Years ago, my mother gave me a tattered copy of a “mid-century” Iranian cookbook that had long gathered dust on a kitchen shelf. In a Texas household where roasts and enchiladas were the dishes du jour, I can’t ever remember eating anything that was remotely Middle Eastern.
I was more than a little curious.
The book was called The Art of Persian Cooking—subtitled “The classic Persian cuisine adapted to the American kitchen. Centuries-old recipes—history of public festivals, family parties and traditions”—and it was written by Dr. Forough-es-Saltaneh Hekmat, “a Persian of pure stock,” said the author’s blurb, “who was born in Shiraz at a time when the general idea of female education was ridiculous.”
Hekmat broke the mold by earning a B.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Persian literature from the University of Iran, defending her thesis unveiled, at the time a feat of great daring. Eventually she moved to America where she spent nine years. In the introduction, dated April, 1959, she mentions watching “with pleasure the curiosity and interest of my friends in Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York as they enjoyed the exotic and delicate Persian dishes I served to them.” It was at their “urging,” she says, that she was persuaded “to commit my knowledge of Persian cooking to paper.” By the time the book was published in 1961, she was living in Rome with her daughter.
To leaf through the pages of The Art of Persian Cooking is to tumble quite pleasantly down the rabbit hole into a bygone world. Dr. Hekmat’s family were in the “peerage” and hers was a milieu in which brides wearing gold-embroidered veils were showered with noqle, or candied meringues mixed with pearls and gold or silver coins. She and her sister each received half a village as wedding gifts from their parents; jewelry commonly presented to brides of her estate included rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls.
From Dr. Hekmat, I learned about Nazr, an ancient ceremony in which mothers weighed their sons and daughters, and gave the equivalent of each child’s weight in “fresh red or white figs” to the poor in order to gain Allah’s protection. At Nowrooze, the traditional New Year’s celebration, tables not only groaned with elaborate foods, but were decorated with violets, hydrangeas and narcissus, as well as “young green blades of wheat and lentils,” all symbolizing the dawning of a new day.
Although her book is replete with recipes for celebratory dishes, it also includes many everyday foods. “One kind of polou or chelou (rice dishes) and a dish of meat (khoresh) is always on the table,” she writes. “Even if the Aga [head of household] and his lady do not care for them they must, nevertheless, be made for the servants…” As well there might have been other meat dishes, fish, soups, desserts, yogurt and seasonal fruit, all served on a white cloth over thick carpets covering the floor. By our standards, of course, every day was a feast day.
In the chapter on khoreshes, I was intrigued to discover that these meat stews almost always began with the sauteeing of onions with salt, black pepper and turmeric–according to Dr. Hekmat, one of the most popular spices in Persian cooking, which for the most part is a very delicately seasoned cuisine.
So it is with this recipe for Rashti Khoreshe which comes from northern Iran where traditionally the finest rice was grown. It is an easy dish, in which small chunks of lamb are browned in oil with turmeric and the other standard ingredients. Water is added, and the dish simmers for 30 minutes.
At this point, it gets interesting: A pound of mixed green herbs is stirred into the pot. Hekmat advises using equal parts of green onion tops, chives and cilantro or celery leaves. Unless your farmer’s market is already burgeoning with produce, you may have to scramble a bit to put together a full pound. I used the green leaves of three bunches of spring onions and one of young garlic, as well as chives from our garden along with a few celery leaves, a handful of watercress and two bunches of cilantro. You could also try a little arugula or some feathery fennel greens to make up the full quantity.
The important thing is to use savory greens that will add real flavor to what is essentially a very simple stew. Everything simmers together for another 30 minutes until the lamb is tender. The dish is finished with ground saffron mixed with a spoonful of water. Much of the world’s saffron actually originates in Iran, though it may be labeled otherwise, and some of it is superb.
At least once you should serve this khoresh over Persian chelou, feathery long grain rice with a lightly browned bottom crust. Dr. Hekmat’s recipe calls for mixing half a cup of rice with an egg yolk, or, if you prefer, milk or yoghurt, to form a crust on the bottom of the pot in which the rice is cooked. Sadly, I must admit that although her method produces rice that is incredibly light and fluffy, the “crispy crunchy” crust stubbornly failed to materialize. After several attempts, I borrowed David Tanis’s method, spreading buttered rice over the bottom of the pot and letting it sit over a medium flame until I could smell the butter starting to brown.
I’ll give you the adaptation that worked for me, as well as Dr. Hekmat’s original instructions. Either way, be sure to use the very best long grain rice available. I’m partial to the aromatic Zafrani Reserve Basmati which I found at our local Indian market.
Keep your eyes open, though. Now that there is a rapprochement of sorts, exceptional strains of Iranian rice may soon be available here in America.
Rashti Khoresh: Persian Lamb Stew over Rice with Turmeric & Savory Green Herbs
The khoresh recipe is adapted from The Art of Persian Cooking by Dr. Forough-es Saltaneh Hekmat. The chelou recipe is also adapted from Dr. Hekmat’s book and from a recipe for Persian Jeweled Rice by David Tanis in his City Kitchen column for The New York Times. (Please note that only Tanis’s method for browning the bottom crust is used when making rice for a khoresh.)
To serve four.
Ingredients for the khoresh:
1 pound boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks
4 tablespoons canola oil
½ large onion, chopped (about 1/-1/2 cups)
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups water
1 pound equal parts green onion tops, chives, and coriander or celery leaves (see above for more options)
½ teaspoon saffron, ground to a powder in a mortar and pestle
A few cilantro sprigs or chopped chives for garnish
Method for the khoresh:
Trim the lamb of any excess fat and fiber. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over a medium flame. Add the chopped onion and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add the turmeric, salt and pepper, and saute for 2 to 3 minutes more, until the onions begin to soften. Add the chunks of lamb and continue to saute until the meat is lightly browned.
Pour in 2 cups of water and bring just to boil. Lower the heat immediately, cover the skillet, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the green herbs by washing and finely chopping them. Shortly before the lamb has completed its first 30-minute simmer, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in another large skillet and lightly saute the greens until they have softened. Do this in batches if necessary.
Stir the sautéed greens into the lamb, cover and again simmer for 30 minutes or until the lamb is tender. Remove the pan from the heat. Mix the ground saffron with 1 tablespoon of warm water and let it dissolve. Pour over the khoresh and set aside.
Ingredients for the chelou or rice:
1 pound best quality long grain basmati rice
4 quarts water
3 tablespoons salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg yolk or ¼ cup milk or 3 tablespoons yogurt
Method for the chelou:
Set the oven to 350 degrees.
On the stove, in a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat.
Place the rice in a large, fine meshed strainer and rinse in cool water until the water runs clear.
When the water on the stove has come to a full boil, add the salt and rice to the pot. Cook for 7 to 10 minutes over a high flame, stirring occasionally. Be careful neither to break the rice grains, nor to overcook the rice. It is done when it is cooked at the core. Test a grain by biting in half. Remove the rice immediately from the heat, drain in a large strainer or colander and rinse with tepid water to remove excess starch. (Good advice from Dr. Hekmat: The larger the pan used to boil the rice, the more feathery the grains will be.)
Heat a large heavy bottomed saucepan or flameproof casserole (I used a Le Creuset enameled casserole with a lid) over a low flame and add 2 tablespoons melted butter mixed with one tablespoon hot water to the bottom of the pot. Swirl the pan to coat it evenly with the mixture.
Mix ½ cup cooked rice with 2 tablespoons butter and spread it over the bottom of the pot. Add the rest of the rice to the pot, mounding it up in the center. Turn the heat to medium and partly cover the pot. As soon as you smell the butter beginning to brown, turn off the heat. Make a deep hole in the center of the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon, cover with the lid, and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.
(If using Dr. Hekmat’s method, mix ½ cup rice with a lightly beaten egg yolk, milk or yogurt and spread it evenly over the bottom of the pot. Fill the pan with the remaining rice and mound it up in the center. Make a deep hole in the middle with the handle of a wooden spoon, cover and bake in the oven for 15 minutes.)
While the rice is in the oven, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. When the 15 minutes are up, remove the pot from the oven, drizzle the butter over the rice, replace the lid and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.
When done, remove the rice from the oven and let the covered pot rest on a cool surface for 10 minutes. In the meantime, reheat the khoresh over a low flame.
Uncover the rice and stir gently to make it fluffy. Spoon the rice onto a platter or into a large serving bowl. Then remove the crust with a spatula and place it alongside the cooked rice.
To serve, ladle the khoresh into a serving bowl, top it with a few sprigs of cilantro or chopped chives and bring to the table with the rice. Serve each person a generous helping of chelou topped with the khoresh, its savory greens and gravy, and a bit of the crispy crust. Enjoy!