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It’s the time of year when we all start panicking about buying holiday gifts – unless you’re my mother, in which case you finished your holiday shopping weeks ago and have already presented wrapped gifts to your incompetent daughter. There’s something about getting Christmas presents from your Jewish mother in early November that delivers that extra measure of guilt with the festive spirit. Also, I should say that really, this isn’t actually the time of year that I start panicking about present buying. That time is called mid-December. (This is why my mother thinks I’m incompetent. Surprise: she’s right!) However, as Thrifty Gal reminded me, people with blogs have to think about these things early, or early-ish. So I have roused myself from the state of complete denial with which I like to approach the festive season and investigated the delicious world of giftage for the food lover in your life. Read the rest of this entry »

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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.

Serves 4

I’m a big fan of pomegranate and am always looking for savoury uses for it. My cousin recently mentioned a fondness for Persian food and so when she came with an old friend for a visit, I immediately thought of the pomegranate and poultry dish fesenjan. Fesenjan is a special occasion dish in Iran and is apparently associated especially with family occasions. It’s also dead easy to make, so it seemed perfectly appropriate both to celebrate seeing my lovely cousin and to cook on a weeknight.

You can make fesenjan with chicken, but it is also traditionally made with pheasant or duck, and I decided on pheasant to add gaminess to the dish. I was regretting that decision when I got the birds home and realised quite how funky they smell, but a good rinse under the tap and a proper clean out of the cavity and they became a lot less pungent. They’re also remarkably easy birds to joint, with dense meat that comes off the bone neatly and a layer of fat you can pretty much peel off by hand if you don’t need it for roasting. Once you have the birds prepped, there are only three more ingredients to the whole dish, and yet the flavour is complex and sophisticated. Some magic is worked among bird, walnuts and pomegranate that gives fesenjan a uniquely seductive quality.

To balance the richness of the fesenjan, I served it with khoresht ghormeh sabzii, a bright herb and green vegetable stew that I’ll post about next.

Fesenjan

  • 2 pheasants, or 1 chicken, jointed
  • 2 cups of walnuts
  • 1 medium onion
  • 3/4 cup of pomegranate molasses
  • fresh pomegranate seeds (optional)
  • oil, salt and pepper

First grind the walnuts in the food processor to a fine meal, being careful not to over-process (you don’t want nut butter). Heat a couple of tbsp oil in a wide, shallow pan and brown the pheasant or chicken pieces all over. Remove to a plate.

Chop the onion and sauté  in the same pan. Once they begin to colour, add the walnuts. Continue to sauté the mixture for several minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. The walnuts will begin to toast and change colour slightly.

Add the pheasant back into the pan and add about a cup of water. Pour in the pomegranate molasses and stir well. Add about a teaspoon of salt and a good grinding of pepper. Raise the heat till bubbling, then lower to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30-40 mins, turning the meat occasionally, stirring and adding more water if the sauce is getting too thick.

You have two options for serving: either leave the pieces of meat as they are, or remove and shred them, then put it back into the sauce. I would be more inclined to shred chicken than pheasant or duck, but either way works. Sprinkle the finished dish with pomegranate seeds and serve with rice.

Serves 4

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