World Food Stories - Persian with Pegah!

I love ethnic cuisines. Nothing is more thrilling for me than to try dishes from different cultures and countries. Dining out to experience different cuisines is great, but there's nothing quite like learning from a cook in their home. There is no need for ego.
Along with watching their process and learning about new and unfamiliar ingredients, I get a chance to listen for their food stories. We laugh together. I see how their love and food memories are interwoven into the meal.

Welcome to “World Food Stories”, a Happily Edible After special feature, where I join up with old and new friends to explore the flavors from their culture. This idea has been brewing inside me for a little while now and I'm ready to dive in.

I’m in the kitchen today with my Atlanta friend Pegah Moghaddam, diving into the world of Persian/Iranian food. Pegah grew up with traditional Iranian food in her home. Her parents, Nahid and Manoochehr, hailed from Shushtar, an old, rural town in Iran.

Growing up she remembers eating “yogurt on everything” and reminisces about enjoying a family favorite – a picnic sandwich consisting of mortadella with mayo, tomato, and parsley on a hoagie roll. Another common family dish was a cutlet with potato and ground beef.

Pegah and I talked about what makes Iranian food unique. Here are some of its special characteristics:

· Simple foods, like kabob and rice are very common
· Lots of vegetables used, like okra, squash, eggplant, tomato
· Mixing a lot of flavors together
· Not as “potent” flavor-wise as Indian food
· Moderate, nothing is too spicy
· Presentation is important and a source of pride
· Lots of sides are served

For our get-together, Pegah decided to prepare and share a khoresht. Simply, a stew. Stews are very popular in Iranian cooking and typically go the route of a green or a red stew. They can be vegetarian or include meat. Her khoresht was a “lubia” stew with green beans, tomatoes, beef, and a very interesting special ingredient {we’ll come back to that!}.

She made traditional rice with the lovely “tahdig” or crust that is formed on the bottom of the pan during cooking.
We also sampled bites from an easy-to-throw-together platter of Sabzi Khordan, featuring fresh herbs, feta cheese, pita bread, tomatoes, cucumber, nuts, and olives.
Of course, yogurt had to show up on the table, and Pegah prepared a traditional yogurt dip called Mast Va Khiar. It is made from greek yogurt, chopped cucumber, onion, fresh mint and dried mint. Pegah typically makes it with only dried mint, but wanted to try it with fresh mint as well this time. It was a delicious, fresh accompaniment to all the food, particularly the stew. And hard to stop eating, it was so good.
So Pegah started the Tahdig rice before we arrived, as she explained it takes a good bit of time to make. She used basmati rice and a rice cooker to finish it a little faster.
Pegah explained that this rice is something that takes practice to get right.

The basic steps are: wash the rice; let it sit for about an hour; boil water; drain rice and add to boiling water; cook till soft but center is not fully cooked; drain rice and rinse; make the tahdig by heating oil in the pan and adding rice back in; cook until you here it crack and sizzle. When the rice is done cooking, carefully flip out onto a serving dish so the crusty bottom is on the top.
{side note} Pegah showed us how to color some of the rice yellow, by mixing up Iranian saffron with some warm water and adding it to the cooked rice.

So here’s the step by step how-to to make Pegah’s Khoresht:

· Cook about one pound of cubed stew beef, in a skillet with a bit of oil, till browned and fully cooked.
· Take a yellow onion, chop it, and brown in a large pot or dutch oven. Add salt, pepper, and 1 teaspoon curry powder. Pegah told us the curry powder is KEY and when you have it, “you know you’ve got Mom’s food”.
· Add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes, 1 can of water, and 1 tablespoon of tomato paste mixed with a bit of boiling water to the onions.
· Drop in a Persian dried lime or “omani” {this is the secret ingredient used to give a distinct sour flavor to the stew} – you can find at a middle eastern store/market.
· Add ¼ cup lemon juice and salt to taste. Add cooked beef and about one pound of fresh green beans {ends removed and cut up into smaller pieces}.
· Allow stew to simmer for about an hour or so. Serve with rice.
This khoresht was delightful. We sat down at the table together and enjoyed the crackly, crunching sound as we cut through the tahdig rice to serve it. The stew left us feeling well-fed and we got a big hug from our friend and her ancestors. It was humble, fragrant, earthy, and slightly sour. It was simple looking but had layers of flavors. The beef was a tender, delicious bonus, although Pegah reminded us you could enjoy the stew without it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried Persian food, but it was a first to have a home cooking lesson from someone who grew up eating it. How special to watch the cooking process and learn more about my beautiful friend and her heritage. I asked Pegah what she took away from the food of her childhood….what she learned from the food of her family? She pondered for a moment and chimed in, “the value of spices, that cooking is naturally messy, and you don’t need to follow a recipe.”
She laughed and added “and add lemon to everything.”
Thank you Pegah for opening your kitchen to me and being such a gracious host. It was a wonderful time.


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