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The Journal Gazette

  • Rice With Vermicelli (Reshteh Polow). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

  • Persian Pan-Fried Fish. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

  • Olive, Pomegranate and Walnut Dip (Zeytoon Parvardeh). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

  • Pickled Garlic (Seer-Torshi). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

  • Persian Herbed Basmati Rice (Sabzi Polow). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

  • Persian Vegetable Noodle Soup (Ash Reshteh). MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 1:00 am

For the Persian new year, a menu full of memories

Iranians around the world are marking our new year this week. Nowruz means "new day" in our native language, and the ancient holiday's 13 days of celebration mark what we consider the most logical time to start the year: spring, the annual rebirth of nature.

For me, this time is made rich from a lifetime of memories, as it is for most Iranians. New clothes are purchased. Families deep-clean their homes for weeks in advance; we do this because the days bring a constant parade of visits from friends and relatives.

Joyous festivities begin on the last Tuesday of the Iranian calendar year with bonfires that are danced around and jumped over. Firecrackers keep everyone awake late into the night. Children disguise themselves and go door-to-door, asking for treats while they make a ruckus by banging on pots and pans – like a mash-up of Halloween and the Fourth of July. In my neighborhood, my dad was always the first to make a fire.

Food plays a central role in all this, of course, and dishes are infused with symbolic meanings. Some are prepared once a year, only for Nowruz.

The past two years that I have been away from Iran, I did not get to jump over any fires. But I did make Ash Reshteh, the hearty soup of beans, herbs and noodles that can chase away a winter's chill. Garnishes of dried mint that's fried until blackened, fried garlic, caramelized onion and whey make it special. My mom would make a cauldron of it on that bonfire night, called Chaharshanbe Suri. In some parts of the country, such as Shiraz – one of Iran's most beloved cities, known for its rich history of wine, flowers and poetry – locals say their food must be at the boiling point the moment the year changes. (In Washington, that moment will happen shortly after midday March 20.)

No matter what time of day the change occurred, my grandmother had her soup set to boil at that precise moment. It's that rhythm of consistency across centuries, I think, that makes Iranians such a proud people.

We always eat Reshteh Polow, rice with vermicelli noodles, on the eve of the new year. It pays homage to the notion that life is like a mess of tangled noodles, and eating them as the year changes will help us take control of our destiny. This stems from an old proverb that says "may life's noodle always be in your hand," which seems to make more sense in Farsi. The dish takes some time to make but, trust me, it is delicious.

On the day of Nowruz, we eat rice with fresh green herbs, which symbolize the freshness of the new day and capture the quintessential Iranian way of cherishing spring's greenness, with fish signifying life.

My grandmother used to reminisce about a time when there was no way to transport fresh fish from the Caspian Sea in the north to Tehran. So to enjoy fish in the rest of the country, Tehran residents began eating smoked fish as part of their annual feast. It is now among the most popular Nowruz dishes throughout Iran and among our diaspora – but I can't get my husband to eat it.

Shopping for the right fish – plump with roe – and watching my mom's talent for bargaining with fishmongers to make sure she got the freshest, best fish available are vivid childhood memories, equal parts fun and lesson. When I buy fish at the Maine Avenue seafood markets in Southwest Washington, I use the techniques I learned long ago. White-fleshed mahi from the Caspian Sea region is the preferred type of fish for the Nowruz feast. The fish has many bones in it, so trout has become a popular alternative.

Pickled vegetables, jarred in the fall, are key to the Nowruz spread. Seer-Torshi are sweet-and-sour garlic cloves, at their best when aged for several years. They are more than a delicacy – they are a national treasure. Iranians also say Seer-Torshi has medicinal qualities, and the older it gets, the more potent those curative properties become.

My mom pickles her own and replenishes them periodically. Hers was one of the few possessions that accompanied her as a new bride, arriving in my dad's home 40 years ago. The bottom of that original jar is now a thick mud. Every time she reaches past the newer top layers to pull from the older cloves, we know the recipient is someone very dear to her.

Another of our favorite Nowruz bites is an olive spread that we call Zeytoon Parvardeh. Most people buy it already prepared, but I'm not sure why, because it's so simple to make and adds so much flavor to our meals.

The centerpiece for Nowruz is a ceremonial arrangement of seven symbolic food items, because seven is a lucky number. Each one has a name that begins with the letter S in Farsi. Families gather around the sofreh to wait for the beginning of the new year. The celebrations come to an end on the 13th day, called Nature Day. Iranian families go on picnics together, taking with us sprouted wheat or lentils – one of the S foods from the ceremonial setting – that we throw into a body of flowing water. It symbolizes a letting go of the misfortunes and sadness of the past year.

This year, I'll be throwing mine into the Potomac.

 

- – -

Rice With Vermicelli (Reshteh Polow)

8 servings

This is one of the main dishes that is traditionally served on the eve of the Persian new year and uses a range of spices and aromatics to give it its distinct flavors.

The crust created at the bottom of the pot is called a tahdig.

MAKE AHEAD: The uncooked rice needs to be soaked/rinsed for 30 minutes. The onions can be cooked a few days in advance.

1 1/2 cups basmati rice

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1/4 cup hot water

1 large onion, diced (1 1/2 to 2 cups)

3/4 cup canola oil

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 cup pulled cooked chicken (may substitute cooked ground lamb or beef)

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup golden and dark raisins (mixed)

6 cups water

3/4 cup dried, broken vermicelli noodles, toasted (see NOTE)

8 ounces pitted dates

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Shelled, chopped, unsalted pistachios, for garnish (optional)

Slivered almonds, for garnish (optional)

To remove excess starch in the rice, place the rice in a large bowl and add enough water to cover it. Use your hand to stir the rice and hold it back as you pour out that water. Rinse the rice two or three times this way. Cover the rice one last time with water by about 1 inch; let sit for 30 minutes, then drain.

While the rice is soaking, place the saffron threads in the hot water in a cup or small bowl; cover and let it brew for 10 to 15 minutes.

Combine the onion, 1/4 cup of the oil and 1 teaspoon of the turmeric in large saute pan over medium heat. Cook for 25 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, or until the onion is lightly golden and starting to caramelize. Reserve a few tablespoons for garnish, if desired. Add the chicken to the pan, along the remaining teaspoon of turmeric, cooking and stirring until the meat is evenly colored (yellow).

Add most of the brewed saffron water, a good pinch each of the salt and pepper, the cinnamon and cardamom, stirring to incorporate. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Stir in the raisins and cook for another minute or two. The chicken should be softened and tender. Remove from the heat.

Fill a separate pot with the 6 cups of water and a generous pinch of salt; bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the soaked/drained rice; cook for 2 minutes, then stir in the toasted vermicelli and cook for another 3 minutes. Drain the rice and noodles well in a colander and immediately rinse with cool water.

Return the pot to the stove top. Pour in the remaining 1/2 cup of oil and the remaining saffron water. Add half the rice and noodles, spreading the mixture evenly over the bottom. Next, spread the spiced chicken mixture evenly over the layer of rice and noodles. Then spread the remaining rice and noodles evenly over the chicken mixture. Gently and slowly mix the layers. Arrange the dates on top. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes, or until the dates have softened.

Uncover, use the handle of a spatula to create 4 or 5 holes in the surface of the mixture. Wrap the pot lid in a dish towel; this will help absorb moisture inside the pot. Cover the pot tightly with the wrapped lid. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook for 7 to 8 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and lift the lid just long enough to pour the melted butter evenly over the rice mixture. Re-cover and cook for 45 minutes (low heat); a crust should form on the bottom of the pot.

To serve, uncover and invert a plate over the pot. Holding them tightly together, carefully turn the pot upside down, trying to keep the crusty tahdig intact; you should hear the rice hit the plate with a thump. Lift off the pot.

Garnish the tahdig with chopped pistachios, the slivered almonds and the reserved onions, if desired. Serve warm.

NOTE: To toast the vermicelli noodles, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the broken vermicelli and cook, stirring, until golden brown. Be careful not to burn it, or you'll have to start over. Let cool.

- – -

Persian Vegetable Noodle Soup (Ash Reshteh)

8 servings

This thick soup contains a hearty mix of beans and herbs as well as noodles.

Traditional recipes require soaking the beans overnight and even changing the water twice before cooking with them. Here, we're using canned beans.

MAKE AHEAD: The onions and garlic can be cooked a few days in advance.

Whey is available in the refrigerated section of Middle Eastern markets.

7 tablespoons canola oil

2 large onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

Cloves from 1 head garlic, minced (1/4 to 1/3 cup)

3 tablespoons dried ground mint

6 cups water, plus 4 cups hot water

1/3 cup cooked, no-salt-added brown/green lentils, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup canned, no-salt-added chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/3 cup canned no-salt-added kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1/3 cup canned pinto beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups fresh mixed chopped herbs, such as chives, parsley, cilantro and/or dill

1 1/2 teaspoons flour (optional)

Whey (may substitute drained plain Greek-style yogurt; see headnote)

1 1/2 cups dried, broken linguine or other wheat noodle about the same width

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onions; cook for about 8 minutes, until softened and golden in color. Stir in the turmeric until the onion is evenly colored. Transfer to a bowl.

Add 2 more tablespoons of the oil to the pot; once it shimmers, stir in the garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned and almost crisp. Transfer to a small bowl.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pot; once the oil shimmers, stir in 1 tablespoon of the dried mint. Cook for about a minute, stirring, just until the mint has darkened in color; watch closely to avoid scorching or it will become bitter. Transfer to a separate small bowl.

Return half the onions and garlic to the pot, plus the remaining 2 tablespoons of dried mint; reserve the rest of the onions and garlic to use as a garnish. Add 6 cups of the water, bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the lentils, chickpeas and all the beans, then reduce heat to medium; cook uncovered for about 50 minutes, until beans are almost tender.

Pour in 2 cups of hot water, then add all the fresh herbs. Cook for 20 minutes (medium heat).

If you would like to thicken the soup, whisk the flour in 1 cup of the hot water, then stir that into the pot.

Also, if you use the whey, add 2 tablespoons before adding noodles. You can skip the whey, or add it as garnish on top, but it adds a pleasant sourness that most Iranians love.

Stir in the noodles; cook for about 12 minutes (medium heat) or until tender and the beans are quite soft. Add the remaining cup of hot water. Taste, and season with salt and pepper, as needed.

Use a ladle to transfer soup into serving bowls. Wait for 1 minute before topping with remaining caramelized onions, garlic flakes, mixture of fried mint oil and whey, which helps to thicken the soup.

Serve warm.

- – -

Pickled Garlic (Seer-Torshi)

8 servings

This is mainly served as a side dish with the main course; some serve it as an appetizer. For Iranians during Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration, it's a must-have with fish.

When cloves of raw garlic are submerged in red wine vinegar for a very long time, a magical transformation occurs. The garlic turns from crisp white to ivory, due to the color of the vinegar, and eventually fades to a light brown that deepens with age. The garlic becomes very tender, mild and almost fruity, with a flavor that's more mellow and sweet than garlic's typical strong, pungent and heated taste.

MAKE AHEAD: The garlic can be used after it has been cured for a few weeks, but it needs about 8 weeks to reach its fully cured state.

6 heads fresh garlic

2 tablespoons salt

1 1/2 cups red wine vinegar or more as needed (may substitute a blend of distilled white vinegar and balsamic vinegar)

Remove most of the outer papery skins from raw heads of garlic, but don't peel the garlic completely. You can keep heads whole or break them into cloves. Place them in a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add the salt, then pour in the vinegar, making sure the garlic is completely submerged. Seal and let sit at room temperature.

Check the jar periodically, as you might have to add vinegar or let excessive gas out of the jar. The longer it sits, the sweeter and softer your pickles will become.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

- – -

Olive, Pomegranate and Walnut Dip (Zeytoon Parvardeh)

6 to 8 servings

This dish originated in northern Iran near the Caspian Sea, where locals make it with regional herbs. It also works well as a colorful accompaniment on a cheese platter and can be served with thin bread such as lavash, baguette slices or on crackers.

The mixture can be pulsed in a food processor as well.

Ground angelica has a celery-like flavor, and is available in Middle Eastern markets.

MAKE AHEAD: The dip should be refrigerated for 1 week before serving.

6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup fresh chopped mint

1/3 cup fresh chopped cilantro

1 1/2 cups walnut halves, chopped

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons ground angelica (optional; see headnote)

6 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

One 16-ounce jar unflavored, pitted green olives, drained (whole or coarsely chopped)

1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (arils)

Combine the garlic, mint, cilantro and walnuts in a mixing bowl. Season lightly with salt, pepper and the angelica, if using. Gradually stir in the pomegranate molasses, then stir in the oil to form a thick paste. Add the olives and pomegranate seeds, stirring gently to incorporate.

Transfer to a jar with a tightfitting lid; seal and refrigerate for 1 week.

Bring to room temperature before serving.

- – -

Persian Herbed Basmati Rice (Sabzi Polow)

8 servings

Here, steaming the rice makes shorter work of this traditionally time-consuming dish for the Persian new year, which is often served with fish. The rice is rinsed but not soaked.

Dried rose petals are available at spice shops and at Middle Eastern markets.

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1/4 cup hot water

1/4 cup canola oil

1 flatbread, such as lavash or a flour tortilla

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

2 cups uncooked basmati rice

4 cups water

Salt

1 cup mixed finely chopped fresh dill, chives, cilantro, parsley and tarragon leaves (may use 2 tablespoons of each herb)

4 cloves garlic, minced (may substitute 1 1/2 young leeks cleaned and minced or 4 minced garlic scapes)

Dried rose petals, for garnish (optional)

Place the saffron threads in the hot water in a cup or small bowl; cover and let this brew for 10 to 15 minutes.

Pour half the oil into a pot, then sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the brewed saffron over the oil. Place the flatbread on top, trimming to make it fit; drizzle it with 1 tablespoon of the melted butter.

Pour the rice into a separate medium pot. Use cool water to rinse (and drain) it 3 or 4 times until the water runs clear. After pouring out the water for the last time, add the 4 cups of water, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and season lightly with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat; once it comes to a boil, cook for 5 to 7 minutes, then stir in the herbs and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes. The rice should be softened at this point, and the water should be mostly absorbed. Stir well to make sure the herbs and garlic are evenly distributed. Turn off the heat.

Gently transfer the herbed rice mixture to the pot with the flatbread, so the bread remains in place. Use the handle end of a spatula to create a few holes in the rice; this will help during steaming.

Cover and set the pot over medium-high heat; cook for 5 minutes, or until it starts to steam. Uncover and drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of brewed saffron and the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter on top of the rice. Wrap the pot lid in a dish towel; this will help absorb moisture inside the pot. Cover the pot tightly with the wrapped lid. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 45 minutes, or until you can smell the rice.

To serve, uncover and invert a plate over the pot. Holding them tightly together, carefully turn the pot upside down, trying to keep the crusty tahdig intact; you should hear the rice hit the plate with a thump. Lift off the pot. The rice should look like a cake with a firm, golden top; this is called a tahdig.

Garnish the tahdig top with dried rose petals, if desired. Serve warm.

- – -

Persian Pan-Fried Fish

6 servings

It's traditional for Iranians to eat fish, a symbol of life, on the eve of their new year. The process of looking for the best fish, buying and preparing it for the feast is a tradition similar to an American's hunt for the just right turkey on Thanksgiving.

There are two popular ways of cooking fish for the New Year. One is to stuff it with fresh seasonal herbs such as cilantro, tarragon and leeks. Herbs hold a special place at the center of Iranian cuisine, especially for Nowruz. Making food without them would be unthinkable, as this is the time of year when all the greens that don't grow in winter are available again, and just in time for the celebration that marks the start of spring.

Another popular way of making fish is to simply pan-fry it.

Serve with herbed rice or fresh herbs.

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (granulated garlic)

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/2 pounds thick, white-fleshed, skinned fish fillets, such as sea bass, halibut or cod

1/2 lemon or lime, plus lemon wedges for serving

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

One-inch piece unpeeled fresh ginger root, cut crosswise into 5 slices (may substitute a good pinch of ground ginger; optional)

Whisk together the salt, pepper, garlic powder, turmeric, saffron and cinnamon in a shallow bowl.

Cut the fish into good-size pieces (4 or 5 inches long). Squeeze a few drops of juice from the lime or lemon over both sides of the fillets, so they are evenly moistened. Working with one at a time, press all sides of each fillet into the spice mixture so the fish is evenly coated. (Discard any unused spice mixture.)

Line a platter with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the ginger, if using, and cook for a minute or two. Add just enough pieces of fish, skinned sides first, to avoid overcrowding; pan-fry for about 5 minutes, or until golden and crisped, then use two spatulas or large forks to carefully turn over the fillets and cook for about 3 minutes, until opaque, yet moist throughout. (The ginger stays in the pan the whole time, if you are using it.)

Transfer to the paper-towel-lined platter to drain briefly, then serve right away, with lemon wedges.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.