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Archive for the ‘Persian’ Category

Image via the Wall Street Journal.

Hey guys. I’ve been busy lately, working, Yoga-ing,  watching Charlie Sheen clips, doing some pre-Spring cleaning, and planning my next Yoga retreat.

I promise to be back soon with some recipes, but thought I’d pop up and share this Wall Street Journal story on Persian food, entitled “An Intimate Persian Feast,” with you. Love it when Persian food gets a mention in the media, like the time America.gov interviewed yours truly and two of my favorite Persian food bloggers, Azita and Sanam.

The WSJ piece is  a lovely article; the one thing I disagree with? The idea that Persian food must always be a daylong undertaking. Anyone who has tried my rapid and delicious 15 Minute Khorest Fesenjan, full of pomegranate and walnut flavor, knows better!

Enjoy the article, have a lovely and blessed day, and ‘I shall return soon.

Speaking of blessed, remember: “Blessed, not stressed.”

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In a former life, I once wrote restaurant reviews.

Yes, it’s true. I had the (freelance)  job that many people would kill for: eating and getting paid for it. For a number of reasons,  both circumstantial and otherwise, I transitioned away from this. But from time to time, I feel compelled to put my opinions on record regarding a dining experience.

So that bring us to my thoughts today on Shalezah (formerly Shalizar),  a much-touted Persian restaurant in NYC that’s the recipient of a Michelin star for the 2011 New York City Michelin Guide.

Let me preface this write-up with the caveat. This isn’t a full-on review. It’s a few of my thoughts regarding one dining experience. One that cost around $50, and left me feeling oddly unsatisfied.

I can sum it up in a word that pains me to even type regarding a Persian restaurant: disappointing. Why?

The food, while mostly tasty, didn’t taste Persian to me. Or just barely.

I wanted so badly to like Shalezah. But ultimately, I just couldn’t, at least not on this particular visit.

Had I not known what Persian food can taste like, the friendly service and “good enough” food would have lulled me into submission. And honestly, I might not have been impressed and might have even wondered what all the fuss is about regarding this Persian cuisine. But because I know better, and the food wasn’t up to par, I felt somewhat, dare I say it, betrayed.

Persian food is so much more refined, nuanced, and beautifully spiced that what was on offer at Shalezah that evening. I want the world to know this, and I want this Michelin starred restaurant to step up to the proverbial plate.

One of Few New York Options

New York City has a dearth of good Persian dining options. Another sentence it pains me to type.  Los Angeles has New York walloped in this regard. How, of the few options we do have in New York City, this particular restaurant ended up with the Michelin star, I don’t quite understand. Nearby sister restaurant Persepolis executes Persian food much more fluidly and authentically, in my opinion.

When we were viewing the menu posted outside of the restaurant one recent Friday evening, one of the employees stepped outside and invited us in. This straddled the line between friendly and slightly aggressive, I suppose, but we were planning to dine there anyways, so I mentally shrugged and went with it. It beats the cold shoulder some New York restaurant staff often turn towards their patrons.

Interior Motives: Comfortable, if Sedate

Inside, the restaurant was slightly over halfway full, and the decor was sedate and warm: hardwood floors, exposed brick, wine bottles as adornment. No Persian carpets, miniatures, or other adornments. At that moment, I didn’t take this as anything other than the restaurant going for a more sedate, less “ethnic” decor approach. It was, however, a sign of things to come on the culinary front.

Service overall was friendly and prompt. Yet the problems started with the yogurt spinach dip appetizer we ordered to accompany the complimentary pita, lavash bread, an tahini sauce. Advertised as combo of yogurt, spinach, and garlic, the spinach dip seemed to be studded with feta and/or blue cheese. Odd, and while not terrible, I had to pass, as I can eat small amounts of yogurt, but wasn’t banking on so much cheese. Especially when the dish was advertised mainly spinach and yogurt with no mention of cheese. Instead, I dipped some of the lavash and pita bread on offer into the tahini sauce. I squeezed in some lemon juice, pondered the oddity of tahini as an app at a Persian restaurant, and looked forward to the entrees’ arrival.

Substitutions Abound

The unacknowledged menu substitutions continued with the entree of fish and what was supposed to be accompanied with rice studded with herbs and fava beans. I’d really wanted my friend to try this dish, as it’s a lovely, very typically Persian way,  to enjoy fish and rice. Instead, Shalezah’s kitchen subbed two rices–sour-cherry studded rice, and rice with raisins and lentils. Huh? No explanation was offered until we asked for one. Apparently they were out of the rice that normally accompanies the dish. I’m sorry, but fish doesn’t taste good with sour cherry rice. A simple saffron rice would have been a more compatible choice for this dish in any case.

Instead of pointing this out lack of herbed rice to us or giving us the chance to change the order, they brought us the entree and the two rices “so you can try them both” as if this were some sort of ingenious favor. No, not really. A simple acknowledgment of the pending substitution would have been the appropriate course. As it stood, the fish fillet portion was tiny, and served with the “ugly” side up.  It was slightly fishy in aroma (worrisome), but butter and salt were used to even out this element. Twenty dollars for this entree felt like a real stretch.

More Saffron, Less Salt, Please

The overuse of butter and under-use of spices cropped up so much during the course of this meal, it became a theme. I found all of the rices overcooked (too soft, but at least they used basmati rice), overly salty, and buttered to the point of being greasy. Keep in mind that I like salt, perhaps a bit too much, and definitely appreciate butter in my rice.

The lamb shank entree was the best part of the meal, but it, too, suffered from a lack of distinct flavor, Persian or otherwise. Texture-wise, the shank was cooked until tender enough to separate easily from the bone. Having wrestled with cooking more than a few lamb shanks into submission in my lifetime, I know it’s not always an easy task. So while the meat’s texture was quite enjoyable, again, the spicing was off. That is to say, nearly non-existent, unless we count salt, of which there was too much. I could have been eating a lamb shank in any type of restaurant: a Greek, Italian, or even French.

By the time the dessert offerings were mentioned, I’d had enough, and we decided to pass. Yes, I was full, but no, not satisfied. It seems the sedate decor Shalezah employs indeed telegraphs a  sedate approach to Persian food, at least on this particular occasion.

Hope For The Future

My advice to Shalezah?

  • More saffron, less salt, please.
  • Shalezah should ease off of the butter.
  • Pay better attention to the actual cooking technique and spicing of the dishes.
  • Finally, substitutions happen. But they should be acknowledged. Give your diners a choice to opt in or out if you don’t have the foods advertised on your menu.

Perhaps we should’ve made different menu choices. But perhaps not. Heaven knows I’m no purist. Anyone who reads this blog knows I mix and match and play around with fusion, or at the very least, have no problem sometimes tweaking traditional recipes. When restaurants do the same, the results can feel elevated, deflated or just odd. Mastering the basics first, though, is a worthy start. A re-start Shalezah would do well to consider, if their Michelin star hasn’t lulled them into complacency.

If you’ve tried Shalezah and would like to share your thoughts, please do.

Shalezah

1420 Third Avenue (between East 80th and 81st Streets)

New York, NY

10028

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Stressing over making a homemade dessert for Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry, my loves, I gotcha covered with a few simple, quick options:

Chocolate Almond and Apricot Truffles

Chocolate almond apricot truffles are an easy cookie to make. Gluten-free flour works in this recipe, by the way (I used Bob's Red Mill).

Or you could salvage a broken cake with my Chocolate Cherry Trifle:

This trifle is any easy way to salvage a broken cake, or use up leftover chunks of chocolate cake or brownies. The layers make it look pretty and deliberate ;-)

Another fun and easy option: Molten Chocolate Cakes with a Middle Eastern Flair

This cake is really molten, to the point of oozing apart like lava. Ha! If you'd rather keep it together, just bake in ramekins to serve.

If chocolate’s not your bag, but jewels are, consider:

Bejeweled Biscotti with a Persian Twist:

Persianized biscotti. Yes, these cookies could be dipped in melted chocolate, if you're so inclined.

Dunk your biscotti in some Persian Hot Chocolate:

!

Hot chocolate infused with the finest Persian saffron and cardamom? Win!

Portion Control a Concern? Try:

Frozen Hot Chocolate “Shots” With a Goat Yogurt Topping

Petite shots of chocolately goodness!

I hope these options help. I’m working on one more chocolatey goody, which tastes amazing, and is gluten and dairy free. I’ll post it soon.

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Chocolate and banana is a winning combo any day.

Dunno about you, but the recent events in the Middle East, combined with the relentless weather we’re having here in New York City, make me want to crawl under the covers and hide, preferably with a delicious, comforting dessert in hand.  Alas, hibernating isn’t really an option for me, or for most of us, I imagine.

But we CAN have a luscious dessert every now and then when we desire escapism. As my English Lit prof used to say, “Why the hell NOT?”

Maybe a chocolate cherry trifle made with leftover chocolate cake?

Or how about a creamy, dreamy pudding parfait? Yeah, sounds good to me right about now. Plus, it’s the perfect excuse to bust out my parfait glasses. But. . .

Making pudding from scratch certainly not my thing. In the immortal, hyperbolic words of my friend Denise, it “ruins my life.” Yeah, safe to say that custard making and I don’t get along. Ugh, I simply hate making custard. It always breaks or curdles on me, and frankly, I have limited patience for endless whisking, or for recipes that take too much time.

Avocados are the surprise ingredient in the easy, fast, chocolate pudding element of today's recipe. Vegan chocolate pudding? Yes, it does exist, and it's easy to make.

Luckily, when in the mood for something custard-y, I’m not above using instant pudding and have figured out, via my blogging friends, a fast, healthy way to make a chocolate pudding that involves nothing but the blender and a few ingredients you likely have on hand already: avocados, cocoa powder, bananas, a bit of liquid, and sweetener. It’s a pudding that’s actually quite healthy. It’s full of good fats from the avos and chocolate is healthy in moderation. (Yes, you read right: avocados and chocolate, so read on!)

The bananas in the chocolate pudding give it sweetness, so go easy on the added sweetener (taste as you go).

Milk Free Banana Chocolate Pudding Parfaits with Cardamom

Ingredients

  • Banana pudding mix (3.5 ounce box; check ingredients for milk if this is a concern)
  • Coconut milk in the amount prescribed by the pudding box directions (usually 2 cups)
  • 2 teaspoons cardamom powder (optional)
  • 2 small, ripe avocados or 1 large avo
  • 1 medium banana
  • 4 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Sweetener, options include: agave, maple syrup, date syrup, simple syrup. (Start with a Tablespoon and add more to your taste as needed. If using liquid stevia, start with a drop or two, then work your way up as needed.)
  • Chocolate chips or shavings for garnish (optional)
  • Fresh banana slices for garnish (optional)
  • Whipped topping for garnish (optional; use non-dairy if you’re staying milk-free)

Directions

1. Make banana pudding according to package directions, adding 1/2 of the cardamom powder to the mixture as you blend. Place in the fridge to chill for at least 5 minutes while  you make the chocolate pudding.

2. In a blender, place flesh of avocados, chunks of banana, cocoa powder, remaining cardamom powder, sweetener (if using), and a splash of coconut milk or water to help things blend. Now blend until smooth. Add more cocoa powder if you need to thicken. Thin it out with liquid if needed. Test for sweetness, and add more sweetener if needed.

3. Make sure banana pudding is set and “scoopable” with a spoon. Once it’s set, in a decorative parfait glass, layer puddings in alternating layers, starting with chocolate pudding first (it is denser than the banana pudding). End with a layer of banana pudding, then top with garnishes of choice, if using. Settle in under the covers or on the nearest couch, and enjoy.

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Fesenjan is a beloved Iranian pomegranate-walnut stew. It can be made with chicken, duck, or without meat. What you see above is a version made with mushrooms and chickpeas, a departure from the classic recipe. Note my greenery "garnish" isn't really edible ;-) This is my fast, 15 minute version of khorest fesenjan.

Yes, you read right. A 15-minute version of beloved Persian koresht fesenjan.

What??????

For the uninitiated, it’s a stew of ground walnuts, pomegrante molasses, and, often, chicken. It has a sweet and sour flavor that might sound weird on paper, but tastes oh-so-good on the palate. It also has a bit of a reputation: a rep as something that takes a good while to cook.

We chatted about this recipe on here before:

But today’s offering is a quickie take on the slow-cooking classic. Over the weekend, a reader, Almaz, and I were chatting on Facebook. She loves the blog and had such kind words of encouragement for me. I was really touched. So I asked her if there was anything in particular she’d like me to post about. She jokingly (I think), said “15 minute fesenjan.” I immediately thought about a slow cooker version, that potentially could have only 15 minutes of hands on time.

Then today, while tinkering around in the kitchen, I realized a truly fast fesenjan, made in 15 minutes from start to finish, IS doable. If you have the following, already ready:

  • Pomegranate PASTE or MOLASSES (pre-thickened, you see!)
  • Ground walnuts.
  • Pre-cooked chicken (if using).
  • Pre-cooked rice (if serving over rice). Or you could use quick cooking rice. (Not as tasty as homemade, but just sayin’)

So here we go. Don’t blink, guys, or else this recipe will be over before you know it:

15-Minute Khoresht Fesenjan (Pomegranate Walnut Stew)

Time: 15 minutes

Yield: Approximately 4-6 servings. ( The nuts make this a very rich dish.)

Ingredients

  • Neutral cooking fat of choice (butter, grapeseed oil, etc)
  • 1/2 medium onion
  • 1 cup pre-ground walnuts
  • 1 Tablespoon sumac
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses or pomegranate paste (can find on Amazon)
  • 10 ounces of mushrooms (optional)
  • 1 cup of chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
  • 1 14-16 ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed (optional)
  • 1 cup of pre-cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (such as leftover roasted chicken)
  • Honey, sugar, or agave nectar to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Over a low heat, heat oil or butter in a Dutch oven.

2. As fat warms, dice onion.  Add it to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring periodically. (Chopping the onion very small will help it cook through faster).

3. As the onion cooks, slice mushrooms (if using) and drain and rinse chickpeas (if using).

4. Lower the heat, and add walnuts to the onions. Toast walnuts lightly, turning often, for 30-60 seconds, or until you smell a hint of fragrance. Immediately add in spices, and cook for about 30 seconds more. Turn heat off.

5. Add in the pomegranate molasses/paste, stock or water. Stir well, then add in any of the following that you’re using: chicken, mushrooms, chickpeas. Put the heat back on, then increase heat to high until stew boils. Drop the heat down to low.

6. Cook for 5 minutes more, until mushrooms are cooked through and chicken, if using, is warmed through. (You can cook this dish longer if you wish, up to half an hour, but the shorter cooking time works if you’re in a hurry).

7. Adjust seasonings to your taste. If you want it sweeter, add in sweetener of choice, stir, taste. Repeat until you’ve reached your idea sweet-sour ratio.  Serve over rice of choice and enjoy.

That’s IT!

Enjoy it over rice of your choice.

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Spicy Winter Tea with cookies.Yes, tea served in a coffee mug. I have so much tea, I don't have space for actual tea sets. ;-) Plus a student gave me these mugs, and I happen to really like them.

Nothing warms my heart quite like a cup of hot tea and a plate of cookies on a cold winter’s afternoon.

Have I ever told you guys about my tea collection? No joke, I have about fifty, as in 5-0, different types of tea. taking up a fair amount of precious real estate in my kitchen. This is even more ridiculous when you consider that I’m rockin’ a cramped New York City Prewar galley kitchen that, outside of the appliances,  hasn’t seen an update since the Nixon administration.

Quality tea deserves quality cookies. I didn't make these. I let the experts at my fave Middle Eastern pastry shop, Laziza in Astoria, NY, do that.

Percentage wise, tea takes up a huge amount of my storage space, but I’ve no regrets. That’s because I’m the type of person who sometimes looks forward to the post-meal cup of tea more than to the meal itself.

Yes, Persians love their tea, and I’m no exception, as my dedication to my collection shows. My fam might consider my stash of all sorts of teas–from green jasmine, to chocolate mint, to Tiramisu–a bit weird. In Iran, the teas I remember were always black teas brewed to a beautiful dark amber, served with cubes of sugar and savored often.

The way the cookie crumbles. . .when it crumbles in my tea, I love it. Love to drink up those little cookie bits. Ha!

A quality black tea, maybe an Earl Grey, is where it’s at when we’re chatting about Persian tea. P.G. Tipps brand works for me, but even good ol’ Lipton will do the trick.

About the only bad memory I have about tea is the time in Iran when I knocked over my uncle’s tea cup and got a blister on my foot. Whoops! That taught me a valuable lesson: awareness of hot beverages!

Today’s tea is super simple. You just brew the black tea of your choice, and add in a few chunks of fresh peeled ginger, a cinnamon stick or two, cardamom pods, and a shake of rose or orange blossom water. That’s it.

Afternoon delight!

If you’re hot where you are now and want a cool tea option, try my Persian Iced tea with a Rose Water and Cardamom Infusion, which was featured on Saveur Magazine’s “Best of the Web” a few months back. For now, the hot pot:

Warming Winter Spiced Tea

Brew black tea of your choice according to package instructions. For each cup of tea, add in the following:

  • A chunk of fresh, peeled ginger
  • A cinnamon stick
  • Up to 3 cardamom pods
  • A splash of either rose water or orange blossom water

Serve with cookies (or “biscuits”) of your choice, and enjoy.

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Persian Sugarplums. These are simple and can be made quickly with any dried fruits and nuts you have on hand.

Merry Holidays, everyone! Does anyone really know what sugarplums are? What confection, precisely, is that Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker dancing for anyways?

Turns out they’re balls of dried fruits and nuts, sometimes with spices added in, perhaps coated in powdered sugar. Well, besides sounding Christmasey, this all sounded very Persian to me. So I tooled around online, found some simple sugarplum recipes, and tweaked them to add a Persian twist. Voila!  Beautiful, tasty, festive holiday treats.

Simple to make, tasty, and these goodies actually taste better as the days go on. Time in the fridge give their flavors time to meld.  They’re plenty sweet, but perhaps a nice change of pace from all the cookies you might be enjoying lately.

 

These easy to make sugarplum are fast to prepare, and excellent with a cup of perfectly brewed hot tea.

Saffron-Infused Sugarplums

Prep time: 20 minutes or less, depending on what method you use to prep your fruits and nuts

Yield: Approximately 20 balls

Note: You can play around with the proportion of fruits to nuts, the types of fruit and  nuts that you use, and the spices. This recipe is extremely flexible.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of slivered almonds
  • 1/3 cup pistachios, shells removed
  • 2 cups of mixed dried fruit. (I used Mariani’s mixed fruit, a blend of tender fruits I get at Costco, which includes apricots, plums, peaches, pears, and apples)
  • 1/2 c cup dried sour cherries
  • 1/4 cup honey (if vegan, use a vegan friendly option like molasses, agave, etc)
  • Pinch saffron dissolved in about a tablespoon of hot water
  • 1 Tablespoon pumpkin pie spice blend or Persian Spice Blend (Advieh)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  • Shredded coconut flakes and/or confectioner’s sugar for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Chop nuts into pieces, either via hand, crushing them with a rolling pin inside a bag, or use a blender or food processor to pulse once or twice to chop the pieces.  Chop or food process/blend the the fruits as well. Remove fruit and nut mixture from food processor or blender (if using), and set aside in a bowl.

2. Add honey to another bowl. Infuse honey with saffron and hot water, and then add in the pumpkin pie spice or Persian spice blend and vanilla (if using). Mix well.

3. Combine honey mixture with fruit/nut mixture, and mix very well.

4. Use your hands to form this mixture into balls. (Mixture will be very sticky. Keep a dampened cloth handy to wipe down your hands periodically). Roll in confectioner’s sugar or coconut flakes, if using. Refrigerate in an airtight container and enjoy at your leisure.

 

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and wishing every one of you a fantastic 2011!

 

 

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