Recently, I went to COOK, Philadelphia's Collaborative Kitchen Classroom, for a Persian food demonstration. The chef, Louisa Shafia, was the author of a cookbook I had been eyeing for some time called The New Persian Kitchen. I sat for 3 hours while I listened to Louisa (a Philly native, btw) describe her life with a Persian father and Jewish mother, and how she came to rediscover and fall in love with Persian cuisine and the heritage it so richly reflects. It was immediately clear to me that she had done extensive research on the history and provenance of classic Persian ingredients and the traditional dishes they comprise, yet it was her fresh riffs and personal interpretations of those dishes that delighted me the most. Other than Louisa, I was the only other Iranian in the room, and I have to say I was so unexpectedly moved by the experience. To be in a room full of Americans--of diverse backgrounds--all discussing Iran, and sampling its food was truly special, and made me incredibly proud and grateful. Needless to say, I came home with a volume of recipes that's been rocking my world ever since.
One of the things I love most about Persian food, other than how delicious and healthy it is, is that it requires a kind of meditative assembly--both in preparing it and in eating it. Whole ingredients are often arranged beautifully on a plate--whole radishes, whole chunks of feta, whole raw herbs--yet they aren't considered garnishes, and there are no appetizers. Everything comes out together and is meant to be eaten with one another. Everything is a complimentary condiment of everything else. And that kind of eating--process eating, I call it--is my favorite. Taking a bit of this, and dipping it into a dollop of that...sprinkling a little of this onto a slice of that makes eating feel (to me) so much more communal and thoughtful--carefully considering what combinations you will arrange for your next bite. And nothing makes me crave foods like this--foods that require more assembly than cooking (or assembly after the cooking)--than warm temps and summer months.
I grew up watching my mother and grandmother toil in the kitchen for hours on end preparing vast Persian feasts (always preparing enough to accomomdate the possibility of unexpected guests or overfeeding the expected ones is the goal here). And although the memories are filled with the sounds of clanging pots, and the aromas of tons of fresh herbs, I have always been overwhelmed at the prospect of making my favorites on my own. The New Persian Kitchen, on the other hand, truly makes these dishes approachable and manageable, and dare I say, fool proof! Louisa even includes lots of tips and tricks to achieve the elusive Tahdig--the coveted golden rice left at the bottom of a pot--which typically takes serious practice. (I have yet to master it.) If you've been intrigued by, tried or enjoyed any of my own Persian recipes which I've featured on the blog in the past, you will love this book.
The extra good news is that these dishes emphasize local, seasonal ingredients, good fats and are rife with herbs and spices, like turmeric, that boast a variety of healing properties. So for those of us gearing up for summer by taking part in the T-Minus 30 challenge, or just trying to clean up our eating in preparation of bikini season, not to worry, these recipes will leave you feeling light and clean and well on your way to your goals.
One of my favorites is the Cold Pistachio Soup with Mint and Leeks (Soup-e Pesteh).
Serves 4 to 6
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 pound leeks, green and white parts, coarsely chopped
1 cup pistachios, shelled
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
7 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
About 2 cups loosely packed fresh spearmint
Juice of 2 lemons
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, until soft. Cook the leeks in batches, if they don’t all fit at once.
Stir in the pistachios, garlic, cumin, and 1 teaspoon salt, and cook for 1 minute. Add the stock and bring to a boil; then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the spearmint. Transfer to a blender, blend until smooth, and add salt to taste. Serve warm, or pour into a shallow baking dish and refrigerate for 2 hours, until thoroughly chilled. Season with lemon juice and pepper, and serve.
Enjoy! See you in class!