To top it off, Persian cooks were the masters of dessert: they made puddings rice, milk, honey, butter, eggs and rosewater, and sweets scented with rose and orange flower waters. Saffron, melons, grapes (and unripe grape juice or verjus), lemons, pomegranates (and pomegranate syrup), cucumbers, spinach, quince, barberries and roses (rose petal jam and rosewater) found their way from Persia into the rest of the world. These foods and dishes from the kitchens of Persian and Iranian homes and palaces still define Iranian cooking.
Supporters of our courageous visitor and gifted writer, Nayereh Doosti, will gather at 6 p.m. Sunday to host a community benefit Persian Dinner at The Leelanau School to raise the remainder of her tuition to Interlochen Arts Academy. Call Norm Wheeler at 231-631-3823 or 231-334-3666 for reservations. Dinner costs $35 per person. I hope that you can come to feast with us, and to hear Nayereh’s stories. If you cannot attend, comfort yourself with these exotic and exciting recipes from Nayereh’s mother in faraway Shiraz, Iran.
Karam Polo Shirazi
If you cannot find all the herbs, just use parsley, cilantro and dill.
Adapted from Fatemeh Golesorkh
3 c. basmati rice
1 lb. ground beef
1 small onion, peeled and grated
2 T. chickpea flour or unbleached white flour
1 t. ground turmeric
Olive oil, as needed
6 packed c. shredded cabbage
4 T. verjus or freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 c. lightly packed fresh Italian parsley
2 c. lightly packed fresh cilantro
2 c. chopped lightly packed garlic chives
1 c. lightly packed Persian or Thai basil leaves
1/2 c. lightly packed fresh tarragon leaves
1 c. lightly packed fresh dill (picked off thick stems)
Optional: 2 T. dried summer savory
Soak rice with 1 tablespoon salt 10 to 15 minutes. Drain. In a heavy 4-quart pot with lid, bring 2 quarts water and 1 tablespoon kosher salt to a big boil (to parboil the rice).
Knead ground beef with onion, flour, turmeric and season with 2 to 3 teaspoons salt. Roll the ground beef mixture into long ropes about 1/2-inch thick. Cut or pinch into 1/2-inch pieces and roll into tiny meatballs, the size of marbles or hazelnuts. Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch skillet and add the meatballs. Cook over medium heat until browned and cooked through. Set them aside.
Meanwhile, heat a 5- to 6-quart non-stick Dutch oven with 2 to 3 tablespoons oil and add the cabbage. Cook over medium heat until wilted. Add the verjus or lemon juice and season cabbage with a little salt. Simmer cabbage until moisture evaporates. Chop the herbs and stir into the cabbage mixture. Remove pan from heat and scrape mixture into a mixing bowl; set aside. Reserve the non-stick Dutch oven for constructing polow.
Parboil rice: Set a large, fine strainer into a bowl set in the sink. Stir rice into prepared pot of boiling water and boil 5 minutes. Loosen rice from bottom of pot with heat-proof rubber spatula twice. Pour rice into strainer and drain. Discard cooking water. Rinse rice with 3 cups warm water, and drain again.
Construct polow in the reserved non-stick Dutch oven: Add 2 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons water. Shake pot to mix them together and spread a thin layer of rice on bottom of pot. Then spread 1/3 of herbs and cabbage mixture on top. Spread 1/3 of rice over cabbage mixture. Layer all of the meatballs on top of rice, and layer 1/3 of the cabbage on top. Layer 1/3 of rice, then remaining 1/3 of cabbage and herbs. Finish with remaining rice. With the back of a spatula make 5 holes in the rice. Do not touch the bottom of the pot.
Place Dutch oven on medium heat. Cover and cook rice 10 minutes. Mix 2 tablespoons olive oil (or melted butter) with 1/3 cup water, and pour over rice. Drape clean cotton towel or 2 layers of paper toweling over pot and cover with lid. Reduce heat to low and simmer rice 50 to 60 minutes. Check for tah dig (browned bottom crust) by carefully lifting edge of rice and peeking underneath. Cook longer if it hasn’t formed. Remove pot from heat and cool 10 minutes before unmolding.
To Serve: Unmold polow onto platter. Place platter over top of pot and with a hand on both, quickly and smoothly flip the pot onto the platter. The rice and its crust will come out in one piece — if done correctly! If not, spoon rice onto platter and place pieces of crust around cooked rice.