Lamb and White Bean Braise with Dill Rice, Kashani Style

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I’ve always been curious about regional Iranian cuisine. My parents are from Tehran and while I love Tehrani-style food, there’s so much to Iran’s diverse cultures: garlicy eggplant mirza ghasemi from the Caspian to okra-laden khoresh-e bamiyeh near the Persian Gulf. These dishes are mainstream — most Iranian households have at least heard of them, regardless of what part of Iran they’re from.

But what about what’s off the beaten path? What’s Kurdish Iranian food like? What do folks eat on Qeshm Island? Or in Khorasan? I worry that these less well-known food traditions will be lost forever, especially among the Iranian diaspora. When I learned that author Najmieh Batmanglij had published Cooking in Iran, a compendium of regional Iranian cooking, I was so excited — and grateful. Since I got the cookbook, I’ve been tinkering with and riffing off of some of her recipes. This lamb and white bean braise with dill rice is popular in Kashan. I didn’t grow up with this dish, but the flavors are all too familiar: the dill rice reminds me of baghali polo (a popular fava bean and dill pilaf), the lamb is stewed with that familiar lime-turmeric-onion combination, and the fried potatoes put the whole thing over the top.

This dish is labor-intensive, but it’s a showstopper.

Lamb and white bean braise with dill rice, Kashani style

Ingredients:

For the braise:

1 cup white beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 teaspoons oil
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 to 1 1/2 pounds boned leg of lamb, cut into 3-inch pieces
1/3 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3 dried Persian limes, pierced
4 cups water
1/4 cup lime juice
1 teaspoon salt

For the potatoes:

1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes and soaked in cold water for 20 minutes, drained and patted dry
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the rice:

2 cups aged basmati rice
1 1/2 cups chopped dill
1/4 cup oil
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 1/4 cup water

1. To make the braise: Heat oil in a laminated cast-iron pot over medium heat and saute the onions, garlic, and lamb until golden brown. Add the beans, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, and dried limes, and saute for 1 minute.

2. Add water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the lamb and beans are tender.

3. Add the salt and lime juice, give it a stir, and adjust seasoning to taste. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

4. Cook the potatoes: In a large skillet, heat the oil until hot and saute the potatoes over medium heat until golden brown and crispy. Sprinkle the turmeric and salt over the potatoes and stir. Remove from the skillet and set aside.

5. To cook the rice: Wash the rice by placing it in a large bowl, cover with water, agitate gently with your hands, then pour off the water. Repeat at least 3 times until the water is clear.

6. In a large pot, bring 8 cups water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. Add the rice and boil for about 10 minutes, stirring a couple of times to loosen any grains that may have stuck to the bottom. Bite a couple of grains — if the rice feels al dente soft, it is ready to be drained. Drain rice in a fine-mesh colander and rinse with water. Set aside.

7. Place 2 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons water in the pot and ruse a spatula to mix. Place 2 spatulas full of rice in the pot and 1 spatula of dill and potatoes. Repeat, alternating layers and mound in the shape of a pyramid.

8. Pour the remaining oil and 1/2 cup of broth from the lamb braise over the rice. Drizzle the saffron water over the top. Wrap the lid of the pot with a clean dish towel and cover the pot firmly to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 15 minutes over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes longer. Keep warm until ready to serve.

9. To serve, on a serving platter, gently mound the rice. Arrange the lamb and beans on top with the broth in a bowl on the side. Alternatively, you may serve the lamb, beans, and accompanying broth on the side in a separate serving bowl.

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.