Wednesday, November 04, 2015


In my head, masters are the people in old Italian paintings, the porcelain skin of their faces framed by frilly collars and antiquated hairstyles.  It's harder to recognize a master in our midst.  But I've come to believe that pastry chef Fariba Nafissi of ZoZo Baking is the real deal: Fariba is a true master of kolompeh.

I love a good food mystery. (I love a good non-food mystery, too.)  Asking people strange questions, slowly sleuthing together pieces of the puzzle – it's a journey possibly more fun than its destination. Baking kolompeh with Fariba started with a mystery.  When my sweet friend Naomi first asked me about ma'amoul, an Arab cookie filled with a date and nut paste, all I could do was look at her blankly.  But, later, I remembered that a woman from the city of Kermanshah whom I had interviewed for my Iranian Jewish cookbook mentioned making a type of date and nut filled cookie called koloocheh for Purim.  An itch began to develop in my brain.  Then, through the wonderful world of Persian food bloggers, I discovered Fariba, a pastry chef from the town of Kerman, whose specialty is kolompeh, yet another cookie filled with a date and nut paste.

I convinced myself that there was a connection between these three, and so, chalking it off to cookbook research, I signed up to take a Persian baking class with Fariba.  So, on a crisp, sunny day last December, I snatched up Naomi, an enthusiastic accomplice, and we made the trek to Fariba's home in Granada Hills.

Naan-e berenji, rice flour cookies.  Part of Fariba's Mehregan spread
We were greeted with Fariba's big smile and a spread of homemade breakfast pastries and hot Persian tea to go along.  A neighbor was taking the class with us, and later on, another showed up, with a gift of fresh eggs from her backyard chickens. Cozy.

Learning about kolompeh from Fariba was a lesson in her family's history.  She spoke with such love about her own mother, from whom she learned this and so many other Kermani recipes.  And she led us through her collection of kolompeh stamps: the oldest was a sturdy disc of solid wood, and had an intricate pattern depicting birds and flowers.  This one has been passed down for generations in her family, and is over a century old.  The next is the first to have a rudimentary handle carved into it, and to me, its paisley pattern was the most beautiful.  The newest one, purchased on a recent trip to Iran, was machine-made, with a simple pattern of dots and lines and a glued-on handle.

Tricks of the trade

We took a few moments to get to know a bit of each other's stories before getting to work. Together we ground nutmeg, steeped saffron, and made a dense paste of walnuts and dates.

Mise en place

Filling and stamping the cookies wasn't so hard, but Fariba's genius came to light at the next step: twisting the edges to seal the cookie's perimeter.  When Fariba lays the the edge of a cookie between two fingers and twists, the resulting pattern is so perfect, you'd think it was made by machine.  It's no wonder these beautiful cookies are her trademark.  She paints a dot of golden saffron water on the center of each cookie, then sprinkles it with the bright green of ground pistachios.

You'd think a person with this level of expertise would be intimidating, but in this case, you'd be wrong.  We tried futilely to emulate her perfect twists, but even when ours came out gnarly and inconsistent, she'd give an excited encouraging squeal with every cookie we made.

We finished off the day learning to make nan-e-nokhodchi, tiny flower-shaped sweets made with chickpea flour and cardamom, and nan-e-berenji, plump rice flour cookies topped with poppy seeds.  With the touch of a pastry chef, these came out as dainty as dollhouse furniture.

Brewing saffron

As beautiful as our cookies were, they were even more delicious.  The kolompeh dough is unsweetened, so they're just sweet enough, and the warmly spiced filling goes perfectly with the buttery, flaky cookie.  We were proud of our baking accomplishments, and had to keep ourselves from gobbling up cooking after cookie.

The vibe of our day was really special.  Everyone came in with a curious spirit and an open heart, including our dear ostad herself. We felt her warm hospitality from the moment we walked into her home to the moment she saw us out, carrying bags and containers overflowing with delicious sweets, and our very own kolompeh stamps.  There's certainly esteem in mastery, but only when it comes with love is there transcendence.

Do check out Fariba's business website, Zozo Baking.  You can learn more about taking classes with her yourself, you can buy beautiful kolompeh stamps she brings in from Iran, or, you can leave the baking to her and order boxes of delicate kolompeh and other Persian sweets to adorn your table.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Taste of the East

I feel like I'm constantly ranting about how people always equate Jewish food with Eastern European food: matzoh balls and gefilte fish, bagel and lox.  I didn't try matzoh ball soup until college, was introduced to lox at a weekend sleepover in elementary school (and thought it was really weird; I've come around), and have yet to meet a gefilte fish I want to eat.

So, I wanted to share some photos from an event I participated in September.  Having had so many "yes, I'm Jewish, and no, I never tried matzoh ball soup until college" conversations, I jumped at the chance to demo a traditional Iranian Jewish recipe at A Taste of the East, a night welcoming Rosh Hashana -- the Jewish New Year, with flavors from The Middle East and Mediterranean.  It was a night of dinner, music, and storytelling, all celebrating the culture of Sephardic Jews.


I performed one of three demos of Sephardic Jewish food.  Orly Olivier of Petit Takett made Tunisian harissa, and Deborah Gorman of Sorbabe made bourekas–Turkish-Greek cookies filled with ground walnuts and dipped in a sweet syrup.  And I made faloodeh sib–a refreshing combination of rosewater and shredded apples that is the traditional Yom Kippur fast-breaking food among Iranian Jews.


It was a great time. I'd never done anything like this before, but cooking and chatting in an industrial kitchen with these ladies was a treat and an education, and sharing my family recipes with a warm, interested crowd, while being schooled on some foods that were new to me, felt wonderful.

As people milled through the space, I stood at a table decorated with black and white photos of my grandparents and shredded apples against a box grater, and then added sugar, water, rosewater, and ice to perfectly balance the rosewater's intense aroma with just the right amount of sweet.

I had a couple friends, a few cousins, and my parents in attendance.  I was really happy to have these familiar faces in the crowd when we arrived at the storytelling portion of the evening.  I spoke about my uncle, a distinguished physician, affectionately known by his grandkids as "Lulu", who would leave Yom Kippur services at the synagogue early to go home and prepare faloodeh sib for his family. I wasn't the only one tearing up as we remembered this sweet man.

Recalling old memories of food and family, as we make new ones with new friends.  More of this, please.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Mom's Polo Shevid Baghali in Lucky Peach

Those hands belong to my mom, Violet.  She is halving baghali, fava beans, for one of my favorite dishes of hers, polo shevid baghali.  I am beyond thrilled to report that I got to cook this dish with her, and interview her about her own food memories, for the Lucky Peach website's "We Love Mom" column.  I've loved Lucky Peach magazine since its inception, but always had a problem with the boy's club vibe that came off its mostly male, mostly restaurant chef writing.  This column is the opposite, as it celebrates traditional home cooking (though many of the moms, and other parents, profiled are far from traditional), and paints a broad ethnic picture of American kitchens today -- all with adorable old-school pictures of the writers and their moms.  Suits me just fine; happy to be a part of it.  Check out my story here!

Thursday, May 21, 2015


In February, I spent two weeks in Vietnam.  As much as I love to travel, I'd never made it to Southeast Asia, and none of my past adventures prepared me for this world.  I frequently felt unequipped.  I loved it.

With the explosion of life on the sidewalks of Hanoi, markets of fresh produce laid out every

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Scenes from an Iranian-American Passover Seder

I failed to take my good camera with me to my parents' house last night, but I had to share some quick phone snaps.  It occurs to me how unfamiliar a lot of people are with the Passover dinner that I know.  Nary a brisket, matzoh ball, or jellied, goopy ball of gefilte fish in sight.

Important distinction, in extremely broad strokes: there are two ethnic/geographic groupings of Jews: Ashkenazi and Sephardic.  The former originate in Eastern Europe, the latter from the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  Quick and dirty rule of thumb: Ashkenazi = white Jew, Sephardic = brown Jew. (Obviously, there are also Jews in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and pretty much everywhere else.  But for the purpose of this post, Ashkenazi is the mainstream, and Sephardic is how I'm distinguishing myself from it.)

Jewish food as its known in most of the United States has nothing to do with what I grew up with.  Bagels and lox, pastrami on rye, knishes and the like all come from the Ashkenazi tradition. As a Sephardic Jew, and specifically an Iranian one, my cuisine matches where I come from: more spices and fresh herbs and vegetables, lots of sweet and sour flavors from using fruit in our savory dishes, and at this time of the year, the best distinction of all: unlike Ashkenazis, Sephardic Jews eat rice during Passover. Because we might starve otherwise.

Here are a few shots from my parents' house last night.

Fresh almonds to greet guests.  Green and fuzzy, crunchy and tart.
Each year for Passover, my mom buys the best nuts she can find, and washes, salts, sun-dries, and roasts them herself.  I've never had a better hazelnut (or forty) and I'm not above cherry-picking for them, especially if my sister is looming over my shoulder.  Last night, my mom served a mix of pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds in this gorgeous silver bowl from Iran, inherited from my paternal grandparents.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, my Auntie Mohtaram, my mom's oldest sister prepared nargesi -- an eggy casserole of fresh herbs and tiny meatballs* -- as her daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson looked on.

Three kuku sabzis, on deck.  Among Iranian Jews, you use kuku sabzi -- a bright herby frittata with crisped edges -- for a memorial blessing.  Passover corresponds with the anniversary of the death of my maternal grandmother, so we remember her each year with kuku sabzi.

Whereas Ashkenazi Jews use horseradish as their bitter herb, we have a bitter lettuce (though admittedly this year's romaine was not the most bitter choice).  Where Ashkenazi Jews dip parsley in saltwater, we dip the pale inner stalks of celery into vinegar.  Our haroset recipe, long ago handwritten by my paternal grandfather for each of his kids, is a balanced blend of several nuts, fruits, spices, and wine.  Though we no longer grind meat at home, my dad pulls out the hand-crank meat grinder every year to give the haroset its perfect texture. And yes, Maxwell House hagaddah.  I mean, come on, we're still Americans.

Oh, we also run around the table whipping each other with scallions.

The full dinner spread -- almost.  You'll note that we're not even done setting the table, and there is already tahdig -- the crispy saffron rice from the bottom of the pot -- in people's plates. We really are polite people; it's just that hot of a commodity.

However you're celebrating, and whether you're celebrating, here's to expanding our worldview and eating well -- and at best, both at the same time.

* Note that Iranian Jewish nargesi, for whatever reason, is totally different dish rom the Muslim dish of the same name, though the latter looks delicious as well. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Orange Almond Cake with Candied Kumquats

I've talked before here about the fact that I celebrate New Years three times each year: on January 1, on Rosh Hashana, and on Norouz, the Persian new year. This year, there's a fourth.

I spent the second half of February in Vietnam (more on that soon), and was lucky enough to be there for the preparations and celebration of Tet, the Lunar New Year.  So, this year, I've got a glut of opportunities to reflect and start fresh.

With Norouz fast approaching, as I sat thinking about what I could make for the holiday, my mind kept drifting back to Vietnam. Lunar New Year is all-encompassing there: in bustling Hanoi, blocks-long flower markets were set up in the streets just for the two weeks before New Year.  In Hoi An's ancient city -- a charming area where balconied restaurants line a romantic river boardwalk -- glowing lanterns hung across every street and all of the city's teens came out to play carnival games on a midway built just for one night, then they tightly crowded the banks of the river to watch as an over-the-top fireworks display marked midnight.

And everywhere you went, you saw kumquat trees. The golden fruits represent prosperity and good luck, so every home, museum, and shop seemed to have at least one on display.  One of our favorite sights from the trip was motorbike after motorbike with an entire tree (or ten) propped teeteringly on the back as it revved through Vietnam's teeming traffic.

Spring seems to have come early to the east side of Los Angeles.  At night, it smells like jasmine outside, and everywhere, loquat and citrus trees are already heavy with fruit and fragrant flowers. And thousands of miles from southeast Asia, kumquats are in season in Echo Park. I know this because at a dinner party a few weeks back, not one but two guests from Echo Park brought dishes made with kumquats from their own backyards.  So I asked one of those very people if I could ransack their tree for some, and decided to pile little sunshiney pinwheel slices on top of a cake scented with orange blossom water, bringing a little of the Lunar New Year into my Persian New Year celebration this year.

And although the fruit that's most prominent in the haftsinn is apple, preparing a sweet citrus cake for Norouz is not entirely farfetched.  The mahi, or fish, in the traditional Norouz meal of sabzi polo mahi is often prepared with Seville oranges or other citrus.  And the orange blossoms that scent the cake are known by the lovely name of bahar narenj in Persian: "spring orange".  So what better way to mark the first day of spring than with a cake redolent of the fragrance of spring citrus?

I didn't have orange blossom water on hand, but I jotted a quick text to my Tunisian next door neighbor, and before I knew it, a bottle was waiting for me on my balcony chair.  (I have the best next-door neighbor ever, and this balcony chair delivery system has been the source of many delicious drop-offs.  Today, I returned her bottle via balcony-chair-delivery, along with a fat slice of this very cake it helped make.)

I pulled my orange cake recipe from my very favorite cookbook, Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food.  So, (ready?), this Judeo-Spanish Passover cake with a French name and a Vietnamese-inspired topping from a Chinese holiday, prepared for a Persian holiday (phew!) is classic American mashup.  The recipe has you boil two whole oranges -- peel and all! -- until they're soft. You pull out the seeds and puree the whole thing, then add it to an almond-meal-based batter.  I respectfully took some liberties with Ms. Roden's recipe: dialing down the sugar, throwing some kumquats in the mix, whipping the egg yolks and whites separately for a lighter cake, and adding a bit of salt.  Then I topped the whole thing with kumquats candied quickly to maintain their cheery form and color.  And to boost that color, I threw in another Persian ingredient: the tiniest touch of saffron.

The result was just what I was hoping for: a bright, fragrant cake with a moist, almost pudding-like texture.  The bracing tartness of the kumquats balanced the cake's sweetness perfectly, and the cake actually brought the beguiling scents of spring into the kitchen.

This blog has been around for many years, and we've celebrated quite a few Norouzes here.  We've covered the basics now: the haftsinn, beautiful fragrant sabzi polo, even jumping over fire in the days leading up.  So, I hope you'll indulge me as I go rogue this year.  Sure, it's not traditional to pull from Vietnamese culture for a Persian holiday, but when non-traditional looks and tastes like this, who's to object?

Fortunately, the rest of the Persian food blogging community has my back.  Once again, they've gotten together to create a veritable feast of sweets and savories, from traditional to experimental, all with stories, photos, and much wisdom to impart about this beautiful holiday.  Links are at the bottom of the post: please do browse around!  Wishing you both Norouz Mobarak and Chúc Mừng Năm Mới: whichever way you say it, Happy New Year!

Excited to report: This recipe was featured on one of my favorite sites, The Mash-Up Americans. Check it out here.

Orange Almond Cake with Candied Kumquats
Adapted from Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food and The Kitchn
Makes one 9-inch diameter cake

After the initial long boil of the oranges, this cake comes together quite quickly.  It also happens to be gluten-free, as well as dairy-free, which makes it a natural choice for Passover, which is just a few weeks away.  Be sure to slice your kumquats fairly thick, so they maintain their shape and don't get floppy.  I went with store-bought almond meal, but you can make this with blanched almonds that you grind yourself.

the cake:
2 oranges (I used one blood orange, one navel)
6-10 kumquats (optional)
5 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
2 Tbs orange blossom water
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups almond meal

the candied kumquats:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Pinch ground saffron
2 cups kumquats, sliced into thick rounds, seeds removed

Wash the oranges and kumquats, and boil them whole in a pot of water for about 1 1/2 hours, or until they are very soft.  Once they're cool enough to touch, cut them open and remove seeds, and puree in a food processor.

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks.

In another large bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, orange mixture, orange blossom water, baking powder, and salt.  Add almond meal, and stir to combine.  Gently fold egg whites into batter.

Oil bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, and dust with more almond meal.  Pour batter into pan, and bake for 45 minutes.

While the cake bakes, prepare the kumquats:  In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, and saffron and bring to a boil.  Add kumquats, bring back to a boil, then lower heat to medium.  Simmer until kumquats are barely translucent, about 7 minutes.

To serve, use a slotted spoon to pour kumquats over cake, then a non-slotted spoon to pour the remaining glaze over cake and kumquats.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Black Eyed Peas at Sabzi

As Sara over at the beautiful blog Sabzi is swamped with grad-schooly things right now, she asked me to write a guest post, requesting something Iranian Jewish and wintry.  This black eyed pea recipe resembles what Iranian Jews eat on Rosh Hashana, but also calls back to the tradition of black eyed peas for the New Year in the US south.  And a big pot of beans simmering away is imminently wintry.  Head over and check it out; hope it helps keep you warm.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Real Talk 3: Accountability

Part 3 in a series.  I've employed some practices, and have had some things on my mind, that I'm really excited about, and I'd like to share them here.  Not all directly food- nor LA-related, though food certainly weaves through these stories.  I'm calling it Real Talk, though in a less lofty moment, I could just as well have called it Better Living Through Google Docs.

Real Talk 1: Gratitude
Real Talk 2: Mindfulness

Guys, it's mid-January.  That greyish time when already, we start feeling the wearing of the newness. We use all the tools we have: denial, active resistance, sheer force of will, to try to get it back. Now, I come into 2015 with optimism. I have some lofty goals for the year (more on that later.  maybe.), and one actually reasonable one, involving friluftsliv (who's in?), but as much as I love that fresh, invincible resolve of the first days of January, resolutions themselves have always felt a little flimsy to me.

Fortunately, I have a secret weapon.  At the start of 2012, feeling a little boxed in by the strict declarativeness of resolutions, I figured out an alternative that works for me.  I'd like to talk to you today about a little something I call the Hour of Power.

My issues with the old way of dealing with resolutions stem not just from their lack of fluidity, but from the lack of accountability.  I am notorious for not finishing what I start, and it frustrates me endlessly.  I'm more interested in a way to keep tabs on things I want to achieve as they arise throughout the year, rather than coming up with a few simple resolutions in one day.

So, I've come up with a system with two simple components.  First, I decided to schedule a weekly meeting with myself.  I schedule in an distraction-free hour, every Wednesday from 8:30-9:30, which is devoted completely to the second item, The List.

The List. Ah, the list. The list is everything. The list, as they say, is life.*  The core of this practice is a list, contained in the cloud, accessible at all times, with everything in it. This includes grand plans and visions, as well as mundane to-dos. The key to the List is to update it the moment you remember something.  No need, at that time, to go into detail, but jot down the item.  I started my list in Google Docs, but last year moved it to a site called Workflowy,  which I love.  It's just a few seemingly simple tweaks away from a text file, but perfect ones.  I recommend it.

The Hour of Power. My meeting with myself.  These are the grounds. Each is crucial:

 - Use a different chair.  I do most of my computering on the couch.  A messy morass of Facebook, Sporcle, IM, all the distractions, every night.  The Hour is special, and requires a shift in environment. I spend it on an armchair that's slightly less comfortable.  Play music if you want; pour yourself a cup of hot tea.  Remove yourself from children and other distracting people, and shut the door**.
 - Open a new browser window.  It's impossible to plan life, for me anyway, without the internet.  But for the Hour, I minimize all the nagging tabs, log out of IM, and start clean.  This window will have just a few tabs: The List, my calendar, email, and maybe a couple others as necessary.  I'm mindful to not get sucked into a wormhole though.  Discipline.
 - Go through the list.  Address each item.  If something needs fleshing out, add subtasks.  Go into as crazily minute detail as you need.  If you're not sure where to start, come up with a baby step.  Consider talking to someone.  (And then of course, add talking to that someone to the list, and schedule it in.)
 - Get shit done.  If a task is to send an email, look up the hours for a business, find someone's mailing address, this is your time to do it.  Sometimes, in the time it would take to add an item to the list, you can just knock it out.
 - Schedule in first steps.  If a task can't be done immediately, schedule it. Need to make a phone call during business hours?  Put it in your calendar for 10am the next day.  Set an alarm.
 - Reward small victories.  Strike through things as you complete them. Bask for a moment.  Doesn't that feel great?
 - Reward large victories.  Maintain the list of complete tasks. With Workflowy, you can toggle hiding completed tasks.  With a regular doc, shift them to the bottom. But don't delete them. Look at them every once in a while.  You've accomplished so much.
 - Keep at it.  Keep. At. It.  And don't get discouraged.  Even the Great Wall of China is nothing but bricks.

I don't consider myself an organized person -- I was tagged a slacker early in life -- and it takes major effort for me to keep things from falling through the cracks on a regular basis.  But my little Hour of Power has been such an effective thing for me.  I can't say that I accomplished every single thing I set out to do when I started this practice, because honestly that'd be impossible.  But I have accomplished a lot (so many strikethroughs!), I'm pinned to a path, and with every hour, every item, I'm making progress.

* I recognize the white-girl-problems nature of using a line from a Holocaust movie to describe my self-organization method.  But after years of saying it to, and hearing it from, a friend for whom The List is the closest thing to religion, the phrase has had its original meaning hollowed out, and it's an important piece of our shorthand.
** Yeah, right, parents of small children are gonna be able to get an hour of uninterrupted time to themselves.  I know, super challenging. But I feel like parents are superheroes of efficiency and could actually knock this out in 30 minutes.