Cashew Baklava

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It’s Norooz (Iranian New Year) season, so there’s lots of sweets everywhere I go these days. Norooz begins on the spring equinox and lasts for two weeks, and during this time, it’s customary to visit loved ones. Naturally, these visits are filled with sugary treats. Kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Iranian style.

I usually make these cashew baklava to celebrate the arrival of Norooz. Much like our household, I make them a little bit Iranian and a little bit Sri Lankan. These aren’t traditional baklava. Cashews take the place of walnuts, and I add some coconut sugar to the mix. Lastly, I add both orange blossom water and Meyer lemon zest to the syrup.

The best part? These are easier to make than they look. Norooz mobarak!

Cashew baklava

Ingredients:

1/2 stick plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup cashews
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons coconut sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
Finely grated zest of 1⁄2 Meyer lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
10 (16-by-13-inch) sheets phyllo

1. Heat the oven to 350F degrees. In a food processor, combine 5 tablespoons butter with the cashews, brown sugar, coconut sugar, cinnamon, and salt and pulse until the filling is finely chopped.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the granulated sugar with 1⁄3 cup water. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat, stir in the lemon zest, lemon juice juice, and orange blossom water and set aside.

3. Grease a foil-lined rimmed metal baking sheet with some of the remaining melted butter. On a work surface, lay 1 sheet of phyllo dough so the short sides are parallel to you. Brush the sheet with some butter and place the second sheet over the first. Brush the phyllo with butter and cover with the third sheet. Repeat until you have 5 sheets but do not brush the last sheet with butter. Arrange 3 tablespoons of the cashew filling in a line along the long edge of the stacked phyllo sheets. Roll the phyllo around the filling into a long, narrow log. Using a serrated knife, cut the log into 2-inch pieces and and place the pieces in the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining filling and phyllo sheets, arranging each filled piece of baklava against the others so they fit snuggly in a single layer in the baking sheet.

3. Brush the remaining melted butter over the top of the baklava and bake until light brown and crisp, about 35 minutes. Remove the baking pan from the oven, pour the cooled syrup over the baklava, and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Caspian-Style Sweet and Sour Fish

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My memories of visiting Iran always included a trip to the Caspian Sea: lush seascapes and mountains, friendly faces, and oh, the food! Fresh fish, grilled eggplant, young garlic, rich eggs — the food of the Caspian stays with you long after you visit.

This simple-to-prepare fish entree takes me back to these trips. In this recipe, catfish takes the place of the delicate white fish you’d find in the Caspian region. It’s glazed with a sweet and sour garlicy sauce that’s perfect with rice. I like to serve this alongside a green salt salad for a complete meal.

Caspian sweet and sour fish

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon golpar (ground Angelica seeds)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 catfish fillets (about 2 pounds)
3 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 cup white wine vinegar mixed with 2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. Prepare the dry seasoning: In a wide, shallow bowl, mix together the salt, pepper, turmeric, flour, and golpar and set aside.

2. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Dredge both sides of the fish in the seasoning and arrange on a plate.

3. Heat the oil in a wide saute pan over high heat until hot. Sear the fish until brown on both sides, about 3 minutes for each side.

4. Reduce heat to low and add the garlic. Saute the garlic for 1 minute.

5. Add the vinegar mixture and simmer for 6 minutes over low heat until the fish is tender.

6. Garnish with parsley and serve with rice.

Caspian-Style Green Salt Salad

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“Green salt” salad doesn’t translate very well, but that’s exactly what it is. Dalar, or namak sabz (“green salt” in Farsi), is an herb-and-salt condiment from Gilan province in northern Iran. I didn’t grow up with this, but rather, I came across a recipe and adapted it to my taste. Blended with olive oil and tossed with Persian cucumbers and crisp apples, it makes a tart and refreshing salad that goes well with any Iranian meal.

Caspian green salt salad

Ingredients:

1 cup mint leaves
1 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup basil leaves
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Juice of 2 limes
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 Fuji apples, diced into 1-inch cubes
4 Persian cucumbers, diced into 1-inch cubes

1. Transfer all of the herbs to a food processor and pulse a few times to chop. Add the salt and process until you have a grainy mixture. Add the pepper, lime juice and olive oil and puree.

2. In a large bowl, combine the apples, cucumbers, and dressing and toss well. Adjust seasoning to taste by adding more lime juice or salt.

Ash-e Reshteh (Iranian Noodle Soup)

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Norooz, or Iranian New Year, means a few things: joyous gatherings with family, spring cleaning, and the celebration of the vernal equinox. Norooz is also about food: fresh fish, rice pilafs and frittatas redolent with herbs and spring greens to celebrate renewal and rebirth, desserts to ring in a sweet new year, and my favorite: ash-e reshteh.

Ash-e reshteh is traditionally served on the new year, with the noodles symbolizing good fortune. My mom’s ash-e reshteh is my favorite and this year, I finally learned how to cook it. Chock-full of reshteh (special Iranian noodles), kashk (a fermented dairy product similar to whey), loads of herbs like parsley, spinach, and green onions, legumes, dried mint, and garlic, there’s no substituting here. Get thee to an Iranian grocery and make this delicious, meal-in-a-bowl soup to celebrate the coming of warmer weather and new beginnings.

Ash-e Reshteh (Iranian Noodle Soup)

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons olive oil
4 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, cooked, and cooled
10-12 cups water
1 cup lentils, cooked and cooled
1 pound Iranian noodles (reshteh)
1 tablespoon flour
2 bunches chopped green onions
2 bunches chopped parsley
2 pounds chopped spinach
1 1/2 cups liquid kashk
4 tablespoons dried mint, crushed

1. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large pot and sautee the onions and garlic over medium heat. Add salt, pepper, and turmeric. Once golden, set aside 1/3 of onion mixture for garnish. Leave the remaining onion mixture in the pot and add lentils and chickpeas; saute for a few minutes. In the meantime, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a separate small saucepan and once hot, add the dried mint and quickly saute for 1 minute, being careful not to let it burn. Remove from heat and set aside for garnish.

2. Pour in 10 cups of water and bring to a boil, then add all of the greens, bring to a boil again, reduce the heat, and cook on low, covered, for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the noodles to the pot and cook for about 15 minutes, covered, on low heat, stirring occasionally. At this stage, add one teaspoon of the reserved dried mint oil garnish to the pot.

4. In the meantime, mix 1 cup cold water and the flour in a small bowl and drizzle the mixture into the pot of soup, stirring. Cook for 20 minutes, covered, on low heat, stirring occasionally.

5. Stir in the kaskh, setting aside a dollop or two for the garnish. Mix the kaskh in the pot well.

6. To serve, pour the hot soup into a serving bowl and garnish with the reserved onion and garlic mixture, reserved dried mint mixture, and reserved kashk.

Salted Chocolate Halva

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You say halva, I say halvardeh. The crumbly, sticky sesame-based confection that’s called halva in the Levant (and the West) is called halvardeh in Iran and that’s because what’s called halva in Persian refers to a related confection made from wheat flour, butter, and with rosewater. But for the purposes of this recipe, let’s just call the crumbly sesame-based version halva.

Semantics aside, I can’t get enough of this stuff. One of my favorite breakfasts is halva simply wrapped up in lavash with a side of strong black tea. I also, uh, love halva straight out of the box. And I am equally parts delighted and terrified to learn that I can make halva from scratch, at home, with relative ease. Adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe, this bittersweet chocolate-glazed version is much tastier than store-bought. Once cooled, cut this up into tiny squares for a decadent teatime treat.

Salted chocolate halva

Ingredients:

Nonstick oil spray
1 1/2 cups tahini
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sesame seeds, divided
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 ounces dark bittersweet chocolate
Sea salt, for sprinkling

1.Lightly coat an 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper, leaving a 2″ overhang on both of the long sides. Mix tahini, salt, and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds in a large bowl to combine; set tahini mixture aside.

2. Cook sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring with a heatproof rubber spatula, until sugar is dissolved, about 4 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high. Cook syrup, brushing down sides as needed to dissolve any crystals that form, about 7–10 minutes. Immediately remove syrup from heat and gradually stream into reserved tahini, mixing constantly with spatula. Continue to mix just until halva comes together in a smooth mass and starts to pull away from the sides of bowl (less than a minute). Be careful not to overmix or halva will crumble. Working quickly, scrape into prepared pan and let cool.

3. Melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (do not let bowl touch water), stirring often. Remove from heat. Invert halva onto a wire rack set inside a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet; peel away and discard parchment. Pour chocolate over halva and sprinkle top with sea salt and remaining 2 tablespoons sesame seeds. Let sit until chocolate is set before serving, about 1 hour.