I’ve read on a few blogs that Persian food tastes better than it looks, and I kind of get what they’re saying. Photographing the pheasant fesenjan was something of a challenge, because no matter how beautifully jewel-toned and succulent the dish looked in real life, photographing in close up did make it look a little bit like the Chinese restaurant scene from eXistenZ. But the idea that Persian cuisine generally looks unappetising doesn’t really hold true for me, perhaps because so much of what I cook is braised, stewed or otherwise formless. I don’t really do meat and two veg. To put it another way, Mr Lemur has unkindly suggested that this blog could easily be called Things in Bowls. So the lack of visually discrete ingredients in these Persian dishes isn’t exactly unusual to me. But what I think people really mean when they say Persian food tastes better than it looks is that the tastes are unexpectedly bright, concentrated, and punchy in comparison to the homey looking exterior. Fesenjan and khoresht ghormeh sabzi do look good to me, but their cosy style gives no clue to the amazing vibrancy of the flavours lurking beneath the surface.
For this reason, I was really excited to make khoresht ghormeh sabzi, a herb and green vegetable stew that, unlike fesenjan, I’d never made before. I love cooking greens of all kinds, and this dish promised a giddy pile up of herbal flavours. I read a bunch of different recipes and decided that, since I was making the dish to complement the fesenjan, a vegetarian version would be more appropriate. Plus, I wanted to keep the freshness and lightness of the herbs front and centre rather than using them as foundation for a meat dish. It really is a wonderful excess of greenery. Preparing the dish makes you feel like the healthiest person alive, as you chop enormous piles of spinach, dill, parsley, cilantro and more. Using herbs not in small quantities as flavouring but in giant amounts as ingredients is always liberating, and this dish really lets you go to town with the leaves. You’ll want to visit a grocery store that lets you buy herbs in generous bunches, not meagre sprigs in sealed plastic containers. Most of the ingredients are easy enough to find – spinach, dill, cilantro etc – but you might have a bit more trouble with fresh methi or fenugreek leaves. Luckily, we have a good Indian grocer nearby which always carries methi, but if you’re stuck, you could probably use dried. While it would counter the freshness that is a central part of the dish, methi actually holds up quite well in dried form.
Khoresht ghormeh sabzi, or Persian herb stew
- large bunch of spinach
- large bunch of parsley
- large bunch of dill
- large bunch of cilantro
- large bunch of methi / fenugreek leaves
- 1 medium onion
- 1 leek
- 1 bunch of scallions or green onions
- 1 bunch of chives
- 1 can black-eyed peas
- 6-8 slices of dried lemon
- 1 tsp turmeric
- oil for cooking
First, chop the onions, leeks and scallions into small pieces. Wash and finely chop all the herbs and greens. Now, most traditional recipes for this dish seem to involve complicated frying of herbs in separate pans, but since I’m doing a meatless version, it didn’t seem worthwhile. My Iranian friends may disapprove. Instead, simply heat 2-3 tbsps of oil and sauté the onion, leek and scallion until soft. Now add the spinach and herbs and cook down for 15 minutes, stirring often.
Once the greens have diminished in size and darkened in colour a good bit, add generous amounts of salt and pepper, plus turmeric and dried lemon slices, and stir for a minute. Now add about a cup of water, cover the pot and bring to the boil. Simmer for another 15 minutes and then add the beans. Simmer for a further 15 minutes or so, longer if you’d like.