“Did you hear that winter’s over? The basil and carnations cannot control their laughter?” – Rumi, 13th century Persian poet
Safiah Vafaeian, a Marietta resident who cooks the food of her native Iran with passion and precision, has a small pot of greens stewing on her kitchen’s stove: Parsley, cilantro, spinach and scallions in a bit of oil. This is sabzi. Herbaceous and bitter, it’s a prime ingredient in the splendid, ancient cuisine of Persia. Sabzi is to the Persians what sofrito is to the Mediterraneans, mirepoix to the French.
This time of year, sabzi takes on a symbolic meaning in the Persian diaspora, where the New Year (Nowruz) is celebrated on the vernal equinox (March 20 this year). To wander into a Middle Eastern market during this season, whether in Atlanta or Azerbaijan, is to see the makings of the sofreh-ye haft-sinn (literally: “seven dishes’ setting,” each one beginning with the Persian letter sinn).
“The number seven has been sacred in Iran since antiquity,” writes author Najmieh Batmanglij in her “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies” (Mage, $54.95). On the Persian haft-sinn, there’s sabzeh (usually wheat or lentil sprouts), symbolizing rebirth; a sweet creamy pudding called samanu, for affluence; sib (apple), signifying health and beauty; senjed (the fruit of the wild olive), for love; sir (garlic), for medicine; somaq (sumac), for fertility; and serkeh (vinegar), for age and beauty.
“This tradition has been going on for thousands of years and has nothing to do with religion,” Vafaeian says.
This festive display — which might also include goldfish in a bowl, painted eggs, potted hyacinths, coins, rose water, a mirror, and so on — is typically laid out just a few days before the holiday.
On the day we meet, Vafaeian has graciously agreed to show me how to make some Persian classics that are favorites in her household.
A fish dish is appropriate for the occasion. But Vafaeian’s daughter, Shahrzad Nadizadeh, who is a friend of mine, turns up her nose at the thought. “There are some people who don’t like fish,” Vafaeian says. “But they have a feast.”
So we cook Ghormeh Sabzi, a wonderful kidney bean-and-beef stew that gets it tang from sabzi, dried black limes and fenugreek leaves, and Fesenjan, a sweet-tart chicken stew with a luxurious brown gravy concocted from crushed walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Both are deeply flavorful peasant dishes that pack surprise and nuance from hours and hours of cooking. The longer they simmer, the better they taste.
Vafaeian — who came to the states in 1986 with her husband, Amir Nadizadeh, plus toddlers Shahrzad (then 4) and Mohammad (then 2) — is a nurse practitioner by profession. She is a sweet, generous, patient hostess who explains the intricacies of her cuisine to me, a neophyte, and sets out a little breakfast for us to nibble while we cook: toasted lavash (flatbread), paneer (salty goat cheese), walnuts, herbs, blackberries and kashk-e-bademjan, the popular Persian eggplant appetizer.
As we stand by the stove, Vafaeian lets me toast walnuts for the Fesanjan and pulls out a bottle of pomegranate syrup for me to smell and taste. She grabs a few dried black limes, punches holes in them and tosses them into the Ghormeh Sabzi. She grinds bright orange saffron threads into a powder used to flavor and decorate food.
She lets me taste unfamiliar, exotic dried barberries (like dainty cranberries, but less sweet) and teaches me the tricks of making Persian rice with a proper crust, or tahdig. (We end up making two: one with fava beans and dill weed, another that uses a piece of lavash bread to form a crunchy tahdig.) She wants to show me how to cook kuku sabzi, an omelet-like dish stuffed with herbs. But her husband and daughter tell her: Enough!
While Americans tend to pack rice into a boiler with just enough water to soften the grains, Persians have mastered the art of rice cookery. There are at least 1,001 variations. The secret to the long-grained, fluffy basmati, Vafaeian tells me, is to cook it in vats of salty water, so that every pearl can dance, swim, breathe. When the rice is almost done, you strain it, then return it to the pan to steam — but not before turning up the fire so a crisp crust can form on the bottom of the pan. So coveted is the tahdig that Vafaeian must hide it from friends and family members so they won’t devour it before the meal.
By the time we sit down to eat, Shahrzad has made a simple salad of tomatoes, onion and cucumber that is the perfect cooling agent for the bright, kicky stews. For a person whose experience with Persian food has been limited to a few restaurant dinners, it is a powerful and transforming experience. When Vafaeian puts out saffron and rosewater ice cream sprinkled with pistachios I feel that I am inhaling the essence of spring itself. As the old year shrivels and fades, new friendships are born. This is the soul of Nowruz.
From Persia, with love
To celebrate Persian New Year, Safiah Vafaeian, a native of Iran, kindly shared some favorite recipes. If some of the ingredients seem exotic, don’t sweat it. They can be found at Persian or Middle Eastern groceries around Atlanta.
Ghormeh Sabzi (Kidney Bean and Beef Stew)
Safiah Vafaeian makes this flavorful stew with beef, though some cooks use veal. If you are in hurry, feel free to use a pressure cooker. If time is no issue, try a slow cooker. The longer it simmers, the better.
For the sabzi (herb mixture)
1 bunch scallions (green part only)
2 bunches parsley
2 bunches cilantro
1 bunch spinach
1/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves
1 tablespoon salt
For the stew
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil (may use olive oil)
1 medium or large red onion, finely chopped
1 pound stewing beef, cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
3 dried black limes (may substitute 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice)
1 cup cooked kidney beans (may use canned beans, rinsed and drained)
1 tablespoon salt
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
To make the sabzi: Using a food processor, pulse the scallions, parsley, cilantro and spinach until finely chopped. (You may want to work in batches to avoid getting the herbs too watery.) In a large sauce pan or pot, heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add freshly chopped herbs, fenugreek leaves and salt. Stir to combine, reduce heat to low, cover and cook until the herbs are dark green and almost paste-like, about 20 minutes.
To make the stew: In a heavy large pot, place the oil and onion over medium heat. Saute until the onions are tender and golden, 7-10 minutes. Add beef, ground turmeric and cayenne pepper. Raise heat to high, and cook, stirring often, until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Add sabzi, mix well, and cook for about 5 minutes. Poke a few holes in the dried black limes, and add to pot, along with six cups water. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook at a very low simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Add kidney beans, salt and lemon juice. (Depending on how thick you want your stew, consider adding another cup or two of water at this point.) Cover and cook for another 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with basmati rice. Serves: 4-6
Per serving, based on 4: 510 calories (percent of calories from fat, 59), 35 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 34 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 72 milligrams cholesterol, 3,266 milligrams sodium.
Fesenjan (Pomegranate and Walnut Stew)
This classic of the Persian repertoire derives its sweet-sour notes from pomegranate molasses. Walnuts add a lovely burnished brown texture to the dish, and a shade of bitterness, too. Safiah Vafaeian, who showed me how to make Fesenjan, used chicken breasts. “But it can be made from duck meat or meatballs made with ground beef, grated onion and salt,” she told me. Another good one for the slow cooker.
2 cups finely ground walnuts
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 3- to 4-inch chunks
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup of pomegranate molasses
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron mixed with 1/3 cup hot water
4 tablespoons granulated sugar (or to taste)
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds for garnish (optional)
Toast walnuts in a skillet over medium heat, stirring regularly to keep from burning. When the nuts are fragrant and just brown, toss in flour and mix well. Set aside.
In a large pot over medium heat, place oil and onion. Saute until tender and golden, about 5-7 minutes. Add chicken and salt and toss to combine. Add walnuts and continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes. Add pomegranate molasses, saffron-water mixture and 4 cups water. Reduce heat to low, and simmer for 2 hours. Add sugar and cook for another hour. Taste and adjust seasonings. (Add more sugar if you want a sweeter stew.) The sauce should be quite thick; if not, allow to cook for a few minutes uncovered. Place the stew in a serving dish and garnish with pomegranate seeds (if using). Serve with basmati rice. Serves: 4-6
Per serving, based on 4: 735 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 63 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 32 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 132 milligrams cholesterol, 698 milligrams sodium.
Persian Rice with Lavash Crust
The crust, or tahdig, may be served on the side or broken into pieces and placed around the dish. Tossing the cooked rice with butter helps keep the grains from sticking together.
3 cups basmati rice
2 tablespoons salt
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 piece of lavash bread, trimmed to fit the bottom of the pot (may use one layer of pita bread)
2 tablespoons melted butter, or vegetable oil (optional)
Wash rice several times under cold running water. Cover with cold water and allow to soak for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight. Drain.
Place 9 cups of water in a large wide pot and bring to a boil. Add rice and salt, and boil until the rice is almost tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.
While rice is cooking, mix saffron with 2 ounces of hot water, and set aside.
In the same large wide pot, heat oil for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat. Place the lavash in the pot and add rice, making a mound at the center of the pot. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Poke 5 or 6 holes in the mound of rice with a wooden spoon. Wrap the lid with a soft clean cotton cloth, or place paper towels on top of pot. Cover and cook for about 30-45 minutes, until the rice is tender and a thick brown crust has formed on the bottom. Just before serving, place 4 heaping tablespoons of rice in the saffron water for about 3 minutes. (This dyes it yellow.) Drain and reserve. Toss rice with butter if desired.
Mound cooked rice on a serving platter and decorate the top with saffron-dyed rice. Place the crust on a separate plate and serve on the side. Or break into pieces and arrange around the rice. Serves: 4-6.
This simple salad is used almost like a condiment, to temper the spice of Persian stews. Shahrzad Nadizadeh, an Atlanta PR executive, makes this staple often. If you are so inclined, chopped fresh parsley and mint would be a nice addition.
3 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded and diced
2 large tomatoes, diced (can substitute 1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes if desired)
1/2 of a small red onion, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon ground spearmint
Place the cucumbers, tomatoes and onion in a medium-size bowl.
Mix lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and spearmint in a small bowl. Taste and adjust flavors as desired. Pour over vegetables, toss and serve. Serves: 4-6
Per serving, based on 4: 114 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 2 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 544 milligrams sodium.