Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sabzi Polo: Happy Persian New Year

UPDATE: Here are a couple pictures of the finished product from my mom's dining table.

Persian New Year (call it what you will: norouz, nowruz, Persian Park Day, whatever) looms once again. Which is to say, spring has sprung. The traditional meal of this lovely day is sabzi polo mahi -- rice with four herbs, served with fish. The green flavors of the herbs blend with the light perfume of basmati rice for an aromatic and seriously comforting dish. And its cheery green colors are perfect to ring in the season.

This is the first Persian rice recipe I'm posting here, but I don't want to get bogged down in the details of Persian rice in general (believe me, there are many -- I could go on and on). Let me just mention the very basics: the goal of Persian rice dishes, in stark contrast to east Asian sticky rice dishes, is an end result with distinct long grains of Basmati rice. You want to remove as much starch as possible, and handle the rice carefully to avoid breaking individual grains. To that end, the rice is soaked in salt water for a few hours, then parboiled, then steamed for an hour, in a pot with a small amout of oil and water at the bottom. The end result has a magic not unlike that of Jello 1-2-3: a mound of perfectly cooked rice, and hiding beneath it, the coveted tahdig, a layer of browned rice, crispy and delicious (and when I say coveted, I mean coveted by your older brother. Eat it up fast before he snatches it from your plate!).

I offer my mother's sabzi polo recipe below. There are a lot of steps here, and a lot of prep work. Keep in mind that this is part of a cuisine that has been perfected over the years by women who cooked for their families every single night. So, yeah, it's a little complex. Having said that, Violet's recipe is meticulously detailed, and offers myriad troubleshooting tips. And furthermore, unless you're cooking for your Iranian mother-in-law, no one will notice the minutiae, and they'll still be amazed with the flavors.

Oh, and for more information and photos from this beautiful holiday, here is a post from last norouz.

Violet's Sabzi Polo

The rice:
2 cups basmati rice
2 tbs salt
1/4 tsp turmeric (optional)
2-3 tsp oil (vegetable or canola are the conventional choices, but I use olive oil)

The herbs below combined, should add up to at least 2 cups. Use less of pungent fenugreek than the other three. You can use a food processor to chop all of them, except the chives, which will turn to paste. Feel free to process the stems in with the leaves.
Persian chives (tareh), or the green part of green onions
flat-leaf parsley
fenugreek (shambalileh)

The piaz dagh (saffron caramelized onions):
1/2 onion, chopped finely
3-4 tbs oil
pinch ground saffron

1-5 Hours Ahead
Wash rice three times: Place rice in a small bowl. Cover with water, about one inch higher than the surface of the rice. Stir by clawing through with fingers. Drain carefully – use hand to block rice grains from washing away with water, and take care to prevent rice from toppling over and spilling out of the bowl as you drain it. Repeat this process 2 more times.

Cover rice with water, 1 ‘finger’ (about 1/2 inch) higher than its surface. Add salt; stir to combine. Let sit 1 - 5 hours. More than this, and the salt will harden the rice too much.

Prepare piaz dagh
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently until it has a beautiful golden color (to quote Violet, "golden is tasty, brown is bitter"), about 8 minutes. Savor the smell of your kitchen.

After soaking has completed, do the initial boil of rice: Bring 5 cups of water to a boil, covered, in a medium non-stick pot over high heat. Carefully add rice, with its water. Gently stir through with a spatula, making sure to scrape up the grains at the bottom of the pan. Watch pot until it comes back to the boil. For polo, add turmeric now, and stir to combine – this will give it an even pale yellow color. Lower to medium. Leave on heat for 3-10 minutes.

How do you know when parboil is done? To test when the rice is ready to be drained, put one grain under the tooth. It should not be hard in the middle – not raw, but not soft/cooked either. Individual grains should look elongated. It's best not to overcook the rice at this stage. If it's undercooked, you can make up for it in the steaming stage. But if it's overdone, there's no help for mushy rice.

Remove from heat and drain into a large colander. Rinse and dry pot.

Assemble and Steam
Add oil and 2-3 tsp water to above pot (Note: if you are not immediately cooking rice, only add about half of the water, then pour the rest over top immediately before cooking, to prevent rice from getting mushy). Shake pot to incorporate water and oil.

Into the colander of rice, add about 1/3 of herbs. Season salt and pepper. Within the colander, gently mix about 1/3 of rice into herbs. Use a fork, not a spatula, and take care to break as few grains as possible. With a wide spatula, pour herbed rice into pot, in an even layer. Drizzle with 1/3 of piaz dagh, including oil.

Repeat this process twice. As you add subsequent layers, shape rice in pot into the form of a mountain: as little of the rice as possible should touch the sides of the pot, because it will burn in a dry, unsavory form.

Using the handle of a fork, make about 5 'chutes' from top to bottom of mound of rice: one in the center, and 4 around the periphery. Poke the fork handle through the rice to the bottom of the pot, then move it gently and slightly from side to side to open the chute to about 1 inch diameter.

Place pot over medium-high heat, covered. When it’s ready (see below), lower the heat to low, and allow to cook for 1 hour. (You can cook it at very low heat for longer, to create a thicker tah-dig – just beware that if it burns, it’s very sad.)

parsley dill fenugreek chives

Check rice after the first 20 or so minutes, and troubleshoot:
- Too dry? Add oil.
- Too hard? Add water.
- Not enough salt? Add more.
- Too smushy? Place a cloth rag or towel tautly over the pot, then cover. Fold the ends over the lid, so that they are not near the fire. This will absorb any steam that develops and prevent it from re-incorporating into the rice.

To make sure it’s hot enough to lower heat:
- check for much steam on the underside of the lid of the pot
- listen for sizzling and sputtering
- as mamanini did: wet your finger and stick it on the side of the pot – if it sizzles, it’s ready.

To serve, use a large spatula or thin saucer to scoop rice into serving platter. Either break tahdig into chunks and serve atop rice, or carefully invert entire tahdig into a large round platter.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Coming to Farmer's Market: Breadworks Bakery

Looks like a new bakery is coming to the Farmer's Market. While I'll miss the old man that ran the bakery that's being replaced -- he always had a sweet word to say in a charming, if unplaceable, accent --, I'm excited about a newer bakery with a more contemporary list of offerings. I've always whined to myself about the fact that, while the Farmer's Market is a fine source for produce, meats, and most everything else 'markety', and despite having a few bakeries, I would never think to go there for a great whole-grain loaf, or a crusty baguette. Judging from Breadworks Bakery's website, they have a staggering selection of innovative breads to satisfy those of us raised on Food Network and Michael Pollan. Unlikely that they'll have the entire selection that you can order ahead from their Culver City store, but even a well-picked subset of the extensive list -- which includes 7-grain sour wheat, rosemary caramelized onion focaccia, Pullman loaves (perfect for truffled egg toast), and seven types of baguette, not to mention a variety of ryes and challahs for those Fairfax denizens with Jewier bread needs -- would be very exciting.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sheddy's... Almost

So, I was going to give you my first look at Sheddy's. As you may know, the space is around the corner from my apartment, and over the 3 years that Bodega De Cordova was there, I became a serious regular, and Kenny, the bar's owner, became a good friend. So, of course I'm curious about the new bar.

I was going to check it out Friday night, but unfortunately, I, along with quite a few others, were met with closed doors. Apparently the owners are having alcohol license issues, so they had to postpone their opening. Bummer.

Nonetheless, I can tell you a few things. They had a private event on Thursday night, but Raul the stalwart bartender -- been there since the first night the Bodega opened -- kindly let me sneak through. They've kept some of the old fixtures, but swanked up the place with red walls and dim lighting to give it a cozy bordello feel. They've fenced off a bit of the back for a small smoking patio. And, we learn from Thrillist that they'll be going for quality with their beer selection: Maudite on tap and Delirium Tremens in bottles, just to name a few. Sheddy's will even have some Spanish wines on hand, as a throwback, for us throwbacks.

I will also say that I've been seeing people trying to go to the bar all weekend. Whenever I've passed by, there've been people in bar clothes reading the note the owners have left in the window. There's certainly interest and buzz. While I certainly miss the mellow vibe of my very own Spanish wine bar, and the friendliest one in town at that, I look forward to hobbling home from Sheddy's as soon as they let me in.

[Oh, and for those who care, Kenny is now living in Miami, working for ASCAP (he's a musician and barkeep -- a winning combo), and proud father to a brand new baby girl.]

Sheddy's is at 361 Fairfax Ave., between Blackburn Ave. and 4th St.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Science of Delicious: A Molecular Gastronomy Demonstration

When it comes to my relationship with food and my relationship with science, I'm a little quirky. I'm avidly interested in both, but in general, I don't really want them to mix. I love reading about technology, and have reverence for the scientific method, but still have a soft spot for the story and drama of the kitchen. I'm pretty much willing to believe anything any grandma tells me about cooking, lab-tested or not (although, once, when my own grandma tried to tell me that the bugs that we discovered in a sealed bag of noghl, Persian almond candy, just appeared there (no mention of eggs or anything -- just appeared, out of nowhere), I had to raise an eyebrow). After all, generations of satisfied families can't be wrong.

But, when I was graciously invited to a talk and demonstration by Hervé This (pronounced 'Tees'), the father of molecular gastronomy, which is the study of the chemistry behind food and cooking, I jumped at the opportunity. Granted, as stated, I am a food luddite. But, I must admit, I'm fascinated. I had read about This a while back in this fascinating article about how, when you cook an egg at exactly 67C, the yolk turns, essentially, into Play-Doh. It's this combination of technology and whimsy -- the same combination that turns out 'olives' fabricated from olive puree at El Bullí, bound into spheres so that when you bite into them you get a burst of juice, or turns a short rib into a miniature forest wonderland at Alinea -- that catches my eye.

So I ditched the office for a couple hours to check it out. Before Mr. This entered the picture, I was already fascinated -- turns out that for a food-obsessed civilian like myself, the world of culinary school is pretty damn cool. The event took place at the California School of Culinary Arts, a Cordon Bleu academy right in Pasadena. As soon as I entered the parking lot, all over the place were droves of students in black checkered pants, white coats and hats. Aspiring chefs in all shapes and colors were everywhere, and it was pretty awesome. As I stepped into the building, the concentration of people in this uniform increased, and I slowly felt myself being on the outside of a rich culture. As I stepped into the bustling 'lab' -- a large kitchen with a presentation area complete with 2 flatscreen monitors hanging from the ceiling for Food-Network-like close-ups of the action -- I could sense a certain innate rhythm among the students (as well as their superiors, in fancier coats and taller toques), and I just did my best to stay out of their way.

Once the presentation began though, everyone in the room focused on the same thing: the spritely French man at the front of the class. Herve Thís is an extremely animated speaker. He talks fast, but you want to latch on to every word: he is, after all, the eminent expert on his field, and his passion for its details is obvious.

Through a slideshow presentation, we learned a bit about the history of molecular gastronomy, what it is and what it isn't. Mr. This emphasized the difference between molecular cooking, which is done in restaurants like Alinea and El Bullí, and molecular gastronomy,which is the gathering of knowledge through scientific experimentation. He's spent years breaking down the chemical compounds in all manner of vegetables, testing thousands of well-known kitchen wives' tales (putting to rest many of them, of course), and, as he puts it, 'playing' with food in very technologically sophisticated ways. His aim is often to deconstruct: Why do we sit on chairs to eat? Why do we use a whisk to whip things? (After all, an ultrasonic box gets the job done far more efficiently!) And more pointedly, why do we believe old masters like Brillat-Savarin? He was a lawyer, not a chef, and according to Mr. This, "this guy was lying all book long!"

Towards the end of the demo, things got a bit weird. Mr. This was proud to have come up with a simple formula from which we could extrapolate an infinite number of new recipes, and a bit later on, showed us photos of a machine that could be programmed to follow these recipes -- basically a robot chef.

So, do I think this is crazy? Not really. While I do respect the grannies, and I did find myself wondering throughout this presentation what Mr. This's mom must think of all this, I'm glad there are people taking food into more avant garde directions -- and getting positively giddy over finding a new compound in onions and not yet knowing what it is. And I have no doubt that if we paid attention to research by people like Hervé This, we'd gain tips to make our own cooking more efficent, more effective, and probably more tasty. Besides, the man is certainly not unhinged; he said it best himself: "Solving equations is easy. But the chef has to say I love you -- very difficult."

Monday, March 03, 2008

Chermoula, Without the Soapy Residue

I'd never expect a fancy North African spice blend to make its way into a quick work-night meal in my kitchen. But happily, it did. Chermoula is a North African condiment that blends spices, olive oil, and fresh herbs (typically cilantro, but more on that below). It's got a texture not unlike pesto, and really bright and fresh flavor.

What's amazing about a condiment like this one is how easy it is to achieve complex flavor. You just keep adding spices to the blender, and with each one, you get a new layer of flavor, without chopping a single vegetable (especially the saffron -- just the tiniest pinch, and without overpowering, its contribution was pretty spectacular). It seems indulgent, really. How can such grandma-slaving-away-in-an-exotic-foreign-kitchen deliciousness be so simple? Truly within reach of the modern homemaker like myself.

And then you just smear it all over some fresh fish, stick the whole thing in the toaster oven, and voila: near-instant healthy, enticing, delicious dinner (well, with the addition of a couple tomatoes stuffed with pangrattato breadcrumbs and steamed baby broccoli sprinkled with sea salt and good olive oil (both super easy)).

It's true, my chermoula didn't have cilantro. The thing is, although I'm becoming more tolerant, I am one of those people who firmly believes that cilantro tastes like soap. Besides, all I had in the house was parsley, and not even flat-leaf, but curly, which lately has been shunned like so much leafy sacrilege. My ever-so-erudite dinner guest was quick to suggest that I don't call it chermoula (although one Algerian chef vindicates my parsley). Really, I don't care what I call it. The point is we ate, and we ate well. And long after the kitchen table had been abandoned -- after dessert, tea, and French homework -- my kitchen still smelled like some serious cooking had gone down.

Tilapia with Chermoula
My chermoula recipe came together after consulting the one referenced above and Clotilde's version. There seems to be quite a bit of variation allowed, so feel free to take a little license.

2 tilapia filets
olive oil

1 clove garlic
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
4-5 threads, or 1/8 tsp saffron
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
crushed red pepper to taste
peel from half a preserved lemon (or juice and zest of 1/2 fresh lemon)
2 Tbs olive oil
about 1 cup of parsley leaves
salt to taste (less if you're using preserved lemons)

Sprinkle one side of fish with salt; set aside. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400F.

Make chermoula: Place all ingredients in blender or awesome mini-chopper. Blend into a thin paste. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Spread the bottom of an oven-proof dish with a thin layer of olive oil. Place fish filets in dish, salt side down. Spread filets generously with chermoula. Bake until fish is just cooked through, about 8 minutes.