Friday, January 20, 2006

Pomegranate khoresh

I lived in Strasbourg for five years and several weeks before leaving it, I made a list of all the things I wanted to eat one last time and fix in my memory. Naturally, items tended towards Alsatian specialties but there was one exception: poulet au grenadine (chicken pomegranate) from a corner Persian grocery/takeout. Because of its drab and muddy appearance I was not tempted to try it for a long time. But one day I did and immediately fell for the unexpectedly glamorous flavors, sweet and savoury with alluring notes of sour, and an intriguingly nutty, grainy texture.

From time to time I get a craving for the elusive taste of that stew. Luckily I came across Najmieh Batmanglij's New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. The recipe is uncomplicated but produces seductive results.

Khoresh-e fesenjan

-1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)
-2 onions, thinly sliced
-1 pound chicken thigh or duck breast, cut into pieces
-1/2 pound shelled walnuts
-4 cups pomegranate juice
-2 tablespoons sugar
-1 teaspoon salt
-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Heat the ghee over medium heat, fry onions. Add meat and brown. Toast and grind walnuts, add pomegranate juice, sugar, salt and cinnamon. Combine everything in a pot and simmer over low heat, about 40 minutes, until the liquid obtains smooth consistency. Serve with rice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

magnificent Persian rice

My first encounter with Persian food was in Munich. An Iranian friend took me to a restaurant and introduced me to chelow kebab, what she described as Iran's national dish, the equivalent of steak frites in France. It consists of meats grilled on skewers and, rice. In general, I have a sceptical attitude towards non-Japanese rice preparation and was therefore totally unprepared for the delicacy of the Persion version, a fluffy heap of saffran-specked rice accompanied by an eggyolk in a half-shell. My friend intructed me to form a hole in the rice and pour in the egg, to mix carefully and finally sprinkle over ground sumac, slightly acidic to taste. It was heavenly and reminded me of the Japanese tamago gohan (fresh egg broken over just-made rice, preferably newly harvested shinmai) only much, much more celestial. It was the first inkling I had of the sophisticated wonders of Persian food.

Vogue foodwriter Jeffrey Steingarten qualifies the Persians as the "world champions in rice cookery" and includes a recipe for rice and lentils in The Man Who Ate Everything. I tried this last night and was astounded by the intricacy and amount of care that goes into a single dish of rice. The preparation involves: washing rice in repeated changes of water followed by soaking, pre-boiling, draining and rinsing. The same precedure for lentils. Thinly slicing onions and frying them gently in ghee with chopped dates and golden raisins. Mixing a portion of the rice with yogurt and spreading the mixture over the bottom of the pot. Making alternating layers of rice, lentils, caramelized onion and fruit to form a pyramid, sprinkling ground cinnamon, cumin and coriandre along the way. Sealing the pot tightly with a dish towel and setting it over low heat for one hour. Letting the pot rest over a wet dish towel to let the bottom loosen before carefully inversing the pot over a serving plate.

The result is a mound of jeweled and perfumed rice, crowned with the coveted "burnt" crust. It can be served with chunks of lamb but it is magnificent on its own.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

crepes from Brittany

At Brest airport on the day of departure, my father-in-law bought for us three bags of crepes, one sarrasin (buckwheat), one froment (wheatflour), and a third for opening immediately. Which is just what we did. In the tiny Air France craft we lifted out the thin pancakes, folded them into triangles and ate them like that, savouring their buttery goodness while thinking goodbye to Brittany.

I'm looking at the precious bags of crepes, now safely stored in my freezer, thinking how I will eat them. There are a million and one ways to fill sweet and savoury crepes but I will probably make what I invariably end up ordering at our favorite creperie in Roscoff:

"Le Roscovite" -- Roasted catch of the day with crispy julienned vegetables and beurre blanc

The first way to prepare the fish is en papillote. Salt and pepper fillets of white flaky fish such as cod and place them on a sheet of parchment paper. Scatter over with carrot and courgette, cut into thin matchsticks. Dot with butter and fold over paper to close. Bake at 425 degrees F for 20 minutes.

The second method is slow-roasting. In this case douse everything with olive oil and slide the baking dish into a 250 degree oven, then forget about it. The cod will roast at a leisurely pace until you are ready to serve. The vegetables will be less crispy but this is the pressure-free way when cooking for guests.

While the fish is roasting make the beurre blanc. In a small pan melt a nob of butter and throw in minced shallots. When it sizzles add 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, 5 tablespoons of water and a good pinch of salt. Bring to boil, whisk in butter by the tablespoon, about 8. Transfer fish and vegetables to the center of a galette de sarrasin and spoon over the sauce. Fold in the edges of the crepe and serve.

If we are having deserts at the creperie it's usually a simple beurre-sucre, divine with a bowl of hot chocolate on a cold winter afternoon. For something more elaborate, cook apple wedges in butter until golden and arrange them on a crepe de froment. Drizzle with salidou, an unctuous salty butter caramel sauce, and fold. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

vacation in Brittany

My husband is half-French and we often spend vacations on the coast of Brittany where his family is in the process of restoring a beautiful old stone house facing the seaport of Roscoff.

The thing about French family vacations is that the entire day revolves around food: during breakfast there is already discussion of what we are going to eat that day, followed by an afternoon spent shopping and preparing, then the main event, dinner,which can keep you at table for up to six hours (I don't exagerate!) Unlike American meals the food is consumed in small portions and over many courses; unlike Japanese, everyone talks and talks, usually all at once. By the time the conversations dwindle down over a pot of tisane (delicious with butter biscuits, a regional specialty), clockhands are pointing to 2 or 3 and it's time to go to bed, only to get up some hours later to begin all over again.

Reveillon dinners, on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, begins late and lasts even longer than usual. On the menu: foie gras sprinkled with fleur du sel, local oysters in their shells -- their briny goodness offset by thick slices of onion bread spread with salty Breton butter, my mother-in-law's signature roast of lamb shoulder, an entire poached salmon served with potatoes, the obligatory buche de Noel and an early galette des rois (the traditional day to eat them is Jan.7)

To be honest, I adore this interminable dance around food. And one reason why it's enjoyable is that my mother-in-law not only is a phenomenal cook but has a keen sense of what to eat, when and how. What really stands out from this vacation is a simple poulet au pot that she prepared sometime between the two occasions described above. She procured a farm-raised chicken with properly lean and muscular thighs (from all the running around) and boiled it. Using some of the broth she cooked rice. With the rest she took vegetables you find in a classic pot-au feu -- quartered heads of cabbage, creamy white turnips, whole carrots and leeks -- and gently simmered each separately. All this she served simply on a big platter, with plenty of cornichons on the side. It was the very thing everyone craved after all the rich food. It cleansed our palates and our systems too, readying us for the next gastronomical event.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

mysterious yellow

Unlike the young and raw lemon, I think of their preserved sister as a mature and experienced hostess presiding over an eclectic party of guests. They work with subtlety and wisdom to harness overly-loud flavors, reconcile disparate tastes to exuberant yet harmonious effect.

The best way to see them in action, I think, is to use preserved lemons in North African tagines, which typically juxtaposes a number of sweet, salty, spicy and savoury elements. Yesterday, for example, I made a variation involving chunks of lamb shoulder and butternut squash. The preserved lemon added towards the end of the long simmer mitigated the meat's richness and pungency while brightening and intensifying the butternut flavor, doing away with any aspect of "squashiness." As an experiment I tried pureeing the soup. It was simply the most delicious veloute I've ever tasted, smooth yet vibrant. I could not detect even a hint of the lemons' original acidity; rather they were exerting their mysterious powers from within.

Lamb stew with butternut squash and preserved lemons

-1.5 pounds of lamb shoulder, cut into cubes
-2 tablespoons of olive oil
-2 tablespoons of Harissa sauce (see note)
-1 onion, chopped
-2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
-1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes
-1 cup chickpeas
-1/2 preserved lemon, rind and pulp finely diced, plus pulp from additional lemon
-1/4 cup golden raisins (optional)
-chopped mint for garnish

Heat olive oil over medium heat and brown the lamb. Add onions and cook until soft, then add Harissa sauce. Add 2 cups of water and simmer, covered, until meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Add tomatoe, butternut, chickpea. Add water to cover and simmer, uncovered, until squash is tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in preserved lemon plus golden raisins and continue cooking until soup is thickened. Remove from heat and garnish with mint.
Note: The garish yellow tubes of Harissa sauce were available in any French supermarket but since I could not find any in California, I substituted with pinches of ground coriandre and cumin.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

preserved Meyer lemons

Preserved lemons are a miraculous thing and even more so if made with Meyer lemons. I first discovered them when my daughter found one on the ground ( the abundance of fruit-bearing trees in the neighborhood is one of the nice things about California.) It's like a lemon but rounder in shape with smoother and shinier skin; we took it home and sliced it open to find bright yellow pulp sweet enough to eat.

They appeared in the markets around November and I had packed them in salt before leaving for vacation in France. Now the lemon wedges, snuggled tightly in a jar, were looking ripe and mellow, ready for use.

Preserved lemons are marvelous, for example, when making sauces and dressings. For one preserved lemon (half of the rind saved for later use) add 6 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of cumin if you like, and blend in mixer. Last night I poured the creamy emulsion over steamed asparagus and scattered them atop a bed of bulgar, a dish which met with high approval.

Watching my daughter dreamily munch away on carrot sticks dipped into the remaining sauce, it occurred to me it would work equally well with a salad of grated carrots, an old standard. Minus the cumin perhaps, with plenty of chopped parsley.

Preserved lemons with cardammon and bay leaves (adapted from recipe by Paula Wolfert)

-6 lemons (preferably Meyer)
-1/2 cup of sea salt
-3 bay leaves
- 12 cardammon pods (optional)
-1 cup squeezed lemon juice

Cut the lemons in quarters lengthwise, leaving them attached at one end, seeds removed. Pack them in a jar with tight-fitting lid, interspersing with salt, bay leaves and cardammon pods. Cover with lemon juice. Keep in fridge, shake daily for couple of weeks and watch them mellow. Keeps several months.
Note: Lemons can be first blanched whole for five minutes to speed up ripening process.