My friend Mette (who hails from the magical land of Hans Christian Andersen) and I have a giddy, gushing love of New York in common, plus a penchant for walking, and we have really good walking karma! In the good ol’ days when Mette lived in New York, we would go on epic strolls (reminiscent of Toni and Christopher who flânent their way through Paris in the wonderful Metroland novel by Julian Barnes) and we would always, somehow or other and often in surprising ways, encounter and experience perfect and memorable New York moments. Back then I was solely an urban walker but Mette also biked and mind you this was: without a helmet; in all manners of weather; and before the city was even remotely bike-friendly. I was torn between aghast horror for her safety and appreciative marvel at her chutzpah.
When I recently signed up for NY’s bike program, you may recall that my city biking adventures began somewhat inauspiciously. But as soon as my bruised ribs healed I was back on that bike and I have to say, I’m 100% addicted! Save for snowy days and a few sick days, I have been racking up the miles, rain or shine, pedaling in traffic and over bridges and alleyways and city streets and bike paths, visiting old far-flung haunts and discovering new ones, and through it all, I have often missed my buddy Mette because if she still lived here I know that we would be having so many epic biking adventures. Like all good friendships, when it comes to being enchanted by things, we speak the same language. Hopefully she can move back here like she wants to in the near future (let’s all send her positive vibes to win the U.S. Green Card Lottery) but meanwhile the consoling news for her tribe here is that she gets to visit us in NY rather regularly. She was here just recently, matter of fact. And of course, we had to go biking through Brooklyn!
And so it was that a few weeks or so ago we met up mid-afternoon in Brooklyn, on a FREEZING but super pretty (sunny, puffy clouds, blue sky) day and pedaled our way from the waterfront views of Williamsburg towards Vinegar Hill and on to DUMBO (with a fun coffee + chat + toe-warming pitstop) and then onwards to the Brooklyn Heights promenade. From there we traversed the gorgeous Brooklyn Bridge and on to Chambers Street in Manhattan, then rode all the way West to the Hudson River trail where we headed up north to 16th street (chatting while stealing glimpses at the glittering New Jersey skyline and a cruise ship sauntering slowly on the river) and we then made our way East to Union Square where we finally bid adieu to the bikes.
It was a whole lot of exertion, a whole lot of gorgeous views, a whole heck of a good time, and just an overall feeling of exuberance.
And then, we made our way to my parents apartment for din-din. Now, my parents theoretically & technically reside elsewhere, but for awhile now they mostly live in New York because of my father’s work. That day, they had just returned to the city in the early afternoon hours when I called my mother and asked: misheh ma sham biyayim khonahtoon? That is: I invited us over for dinner! My mom, champ & khanoom that she is, agreed and somehow or other in the scant few hours she had between returning to the city and before we got to their apartment, she’d set the coffee table with a bowl of fruit and ajeel (such a Persian thing to do!) and prepared a delicious dish: adas polo (Persian lentil rice) with raisin and dates and walnuts, served with saffron chicken breasts. (There was tadig too — of course!) Mashallah & hats off to her!
When we got to the apartment, we were welcomed not just with warm greetings but also an intoxicating waft of the heavenly scents of saffron, rice, cinnamon, and butter mingled together! Oh, mon dieu! Let me pose a perfectly rhetorical question: is there anything better than being hungry like a wolf and dropping in just in time to sit down to a delicious meal in the company of some of your favorite people?
Over dinner, being as it was the eve of their wedding anniversary, my parents told the story of how they’d met. (An interesting tale where the ritual of serving a tray of tea plays a pivotal and traditional role — so I’m saving their story for a future post about the ceremony of tea drinking and Iranians.) Mette indulged us with accounts of her life and work in Copenhagen; and I went on about the 1976 UFO sighting in Tehran (WHAT!) which I’d just found out about while listening to a TTBOOK podcast! After dinner, we had tea (with milk, please) and seeded pomegranates (another quintessential Persian thing to serve when having guests over) and some cookies for dessert. It was a really fun night. The perfect ending to a perfect afternoon. Wish you all could have been there!
Were it only possible! Sadly, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s decree on the impossibility of impossibility notwithstanding (and anyhow we saw how Napoleon fared with that motto of his in Russia) that lovely scenario does not seem to be ever possible in the realm of practical reality. BUT, it is entirely possible and even practical (that is if something that tastes magical could ever be said to be practical) to recreate your very own mouthwatering and delicious adas polo.
Now, a shocking thing about Persian lentil rice is that it is traditionally not considered a fancy enough dish for formal dinner parties, which is heresy and crazy talk as far as I’m concerned, because the amalgam of taste, texture and scent of humble lentils made decadent with saffron, butter, rice and advieh (mixed spices) combined with crunchy walnuts and sweetly succulent sauteed and buttered raisins and dates is enough to incite a swoon … oh my, do give me a minute to fan myself out of this tizzy.
Theatrics aside, what I’m saying is … Trust me, this is no hyperbole. Persian lentil rice is good, good, GOOD! Go for it! Make it your New Year’s resolution.
Happy 2014! Make every day count this year!
- 2 1/2 cups Basmati or other top notch rice (rinsed and soaked)
- 1 cup lentils
- 12 dates (2-4 per person)
- 1 cup black raisins
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1 small onion, diced or very finely sliced
- a hint of turmeric (optional)
- ground saffron (a couple of pinches)
- 3+ tablespoons olive oil or butter or ghee
- 6 cooked chicken breasts (optional)
Advieh yeh polo (combo-spice for the rice)
- Combine ground cardamom (1/4 tsp) + coriander powder (1/2 tsp) + cinnamon (1/2 tsp) + cumin 1/4 tsp (optional)
- Clean lentils and cook with lightly salted water, till al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Cook chicken breasts per your preferred method and set aside. (My mom’s method is to wash and dry the chicken tenders and baste each piece with lemon juice and grated ginger, sautee in pan, add salt, turn the other side and sautee lightly, sprinkle with the merest hint of turmeric, cover with lid, and allow to cook on medium low heat. At the end, sprinkle with a pinch of saffron, toss and mix to blend the color.)
- Wash and dry raisins and dates. Pit dates. Sautee dates and raisins (together or perferably separately) lightly in a little bit of butter. Sautee walnuts separately in a bit of butter as well. Make piyaz dagh (caramelized onions.) Mix the sauteed raisins and dates with the caramelized onions.
- Wash rice (rinse with cold water a few times until the water runs clear), soak for an hour or longer in lightly salted water, drain. In a large pot bring 4 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil. [Optional step: while boiling, add a hint of turmeric to the water for color.] Add the rinsed rice to the water and boil rice, stirring occasionally and gently with a slotted spatula (ideally a kafgir) for 5 to 7 minutes, til al dente (grains are neither fully cooked nor crunchy.) Just then when the grains are al-dente, add the cooked lentils to the boiling water and stir with spatula to mix with rice grains, then immediately drain pot in a colander. Pour 2 to 3 cups of tepid water over the rice in the colander. Drain. (This step helps de-starch the rice which in turn prevents rice grains from sticking to each other. Remember, in Persian cooking, the gold standard of rice is obtaining a bed of individual grains of rice, none sticking to another.)
- Rinse the pot you used to boil the rice, and in it heat 1/2 cup water and 2 tablespoons oil (plus an optional generous dab of butter) till mixture is boiling hot. Then turn off the heat and one spatula at a time, transfer the rice from the colander to this pot. Half way through, sprinkle top of the rice bed with 1/2 of your advieh (rice-spice) and a pinch of saffron and finish up transferring the remainder of the rice in the colander to the pot. When done, shape and taper the rice with the spatula (gently, no mushing the grains!) to create a pyramid type of dome. With the spatula’s handle dig a few holes in the rice pyramid. Sprinkle the rest of the advieh (rice-spice) and another pinch of saffron over the rice. Cover pot’s lid with a tea towel and firmly lid the pot.
- Cook rice over medium heat until detecting steam – usually around 10-12 minutes. Once rice has steamed, reduce heat and continue to cook rice for on low heat for an hour and a half. Turn off heat and allow rice to rest – without removing the pot’s lid – for a few minutes.
- During the few minutes that the cooked rice is resting: A) Dissolve a pinch of saffron in 2-4 tablespoons of hot water. B) Melt 2 tablespoons of butter (or mixture of olive oil and butter) over medium heat. C) Rinse and wring a kitchen towel and spread it on a counter.
- Place the pot of rice on top of the moist kitchen towel. Remove lid. Pour the melted butter over the rice. Sprinkle the saffron water over the rice. The rice is now ready to be plated and served.
Set aside a few spatulas of rice from the top. (This is the saffron and butter enriched portion which will be used later to garnish the rice.) Plate the remaining loose rice in a mound in a serving dish. Crown the serving dish with the set-aside top-portion of the rice. Cut up the tadig (the crunchy layer of bottom of the pot rice) into wedges and serve in a separate plate. Layer the raisins and dates and walnuts over the rice. Place chicken breasts alongside the rice. (For a vegetarian and equally delicious version, simply omit the protein.) Serve with yogurt. Eat and enjoy and nooshe’ jaan!