Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hanukkah Video: Zoulbia

Back in 2008, miffed that there wasn't a strong Iranian Jewish culinary tradition for Hanukkah, and knowing that throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, Jews eat various fried sweets to celebrate the oil-related miracle that Hanukkah commemorates (the same thread latkes weave through Eastern Europe), I started my own tradition: I proclaimed zoulbia, a crisp lacy fritter that bursts with rosewater cardamom syrup when you bite into it, to be the traditional Iranian Hanukkah food.

It took off. The Mashup Americans bought into my fledgling tradition, and Kveller picked it up from there.

So, when Eileen Levinson of Custom and Craft approached me to do a Persian Hanukkah cooking video, I knew just the recipe.  Last week, Eileen, her cameraman, and lots of fancy equipment alit on my kitchen, and we cooked, staged, shot, and noshed together. I'm really excited about the end result.

Recipe and Behind the Scenes shots after the jump.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sunday: Pumpkin Preserves

I'm not going to write about politics, although my heart is heavy. Instead, I'm going to tell you about the day I spent with my mom, Sunday, November 6, making pumpkin preserves. It was a really nice day.

Early Sunday morning, I drove my friend Jana to the airport. She'd been in town for her sister-in-law's bridal shower, which we attended the day before. I've been close with Jana's in-laws since we stayed in their family home in Guadalajara fifteen years ago. I remember that trip so fondly: we met many aunts, uncles, and cousins, I tested out my mediocre Spanish, I had my first chilaquiles, michelada, and coctel de camarón, and on New Years Eve, we ate 12 grapes at midnight Jana's husband's uncle's stately home. So it was fun to see everyone at the shower again, celebrating with the family over mimosas and tacos on hand made tortillas.

I took Jana for coffee at Porto's before dropping her off. The bakery started out in the 70s with the family matriarch, a new immigrant from Cuba, baking cakes in their tiny apartment, and is now one of Los Angeles' most successful local chains. I will take any opportunity to scarf down one of their amazing potato balls – filled with seasoned ground beef and fried until golden – or a perfect guava cheese pastries.

Making pumpkin preserves requires soaking the cubed pumpkin in a solution of pickling lime for hours: this dunk ensures that your finished product will stay crunchy on the outside, so that when you bite into it you get a juicy burst of fragrant cardamom and rosewater syrup. My mom came to my house Sunday morning, and once we scooped out the seeds, sliced, peeled, and diced the giant pumpkins, I dragged her along for my day's activities.

We walked to the Atwater Farmers Market. Mom wasn't hungry, so I reluctantly walked us past the new booth where friendly Jamaican ladies sell delicious "patties" — warm pastry pockets stuffed with spiced meat or vegetables. I explained to my mom what pupusas were as we passed Delmy's stand. She and her pupusas have been a fixture in our east side community for years. She even served them up, fresh, hot, and topped with tangy curtido, at the wedding of my friends Talia and Daniela in Elysian Park two years ago.

We walked home and checked on the pumpkin, and could already tell that it had crisped up in the lime solution. Then I took my mom to the birthday party of Leo, the four-year-old son of two close friends. As we walked up to their picnic tables in the park, two-year-old Tashi ran up to me in two different shoes — her favorite new fashion statement. I was the maid of honor at Tashi's parents' wedding. I have her mom, Jessica, to thank for introducing me to the simple joy of sticky rice with toasted seaweed and kimchi back when we were roommates in college. I have her to thank for a lot.

We had tamales and birthday cake (chocolate with chocolate frosting – birthday boy's choice), and as we left, 3-year-old Azalea told me that she was an astronaut. Keep dreaming big, little AZ.

We came home and got back to work. This recipe comes from my Auntie Mohtaram, my mom's eldest sister, and my mom called her a couple times as we prepared the pumpkin to make sure we were doing everything right. Mohtaram really is a window into another era, in another world, to me. She grew up in the Jewish ghetto in Tehran and was married off early as a child bride. She moved in with her husband's family in Khorramshahr, near the Iraqi border, and this recipe might have Iraqi origins (or maybe Armenian).  Now, at 87 years old, she has 8 grandkids. Her youngest great-grandchild, Kiran, is also my littlest cousin. His mom, a psychiatrist at MIT, adopted him three years ago. He has the smiliest eyes and a silly sense of humor.

Cooking cross-generational recipes always gets the memories flowing, and even though this is a recipe Auntie Mohtaram brought to the family, I couldn't help but thinking of Mamanini, as we called my maternal grandmother. She was a tiny old woman, round and cozy, with the softest skin.  Always in a dress, often with a beautiful scarf in beiges, blues, and greys tied over her hair.  She was one of the most openminded and quickest to laugh in our family, and always the one bringing all the family together in her home after toiling in the kitchen to feed us.

Mamanini was married as a young teen, and started having babies shortly thereafter. She never went to college, and yet spoke English, some Hebrew, some French, and some Arabic. She was a talented artisan, knitting intricate Persian rugs, and eventually had a staff of knitters in her home, creating rugs that her husband would sell at the bazaar in Tehran. A true entrepreneur.

My Mamanini came to the US a widow, and housed my mom, my sister, and me in her home for our first two years in this country after we fled the revolution in Iran. Today, her six children, 18 grandchildren, 39 great-grandchildren, and 5 great-great-grandchildren (!) are all here in the states, and miraculously, we're all still close.

That's where we came from, and this is where we are. That was my Sunday, and these — all of these — are my people.

Pumpkin Preserves | Moraba Kadoo Halvayee
Makes about 18 one-pint jars

It's a little hard to categorize this dish. Like so many Persian sweets, this pumpkin recipe is flavored with cardamom and rosewater. In my house, we call it moraba, preserves. But it's not spreadable like a jam. Because of the pickling lime, the cubes of pumpkin develop a crunchy outer wall, but when you bite into them, they burst with sweet fragrant syrup, so it's almost like a candy. But it makes a delicious breakfast with warm flatbread and clotted cream, and it's also beautiful on a cheese plate or mixed into yogurt, and honestly, a couple cubes are a great snack on their own. It's definitely time-intensive, but it's really special.

1 1/2 medium pumpkins
2 Tbs pickling lime*
5 pounds granulated sugar
2 tablespoons ground cardamom, plus about 32 cardamom pods
1/2 cup rosewater**

Halve pumpkins with a large, sharp knife, and scrape out seeds and stringy flesh surrounding them. You can save the seeds and toast them. Carefully cut pumpkin into 1-inch slices. Peel each and cut it into 1-inch squares.

In a large pot, dissolve pickling lime into water.  Add pumpkin, then add enough water to cover.  Stir, and soak 4 hours or overnight.

Rinse pumpkin, under many changes of water, until lime is completely and thoroughly washed off.* Bring water, sugar, and cardamom to boil in a large pot. You're going for a very sweet syrup here. Measure out your water as you fill the pot, and add one cup sugar for each cup of water. You should have enough syrup to generously cover all your pumpkin (you'll need this to fill your jars), so if, once you've added your pumpkin, you find that you need more water, be sure to add sugar to match it.

Carefully add pumpkin, bring back up to a boil, then simmer, covered, for about 2 hours.  After about twenty minutes, taste a piece. It should be very sweet, and have a strong cardamom scent. Add sugar or cardamom if necessary. After two hours, taste a piece for texture: it should be crunchy on the outside, but soft, juicy, and fully cooked within. Remove from heat, and stir in rosewater.

Carefully place in jars, refrigerate for immediate use, or follow proper canning techniques to make this jam shelf-stable. If you are canning, be sure that all pieces of pumpkin are fully covered with syrup.

* Read this warning about pickling lime. It's very important to clean it thoroughly from the pumpkin.
** Always buy imported rosewater. The domestic stuff tastes like water.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Slow-cooked Lentils: The heart wants what it wants

The other night, I was talking to a Lebanese-Australian guy at a bar (as one does). And as I do when confronted with an Arabic-speaker, I turned the conversation to language. He mentioned that the Arabic word for 'heart' is qalb, and it got me thinking.

While Arabic and Persian aren't from the same language family, Persian picked up a lot of Arabic words at the time of Arab Conquest. Basic, fundamental things in the language are pure Persian, but there's plenty that was built on top of that foundation, much later, that comes from Arabic.

So, I was surprised: qalb is the Persian word for 'heart', too. You'd think that the word for this most essential body part would predate, well, pretty much everything. But it's a little complicated: In Persian, when you talk about the blood-pumping physical organ in the middle of your chest, you use qalb. But when you talk about the thing that pangs when you have a crush, the part of you that pulls when a friend is hurting, the word is del, and del refers to the stomach.

Anatomically speaking, del is a Persian word for stomach. There are others, but when you have a stomachache, it's your del that hurts.  But when it comes to what English-speakers know as matters of the heart, in Persian, they sit squarely in the del, the stomach. When you're forlorn and missing someone, you're deltang  your del feels tight, not your qalb. When you sympathize with someone's misfortune, you're delsooz — your del burns for them. When you're overflowing with emotions and need to vent, your del is por, or full. And when someone talks you through your sadness and makes you feel better, they are your deldar — they have your del.  And of course, that hottie walking down the street? That's a delbar, one who takes your del.

It's weird at first to think of the belchy, acid-filled stomach as the seat of our most exalted feelings, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.  In a culture where food is a tool of healing, a justifiable labor, the fruit of creativity, the foundation of the family home, and the deepest expression of love, of course the stomach is where emotion lives. When you peel away external influences, the unadulterated core of Persian emotion is this perfect heart-stomach hybrid.*

In Persian, when you don't just off-hand want something, but really, really want it, you say that your del wants it. The last couple months have been an whirling blur of jetlag, illness, a birthday, holidays (times two), wrap parties, hangovers, and so much amazing travel.  After all this indulgence, all my del wants is the simplest preparation of lentils.  The Persian word for lentil is adas (also from Arabic, it turns out), and adorably, lentil soup is adasi. There are plenty of adasi recipes with various vegetables and spices, but simply simmering humble brown lentils forever with nothing but salt and pepper imparts a suprisingly complex flavor. It's typically served in shallow bowls sprinkled with ground golpar or oregano to help with digestion, and most commonly for breakfast. I love adding a knob of butter to the center of my bowl and watching it melt into liquid gold.

Pure nourishing comfort — exactly what my heart, and my stomach, want.

* We know that del is truly Persian, because we see it in its Indo-European cousins, such as Hindi, which has the word dil, which of course, we know from the 1998 movie Dil Se ("At Heart"), which gave us this most amazing Bollywood moment ever.

Adasi | Persian Slow-cooked Lentils
Makes 8 servings

The actual cook time is a bit fudgy in this recipe: depending on how long you soak the lentils and the type of lentils you use, it can vary from about 45 minutes to two hours. If you use a pressure cooker, you can get them done in about 20 minutes. What you're looking for is a creamy, almost spreadable texture, with very little loose liquid and soft but not completely broken down lentils.

2 cups green or brown lentils
1 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)

dried oregano
ground golpar or oregano

Add lentils, 5 cups water, and salt to a large bowl and stir to combine.  Soak lentils for at least two hours, up to overnight.

Move lentils, with their water, to a large pot. Add pepper and turmeric, if using, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a lively simmer, cover and cook, stirring approximately every 15 minutes, until lentils reach desired consistency. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve steamy hot with a sprinkle of oregano or ground golpar and a big knob of butter.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's a process

It's been a while. It's been a long while, and I'm sorry, lovely readers. So much has happened, I'm not sure where to begin. But, today, I'm making granola.

In March of 2015, I bought a house. Before I'd even signed the papers, I had started dreaming of a summer housewarming party: lots of people milling through the backyard, the dim glow of moonlight and garland lights against suntanned skin making everyone look extra beautiful as they chatted and laughed over tacos and poured tart margaritas from giant jugs. A full eleven months later, late February of this year, I moved into my house. I had yet to buy a bed, the shelves on the kitchen wall had yet to be built, and the backyard was a jungle of weeds. The mix of over-the-top elation, exasperation, and gentle management of expectations has been constant.

Today, we're about six months past the move. I have a bed. The backyard is, for now, still a jungle. But last week, the shelves were finally, finally done. I'm the last person to rush the closing of summer, but this morning felt a little cooler than it's been lately (I mean, maybe 73 instead of 77). Staying in with a playlist of the Head and the Heart and old REM felt right. So did some quality time with my kitchen, making granola. A big batch that will sit in a giant mason jar on the shelf.

The first Friday after I moved into the house, I left my job at Dreamworks after nine years. The following Monday, I started a new job. This new job is a work-from-home one. I'll spare you the process, and just say this: after months on a rollercoaster of nerves, I came out of it with a new sense of buoyancy. I stepped away from a comfortable job that didn't feel good anymore, and into a new one that feels right in ways the old one never did. I aced interviews, I negotiated salaries. I did it.

And then I started and I knew nothing. I felt as helpless as an infant. The first few months, I videoconferenced with my coworkers sitting on the floor at my coffee table because I had no desk (but then I did, and it was glorious!). I was perplexed by the task of managing myself in my own home all day (though for real, it's the best). My office is about 5 steps from my bedroom. My closest coworker lives in Eagle Rock; my farthest lives in Melbourne. I love it, and it's bizarre. I'm learning.

All of this newness has been the biggest exercise in patience. I'm not a rash person; I don't make big changes often. For me, this transition is a pretty huge one. And changes like these bring with them so much expectation. For the last year and a half, my head has been filled with images of this new life: dinner parties and barbecues, winding down at the piano after a long work day, meals made with vegetables from my own garden, recipe testing in breaks from work. But first I need a piano, first I need that veggie patch to exist, first I need to actually be good at my job.

Chocolate buttercream on lunch break? Mais oui.

But, don't get me wrong. It's happening. Things are shifting. In April, I picked elderflowers from the river path behind my street, and made amazing cordial for whoever came by all spring long.  A few weeks ago, I took my first bike ride on the river path to Frogtown with a new neighbor.  He was patient with my abject lack of bike prowess, and we had lunch at wonderful Wax Paper (seriously guys, the Ira Glass, on Bub and Grandma's bread, is the bomb): a small, wobbly triumph. I'm officially a regular at my local cafe, after one of the baristas recognized me out in the neighborhood. As of last week, the second bedroom/office is now available for houseguests and co-working. (Seriously! Come hang out!) A few small dinner parties and pancake breakfasts have happened, and now, when my sister's family makes the trek to the city, I have space to house her tall crew and a counter to spread with safe snacks for her celiac son and his siblings.

Elderflower syrup, nascent stages.

My new life and I are just getting started. Eventually, I'll have the piano, the dreamy yard where I can host friends and harvest tomatoes, a sense of mastery with my job. It's about making a home, and that's a process. Today, I have shelves. And a big jar of granola to put on them.

Makes about 7 cups
Adapted from Orangette

I've hewn close to the Early Bird recipe since I first saw it on Orangette. If your ingredients, especially your oats, are gluten-free, so is this recipe.

Like moving, like starting a new job, like life, it's a process: I'd like to hone it down to something I love as I make more batches. So, if you have secrets for your perfect granola, I want to hear them! Today, I mixed up the nuts a bit and decreased the brown sugar. I want to try it with vanilla, and with cocoa nibs, and with coconut oil instead of the olive oil (oh wait, I have).

3 cups old fashioned oats
1 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
¾ cup raw hulled sunflower seeds
1 1/4 cup unsweetened coconut chips
1 1/4 cup slivered almonds, whole almonds, and pecan pieces
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B
 ½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and stir to mix. Add the olive oil and maple syrup, and stir until well combined. Spread the mixture in an even layer on prepared sheet pan. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, until the granola is golden brown and toasted, about 50 minutes. Remove the granola from the oven. Cool completely on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.