This lush still life of Mirza Ghassemi (a Northern Iranian vegetarian/vegan eggplant dish) reverently flanked by grapes, cucumbers, radishes and the soft, delicious drapery of lavash bread – all under the watchful guard of a thoughtful lion - is the fanciful handiwork of Yvonne joon! Remember I said that the friendships struck up with some amazing people I’ve met via blogging is one of the best rewards of keeping this blog ? Well, Yvonne, a very funny and fascinating (not kidding, she’s a very interesting person to say the least) American lady who speaks Farsi (fluently, cheerfully, with humorous and elegant nuance; well-versed in even the most obscure slangs to my never-ending surprise and delight) and who I’m tickled pink to have gotten to know and to call a friend is what I call: Exhibit A! Trump card! Now, Yvonne does not blog but she was kind enough to indulge me and accept the task of writing a guest blog post along with the food styling and photography that goes with it. I salute her beautiful work and without further ado, usher you into Yvonne joon’s engaging narrative:
My name is Yvonne and I came to the Fig & Quince blog by accident. A happy accident. The word for a happy accident is serendipity. Serendipity comes from the story of The Three Princes of Serendip. The Three Princes of Serendip is a Persian story. Dang. This has Persian written all over it. Back to Fig & Quince. Somehow, through a friend, I clicked a link and was taken to The Land of Ahhhs. Yummy yummy Persian food recipes. Azita and I chitted and chatted back and forth. Somehow, I ended up here. As a guest chef blogger on my very favorite food blog. OK. That was a little background 411. Perhaps, even too much 411.
But, it gets better.
I’m an American married to an Iranian. I know anyone wise enough to be here, also knows Iran is Persia and Persia is Iran. My oldest daughter’s sixth grade HISTORY teacher didn’t know that, but, I digress. I lived in Iran for three years and I am an ardent Iranophile. Beautiful country, beautiful people…kind, generous, thoughtful people. A culture rich in tradition and history. I was and am in love. My introduction to the cuisine didn’t start out on such strong footing. I should mention, I came to Iran a vegetarian, who didn’t drink tea, coffee or soda. I came during the Iran-Iraq War. There were food rations. I was told I really needed to eat as a local and be thankful for what was offered. OK. I got it. I tried. I ended up eating a lot of potatoes with mast (yogurt), rice with torshi (pickled veggies) and every delicious Persian bread available. I was stubborn. The same courtesy bites I demanded of my children, I forced on myself. Well, some bites, like sheep head (kaleh pocheh), were NEVER gonna happen, but little by little, I became a connoisseur of delicious Persian fare.
My tastes seemed to run most closely with the food of Gilan and its people. Gilan is a state in Northwest Iran. Gorgeous country. People who lead a largely plant-based diet, with rice and fish supplements. So many delicious meatless dishes from which to choose and I choose the glorious Mirza Ghasemi. Follow me on a journey of taste sensation, from a basic, simple, “Say What?” recipe, to a contented being, unencumbered by the exhaustion some dishes insist upon. A grilled eggplant, garlic, tomato and egg dish which melts in your mouth, as you scoop it in with fresh Persian bread. Oh, you can eat it with rice and using utensils, but, where’s the fun in that?
Oh. Have I mentioned I’m now vegan? It’s been almost a year. Uh huh. Ey va. (A Persian expression of exasperation or disbelief.) So, here’s the thing. If you’re vegan, just omit the last step with the eggs, if not, do your egg thing. Either way, “Nooshee Jon et!” (Bon appetit in Farsi.) If you have leftovers, I’m available. Who are we kidding? Leftover Mirza Ghasemi? Kheili khandeedar. (Very funny.)
I have a weakness for containers – anything from cigar boxes to Chinese medicine cabinets (swoon!) to a vintage tin box – and I’m keen, oh so keen, on glass jars. They house many of my little treasures and are wonderful for making simple, pretty tokens of affection. Just fill one up with some dainty and cute things. Like you’re making a little poem inside a glass jar.
The one pictured here was a Mother’s Day token gift with a little Brooklyn blossom and a couple of gourmet tea-flower-balls inside.
[Judge not this not-food-centric interloping post, as the recipe for a yummy shomali (northern-Iranian) vegetarian fare (Fig & Quince's very first guest-post written by darling Yvonne) is a bright star twinkling in the future of this ol' blog.]
A delightful reader of this blog recently requested a recipe for stuffed peppers. I have a terrifying backlog of posts and chores and what-nots, but how could I say no? Specially as the query coincided with a fridge busting out at the seams with a bounty of red, orange and yellow bell peppers. Captivated by the bright toy-like colors and the practically graphic-designed architecture of the peppers, I admit that I had basically hoarded a whole bunch of them.
But look at how banamak (cute, that is) and photogenic they are, how meant to be gazed at and admired – putting the “belle” in bell pepper. Who could resist hoarding? Someone with more fortitude than bandeh (yours truly, that is) — that’s for sure.
In Farsi, peppers are felfel, a word I enjoy saying, and stuffed peppers are called: dolme ‘ye felfel. In the West, people only think of stuffed grape leaves when hearing the word dolme, but in Iranian cooking, dolme is the name of a genre of stuffed food that could be anything from stuffed leaves (like cabbage leaves or the ever-popular grape leaves) or stuffed veggies and fruits (such as eggplant, potato, white onion, tomato, apple, quince, squash or pepper.)
Dolme ‘ye bargeh kalam (stuffed cabbage leaves) and dolme ‘ye bargeh mo (stuffed grape leaves) are always made as autonomous dishes, but it is not at all unusual to combine different stuffed veggies or fruits in the same pot — a classic combo being that of eggplants alongside with peppers and tomatoes; or quinces alongside with apples — thus allowing not only for an eclectic display and variety of textures but also a fusion of flavors as the juice of one type of vegetable or fruit mixes in with that of its stuffed neighbor, thus creating a uniquely mouthwatering taste. (This slow-cooking flavor-fusion technique is beautifully employed in another genre of Persian food called ta’s kabob which consists of intricately and intimately nestling layers of fruit and herb and vegetable and meat in a pot, and cooking it slowly, slowly, slowly; thus yielding one of the most pleasing textures and most flavorful and aromatic types of food and broth one can taste. Making mental note to make some and post its recipe post haste.)
I chose to do a purist stuffed peppers dish – no intermingling with potatoes or tomatoes or eggplants or some such – primarily because my pretty peppers were starting to lose their looks (ah, capricious beauty!) and so I wanted to use up as many as possible before they went bad. For me, the highlight and perhaps even the raison d’etre of this dish is the broth – which is oh so very flavorful and happily even enhances upon reheating – but of course it is tasty in its entirely, and it is a healthy, visually fun and playful food to serve. The cumulative merit of which makes up for the fact that it’ll take at least two hours to make this dish.
Pictured here is what we call chaghal’eh badoom in Iran — known as fresh (or green or spring) almond here in the U.S., that is if you can find it. Nestled inside its fuzzy green hull lies the young skinless almond, sleeping the sleep of the just – not yet hardened and soft in texture.
Chaghal’eh badoom arrives on the scene in early spring in Iran for a mere few weeks — greeted virtually by delighted clapping of hands — just like its kindred spirit and friendly rival, the other favorite Persian bounty and symbolic synonym of spring: goje sabz.
You remember goje sabz, right? Unripe sour green plums: juicy, tart, crisp and crunchy. You snack on them raw, crunch munch munch crunch, sprinkled lightly with salt. How do you eat chaghal’eh badoom you ask? You eat it like so:
That’s right! You eat the whole kit and caboodle. Only the stem remains! Chaghal’eh badoom is crunchy with a soft center, tastes somewhat like a quite tartly-delicious apple, and makes for a very refreshing and nutritious (not to mention addictive) snack that is also wonderful in a salad or as a garnish to brighten up a meal.
I recently met someone who informed me that in Turkey it is customary to pile a plate high with spring almonds and eat them (sprinkled with salt) while drinking beer. Which actually makes perfect sense taste and texture wise — I can imagine that the accompaniment of sat and crunch and fresh burst of tangy flavor is a very pleasant chaser for beer. I predict that a hip NY or Brooklyn bar will get wind of this soon enough and offer these !
A year ago my mom and I posted our very first Persian food recipe — for a huge rice-meatball stuffed with prunes, caramelized onions, raisins and walnuts, served with its own tangy and savory broth, otherwise known as the yumalicious koofteh berenji. It feels both like yesterday and also forever ago that we started on our excellent adventure of blogging. It’s a happy milestone and I’m a bit verklempt.
Starting this blog has been a rewarding experience – no doubt about it. It gives me and my mom (who was the muse and catalyst for creating Fig & Quince) a stimulating venue to bond and it has triggered (and I hope it will continue to trigger) precious stories from my father (ordinarily a man of a few words) that otherwise would have remained hidden treasures. It has also offered me a positive way to express and channel my love for Iran — to trade saddening homesickness for a passionate mission of cultural-exchange and a happy pursuit of recipes and stories — and into the bargain, it has even rekindled my romance with an old flame – photography – big time.
A huge pleasure of this venture has been that of getting to know many interesting & diversely delightful people, bloggers and non-bloggers alike, that I’d never have had met otherwise with the cherry-on-top bonus of forging and fostering meaningful connections and budding friendships. Continuing in this corny manner (once I get mushy this way there’s no going back till I get on the subway and am promptly cured of my infatuation with humanity) I have to say that I’m grateful to-the-core for everyone who reads this blog and keenly appreciate your emails, comments, links and any-other-way (including telepathic) gestures of support. It’s definitely fuel for keeping on with keeping on.
Let’s have a virtual slice of cake!
While you are enjoying your sugar rush, I’d like to tell you that Fig & Quince will have its very first guest post (by one of the aforementioned fascinating people I have been lucky to meet via this blog – so excited!) and that also we’ll have our very first giveaway (something made by moi as a token of saying thank you to toi) in the coming week or two.
And oh, the amazing rainbow cake with the marzipan bunny decorations? My sister made it all from scratch with her very own delicate hands for the birthday of a special quelqu’un fond of bunnies and rainbows — impressing young and old and ageless.
ps. This is a tadigh cake! Invented by my father as a little joke on someone’s birthday.
Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over a vast kingdom and when he died (some said he was murdered, most foul) a tumultuous power struggle vying for his throne ensued. In the midst of this bloody hiss va biss (or kerfuffle as we say in English) somehow the king’s daughter was crowned queen. Her name was PoranDokht and she reigned over the Persian empire for a bit more than a blink of an eye, yet just shy of two years. It was not that long – is what I’m saying.
Of significance regarding Queen Porandokht’s brief tenure, one is that she signed a peace treaty with the Romans (spoiler alert: it didn’t last) and another is that she inspired a craze of yogurt-based vegetarian food. This came about because the Queen did not care for meat but liked yogurt, so the court’s cook, trying to tickle the royal palette, made up a series of dishes, all of which were variations on one theme: a vegetable mixed with yogurt. In the bargain, inventing a new genre of Persian food initially called porani in a nod to the Queen (whose name you recall was PoranDokht) but which then down the road morphed into the word borani as we now know it.
At least, that’s the story one hears. Maman, resident part-time cynic, says: “Who knows if it is for real?” “Ein chiz hayee ‘yeh keh mardom mighand.“ (This is what they say.) Maman may have her doubts, but I believe. I. Believe!
The star in a borani dish is a vegetable that may be either cooked, steamed, or sauteed — and it could be anything from eggplant to zucchini or mushroom or pumpkin, or one of my favorites, beets – combined with yogurt dressing. Super simple! Super healthy. Super tasty!
Borani ‘ye esfenaj or spinach borani is a snap to make and you’d be surprised by the complexity of taste and texture found in such a simply prepared dish that calls for so very few ingredients: you only really need fresh spinach, strained yogurt, and salt. Walnuts and saffron and garlic are nice, but optional, and in a pinch can be done without. Since the spinach wilts to almost nothing in size and is mixed with creamy yogurt, this is a good dish to trick kids into eating tons of spinach. They’ll be distracted by the creamy texture while unbeknownst to themselves, they are consuming a ton of spinach, and you can watch them, twirl your mustache, and enjoy your tricky ways.
Integral to the success of this dish is to completely drain the spinach once you’ve blanched it. Otherwise it’ll weep – and then you’ll weep as well. To rid it of excess liquid, you are supposed to “wring” the blanched spinach, much as you would a freshly washed shirt. At least that’s the literal translation of “chelondan” in Farsi. But that doesn’t sound like something the poor spinach would like. So do as my mother does: drain wilted spinach in a soft-mesh colander and press the back of a wooden spoon against the spinach, as many times as needed, to force out all excess liquid. It works like a charm and if you do it gently enough, you won’t feel like such a brute against the poor wilted spinach.
Last year when coloring eggs for the Norooz haftseen, I pledged to make homemade dye next time around. Before I knew it a year went by (wow so quickly like WOOSH) and it was once again time to color eggs for Norooz. And, guess what, I actually kept my vow to make natural dye at home.
It is possible that in the process I may have gone a bit overboard … behaved a tad over zealously even … felt somewhat excessively exuberant (please note that I did restrain from saying eggsessively eggzuberant) … but that’s because making dye was an interesting experience, dare I say thrilling at times, and the eggs came out so pretty that I couldn’t help but geek out and admire them this way and that. [Although one crack, and boo: they stink!] Next year, maybe I’ll throw an egg decorating party like the one design sponge had.
Thick rubber bands and colorful mesh bags (souvenirs of various produce-purchases saved over the course of time) played a key role in this fun game of egg-and-dye.
It is not hard to dye eggs naturally but unless you already know how to do it, the instructions online are a little hither and thither. I started with and ultimately ended up back with Martha (Stewart that is, of course) and after some practice in the trenches on the home-front I can lay claim to some firm preferences and a fair amount of eggspertise (please do forgive me, I truly can not help myself) when it comes to coloring eggs with natural dye.
I experimented with four dyeing agents (black coffee, red cabbage, beets, and turmeric) and colored two dozen eggs — a mixture of white and brown ones.
Ideally, you’ll also need an egg drying rack. I re-made the same egg-drying-rack that I’d improvised out-of-necessity last year. It worked beautifully, so saw no reason to reinvent the wheel. If you’d like to make one of your own, it’s super simple: a) Take a cardboard box, b) stick 3 push pins on the surface so as to create a triangular rest-stand for an egg, and c) taking care to space out the stands, repeat to create rows and columns. See? Easy!
I’ll ask you to kindly mosey on over to the original post on Martha Stewart’s site for the full, detailed instructions on how to make various dyes and create a palette of hues using each individually or in combination with each other.
Meanwhile, if you’d like summarized instructions as well as my two shiny cents gained from the trial and error and beauty of it all, please click here to read the entire spiel!