Sholeh Zard (Iranian Saffron Rice Pudding)

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Happy Norooz! Last week ushered in the two week-long Iranian new year, a time for celebration, time spent around loved ones, and sweets. Lots of sweets. Most Iranian sweets are too strong for my taste, but I can never say no to sholeh zard. Traditionally prepared as alms during religious festivals in Iran, this dish takes me back to my (Californian) childhood. Whenever a holiday rolled around, my mom and family friends would spend an afternoon making huge pots of the fragrant, rosewater-flecked rice pudding. They would garnish the finished dish with beautiful Persian calligraphy using cinnamon.

I’ve since learned to make sholeh zard on my own, though my calligraphy skills are sorely lacking. This rich dessert is otherwise easy to make, but requires some attention. Just remember to check the pot frequently. You want your finished dish to have a thin pudding-like consistency, as it’ll thicken when it cools down.

Sholeh zard

Ingredients:

1 cup basmati rice
7 cups or more water
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup unsalted slivered almonds
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup rosewater

Garnish:

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons slivered almonds
2 teaspoons slivered pistachios

1. Clean and wash the rice, changing the water several times. Drain.

2. Combine the rice with 4 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil, skimming the foam as it rises. Cover and simmer for 35 minutes over medium heat until the rice is soft.

3. Add 3 more cups of warm water and sugar, cook for 25 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the butter, almonds, saffron water, cardamom, and rosewater. Mix well. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Remove the cover and cook over low heat, uncovered, for another 20 minutes or until the mixture is cooked and has thickened to a pudding.

4. Spoon the pudding into individual serving dishes or a large bowl. Decorate with cinnamon, almonds, and pistachios. Serve the pudding cold or room temperature.

Sichuan Dry-Fried Green Beans

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I used to hate green beans. Growing up, I inexplicably dreaded the loobia polo that most kids loved: an Iranian rice pilaf of green beans, browned lamb, tomatoes, and spices. It wasn’t until recently when I tried Sichuan-style dry-fried green beans that I’ve come around to loving the legume. It was the spicy, garlicy flavor that made me change my green bean-hating ways, and now, I can’t get enough.

Long beans are traditionally used in this recipe, but green beans work as well. Feel free to omit the ground chicken as well for a vegetarian version. Last but not least, make sure your beans are completely dry before frying them — this will ensure a blistered texture.

Sichuan dry-fried long beans

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 pound ground chicken
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce or chili bean sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup vegetable oil
3/4 pound green beans or long beans, ends trimmed and cut into 3-inch lengths

1. Marinate the chicken: stir 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce and cornstarch together in a medium bowl until the cornstarch is dissolved. Mix the chicken in the marinade until incorporated. Let stand for 10 minutes.

2. Prepare the sauce: stir the chicken stock, soy sauce, sugar, garlic, chili garlic sauce, and sesame oil together in a small bowl until the sugar is dissolved.

3 Pour the oil into a 2-quart saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Carefully slip the green beans into the oil and cook, stirring continuously, until they are wrinkled, about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the beans to paper towels to drain. Reserve the oil.

4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Pour in 2 teaspoons of the reserved oil and swirl to coat the sides. Slide the chicken into the wok and stir-fry until the meat is crumbly and changes color, about 2 minutes. Add the green beans and sauce and stir until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Scoop the contents of the wok onto a serving plate and serve warm.

Pommes Sautees au Lard

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To be fair, there was no lard used in the making of this dish. I used turkey bacon instead. Please don’t judge me; the end product was still a garlicy plate of fried potato goodness.

Adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, this wintery dish is a snap to create and makes a great side. The original recipe uses slab bacon but if you’re cutting down on the fat, use a mixture of turkey bacon and butter, as I did.

Pommes sautees au lard

Ingredients:

4 slices turkey bacon, chopped into a 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons butter
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut in half, then chopped into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 garlic clove, minced
4 sprigs of flat parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

1. Heat a saute pan over medium heat and add the butter until melted. Add the bacon and cook until the fat is rendered and the meat is crispy, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the potatoes and cook for 15 minutes, stirring and tossing frequently. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, then season with parsley, salt, and pepper. Serve warm.

Kashk-e Bademjaan (Iranian Eggplant Dip)

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Note: This entry also appeared at my friend Sherisa de Groot’s blog, L’élephant Rose. L’élephant Rose is a collection of jewelry designed by Sherisa, based in Amsterdam. It’s also the name of her blog about design, music, green living, food, and fashion.

It’s eggplant season! Eggplant is ubiquitous in Iranian cuisine, and luckily for me, it’s in season in the Bay Area right now. I’ve been buying pounds and pounds of it to cook kashk-e bademjaan. A favorite at Persian gatherings, this dip is garlicy, minty, and slightly piquant, thanks to kashk, a thick condiment similar to whey that’s used in Persian cooking. Served with naan or a similar flatbread, kashk-e bademjaan is the perfect way to make use of the eggplant bounty.

This recipe is adapted from two sources: my mom’s guidance over the phone as I hurriedly cooked this the first time for a dinner party, and Najmieh Batmanglij’s definitive English-language cookbook on Iranian cuisine: Food of Life. (Sidenote: Batmanglij’s son, Rostam, is a member of Vampire Weekend and Discovery. Guess what I listen to when I’m cooking from Najmieh’s cookbook?)

Kashk-e bademjaan

Ingredients:

2 medium eggplants
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup liquid whey (kashk)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the garnish:
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons dried mint
2 tablespoons liquid whey (kashk)
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water

1. Peel eggplants and cut into 4 slices lengthwise. Place in a colander and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt to remove bitterness and excess moisture. Let stand for 30 minutes, then pat dry.

2. Brown the eggplants in a non-stick skillet with 1/4 cup of oil. Add onions and garlic and brown for an additional two minutes, adding another tablespoon of oil if needed. Add 1 cup of water, cover, and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and mash in a food processor. Add 1/2 cup of whey, salt, and pepper, and mix well.

3. Just before serving, saute minced garlic in remaining 2 tablespoons oil at low heat, until golden. Remove skillet from heat, add dried mint, and mix well.

4. Place the eggplant in a serving bowl and garnish with 2 tablespoons whey, the garlic and mint mixture, and a few drops of saffron water. Serve with flatbread and fresh herbs.

Chicken Parmigiana

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Every once in a while, I stumble upon a recipe that’s so good I end up making it time and time again. Chicken parmigiana may not be the fanciest dish, it may not be the most revolutionary, but it’s one of my favorite things to cook — and it’s one of my most requested.

The beauty of this dish is in its versatility: veal, or even fried slices of eggplant can be substituted for the chicken, and it can be served by itself, or alongside pasta or focaccia bread. My favorite pairing is spaghettini that’s been tossed with toasted garlic, red pepper flakes, chopped parsley, and a bit of grated Parmesan cheese.

Chicken Parmigiana

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cans (28 ounces each) peeled whole tomatoes, pureed in a food processor
1/2 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil, leaves torn
1/2 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled
2 cups plain fresh breadcrumbs
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound chicken cutlets, pounded to an 1/8-inch thickness
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more if needed
1 1/4 cups coarsely grated mozzarella cheese

1. Prepare the marinara sauce: Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, red-pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and some pepper. Simmer, covered, until thick, 25 minutes. Add sugar and vinegar, and simmer 2 more minutes. Stir in herbs and remove from heat. Set aside sauce.

2. Bread and fry the chicken: Combine breadcrumbs, half of the Parmesan cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and some pepper. Put flour, eggs, and breadcrumb mixture in 3 separate dishes. Dredge chicken cutlets in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in egg, letting excess drip off. Dredge in breadcrumbs to coat.

3. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, fry cutlets until golden, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined baking sheet.

4. Assemble the dish: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread 3/4 cup marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange a single layer of cutlets on top. Top with 1 cup sauce, covering each piece. Sprinkle with mozzarella and remaining Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil. Bake until bubbling, about 10 minutes. Uncover; bake until cheese melts, about 2 minutes more.