Saturday, December 9, 2017

I is for Iran

A year ago, I started the A-to-Z Kosher blog with an Afghani meal for my extended family the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (see “A is for Afghanistan”).  I am somewhat surprised that I have done only 8 such meals in the 52 weeks since, but Thanksgiving 2017 was a perfect opportunity to make another one.  Most of the same guests were here as last year – Josh, my son; Rachel, my daughter, in from Los Angeles; my niece, two nephews, my mother-in-law, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and, of course, Davida.

Davida and her children had visited Iceland last summer, so it was tempting to make an Icelandic meal, but (no offense intended) the recipes did not look particularly exciting.  I have a really exceptional Persian eggplant/chicken dish that I make, so I was convinced that I would find some good Iranian/Persian recipes.  I was not to be disappointed – my main problem was winnowing the choices down.  I decided to make mostly recipes that Wikipedia cited as popular in Iran, but that still left lots of choices.

The Appetizer:
There are several Iranian thick soups, called Ash, that look very appealing.  My initial choice was a barley-based soup, but that has gluten in it, so it was not an option.  In the end, I decided on Ash-e-Reshteh, a thick bean and vegetable soup with noodles.  I usually cook with canned beans, but the recipe recommends using dried beans and cooking them from scratch, so I decided to do so.  I started soaking the beans Tuesday morning and made the soup on Tuesday night, so that the flavors had time to meld (and, so that I wouldn’t be so rushed on Wednesday).  Originally, I was going to use gluten-free noodles, since Davida’s daughter, Hannah, is celiac, but we switched to regular pasta when she dropped out a few days before the dinner.  We had some whole-wheat spaghetti in the apartment, and I ended up using that.  Since this was to be a meat meal, I left out the kashk/yogurt, and since Rachel has an aversion to cilantro I left that out, as well.  It was quite a chore cooking down the spinach – 1.5 pounds of spinach is a very large volume, uncooked.  I needed to add it in thirds because my pot was already quite full with the other ingredients, but once the spinach got warmed up in the soup, it shrunk right down!

Carmelizing the onions was a lot of fun – the sweet, smoky smell is just sensational and adding the mint just upped the ante.  I put them in a large wok, so that the onions would be mainly in a single layer, and stirred them around often to avoid burning.  As it was, though, I felt that the mint got overdone – next time, I would add the mint much closer to the end (perhaps right before serving – when I heated up the onions to crisp them up a bit after having made them the evening before).

Tasting the soup, I felt that it was a bit bland.  I added some more turmeric, a significant amount of salt, and several boullion cubes.  After everything cooked together, the soup was flavorful, but mild.  I also chopped up some cilantro for those who were not averse to it, but forgot to serve it with the soup.  The guests mostly thought the soup was fair – the majority gave it 5’s, with a few 6’s and 7’s (average 5.7). Personally, while I thought it was good, it was not my favorite soup, and I would have given it a 5, as well.  Maybe if it had the cilantro, I would have liked it more…

The Main Dish:
I was definitely intrigued by the chicken recipe called Fesenjan, with a sauce made of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses.  It is apparently a very popular dish in Iran, and, after eating it, I can understand why – it was one of the best chicken dishes I have ever eaten!  The key to the dish is the pomegranate molasses; while it can be bought in stores, I did not readily find it, and decided to make my own, following this very simple recipe.  I got a 4-cup bottle of pomegranate juice and quadrupled the recipe.  It took well over an hour for the juice to boil down to the required amount – I think for the first 30 minutes, or so, I was just being too careful to avoid burning.  But, when it was done, the flavor was just amazing – it was all I could do to stop myself from consuming it all, right there.  It might be something just to make and keep around, since the recipe indicates that it is used in many Middle Eastern recipes (although I had never used it before).

I needed to triple the recipe, which ended up being a lot of walnuts and a lot of chicken.  I had to toast the walnuts in two batches and brown the chicken in about half a dozen batches.  Everything just barely fit in my big Creuset pot.  Except for using margarine, rather than butter, I did not change any part of the recipe.  I did exactly what the recipe said, in terms of amount of seasonings (although added a bit more pomegranate molasses than called for) and did not feel the need to adjust the seasonings at the end. The chicken cooked very slowly, as the recipe indicates and, sure enough, the chicken just fell off the bone when served.  Garnishing with pomegranate seeds was a nice touch and added a nice crunchy texture.  Next time, though, I need to find an easier way to extract the pomegranate seeds – it took me forever to do it by hand.

The dish got nearly unanimous top ratings – all 7’s, except for one 5 and one 6 (average 6.7 – I believe that is the highest average rating of any dish I’ve made, so far).  Given the use of pomegranates, I think this will end up becoming one of my staples for Rosh Hashanah meals.  It is truly a keeper!

The Starch:
Many years ago, Dani Goldberg, a postdoc that worked with me, introduced our family to Persian rice – white rice with a crust at the bottom. We all loved it, but I never really mastered it, so did not make it often. But, when cooking Iranian, do what the Persians do – and I decided to try my hand at it, once again.  I knew that my children would be especially appreciative.  The recipe is called tahdig, which means “bottom of the pot” in Persian, and the goal is to get a nice golden crust of fried, crunchy rice, with soft fluffy white rice on top.  I usually don’t try recipes beforehand, but was concerned enough about messing this one up, based on prior experience, that I did a test run of 1 cup of rice a few days prior.  Although I followed the recipe, it did not go well (while the bottom was crunchy, it was not golden and did not stay together), but I was determined to soldier on.  Mainly, I felt that I needed a deeper layer of rice on the bottom, and that making a full pot of rice would enable me to do so.  In fact, I decided to make 4 cups of rice in two big pots, to double the amount of tahdig that would be produced. 

Making the recipe was quite a bit more work than simple white rice – soaking the rice, parboiling, adding some saffron water, and then slow cooking for an hour.  But, it worked!  Both pots produced a golden crust and one pot’s tahdig stayed together in a complete circle.  It was amazing how quickly the tahdig was consumed – it was completely gone less than halfway through the meal.  I’m sure if I could have made only crunchy rice, the guests would have preferred it that way.  This was mostly borne out in the ratings: The majority gave it 6’s and 7’s (average 6.2), but with one 4 and one 5. 

The Vegetables:
Looking for vegetable side-dishes, I came across kuku sabzi, an egg-based fritter with lots of fresh herbs.  The main ingredients are parsley, cilantro, dill and chives, along with walnuts and barberries (for which I substituted currants).  Chopping up all the herbs was a chore, especially enough to feed a dozen people.  I ended up making two fritters – one with cilantro and one without.  The overall ratings were very mixed – two peaks at 3 and 5, with scattered ratings from 1 to 6.  While the average rating was 4.0, but with such a large variation, the average doesn’t really mean much, except that I would have given it a 4, as well.  I don’t think the variation was based on whether the guests had the version with cilantro or without, as I had both and found them equally average.

I was anticipating that the fritters might not have been big hits, so I made another vegetable – a Persian Shirazi salad featuring cucumber, tomato, and onion salad, with a lemon/mint dressing, similar to an Israeli salad.  One of the guests commented that I should have cut the pieces smaller, and I think I added too much onion (even though it was less than the recipe called for).  I also couldn’t find any sumac, so used lemon zest, instead, as some websites suggested this as a reasonable substitute.  The salad faired quite a bit better than the fritters - there were rating peaks at 4 and 7, with scattered ratings of 2, 5 and 6 (average 5.3).  I guess it is hard to wreck a simple salad recipe.

Both Rachel’s birthday and my nephew Zach’s were a few weeks before Thanksgiving.  I’ve been making the same pareve chocolate birthday cake for each of my children’s birthdays for over 15 years, and this year was no exception.  Even though the writing and decorations are not very pretty, the cake itself (especially the frosting) is very tasty, and it was enjoyed by all.  There was even a piece for Rachel to take home with her to LA.  Happy birthday, Rachel and Zach!

Up next: Japan!

Monday, October 23, 2017

G is for Ghana

After skipping “G” (see “H is for Hungary”), I return to the order of the alphabet with my first meal from an African country (though I had made several African meals the first time I cooked through the alphabet, before I started blogging).  My youngest son, Josh, recently moved to Washington to work for IBM, and we thought this was a great way to introduce him to the multi-cultural nation’s capital.  It took a bit of doing to find a date where we, and all our DC children (Josh, Noah, Emily, and Hannah), were available, but Tuesday October 10 was free on everyone’s calendars.  I had not previously made an “alphabet meal” mid-week, but I figured I could pull it off with enough advance preparation (and getting back early from work).

Given that I do not make many African recipes, I wanted to do something a bit unusual for this special meal.  I read in various places that goat was typically used in Ghanaian cooking, and decided that was the thing to try.  The only two problems I foresaw were 1) finding a source for kosher goat meat, and 2) convincing the guests that a goat-based entree would be fun to try.  Davida, although a bit skeptical, was good sport about it and the children (I was going to write “kids”, but thought better about it, given the subject matter) were excited about it, so it was only a matter of finding the meat, itself.  After a bit of googling, I found that Bisra, in Hackensack NJ, has a wide variety of glatt-kosher goat products, including the goat stew meat that I needed for the recipe.  They were great working with me, and delivered the vacuum-sealed goat in a small icebag-packed Styrofoam container.  The only small hiccup was that their delivery of meat was delayed and they had to work into the evening cutting up the goat meat to get it delivered before the start of Sukkot.

The Appetizer:
Groundnut soup is a typical African dish.  I had made it during my first round of cooking through the alphabet (pre-blog) as part of my Nigerian meal, and liked it very much.  That recipe included kale, which is not my favorite vegetable; the Ghanaian groundnut soup recipe calls only for mushrooms.  I decided to leave out the protein and make the dish vegetarian, to make it easier to eat afterwards, as leftovers.  That may have been a mistake, as the soup was a bit watery and I felt that it needed a bit more flavor.  I also probably did not chop the onions finely enough, as they ended up being a bit chunky and competing with the texture of the mushrooms. 

Ghanaian groundnut soup is traditionally accompanied by fufu, a spongy ball of starch made from either cassava, plantain, or yam powder.  I couldn’t find any of those ingredients in the immediate neighborhood, but I did find Afrik International Foods, a small store specializing in African food about 3 miles from our apartment.  A quick bike ride through 85 degree heat got me there, right before closing time.  The woman who helped me find the fufu powder did a great job helping me decide which type to get (yam or cassava) and instructing me on how to make it (lots of mixing).  I went with her favorite – yam powder, and now have enough for years of fufu.  Making the fufu was a lot easier than I had been led to believe, and it needed a lot more water than the recipes recommed, which makes me wonder if I was doing it correctly.  The recipe called for a one-to-one ratio between water and yam powder, but I ended up using nearly a 3-1 ratio.  I also added two pinches of salt per cup of yam powder, since I found it extremely bland otherwise.  The result was not unlike mashed potatoes – approximately the same consistency and a similar flavor.  I served the fufu as a ball in the middle of the groundnut soup, which was both aesthically pleasing and a very good complement to the flavor and textures of the soup.  While I liked the Nigerian recipe better (even with the kale), the Ghanaian soup was still reasonably good.  The guests gave it a similarly reasonable rating, averaging 5.8 – not bad, but not a keeper, either.

The Main Dish:
I thought that a stew would be a great way to use the goat meat – that way, if it did not appeal to some of the guests, they could eat around the meat itself (as Davida ended up doing).  Besides, I really love making (and eating) stews.  The goat stew recipe that I settled on was fairly simple, but seemed that it would be flavorful, with ginger, garlic and hot peppers.  Someone suggested to me that potatoes would be a good addition to the stew and, even though it is not in any of the recipes I found, I thought that yams would be a great addition to the recipe.  So, what I ended up making is not exactly a traditional Ghanaian stew, but sometimes one just has to improvise. 

The goat had been cut into about 1” pieces, but the recipe called for half-inch pieces.  I doubled the recipe, so ended cutting up about 3 pounds of goat meat (leaving me with 1.5 pounds for future meals).  It was a fair amount of work, but good exercise for my hand!  I mostly left out the seeds of the pepper (I used a bonnet pepper, which many of the other goat stew recipes suggested), to keep down the heat, and used canned, diced tomatoes, instead of fresh, mainly because I didn’t have a lot of time to do the cooking - I made the stew the night before, partially cooked it, and finished with 45 extra minutes of cooking right before the meal.  The extra cooking time was necessary, as when I cooked it the recommended time, the goat was still a bit chewy, the eggplant was not very soft and, not surprisingly, the yams were crunchy.  After the extra cooking time, though, everything got nice and soft (although not mushy) and the goat was very tender.  I was afraid that the goat would be gamey, but it tasted like a milder version of lamb.  It was really quite tasty!  Overall, the stew was OK, but not great. The guests were fairly split in their opinions – ranging from a 4 to a 7, averaging 5.4.  One guest really did not like the eggplant and another (who shall remain nameless) didn’t like the goat.  While I felt that making and eating the stew was definitely a good experience, unfortunately the recipe is not a keeper.

The Starch:
The two main Ghanaian starches to eat with stew are apparently fufu and jollof rice.  We had fufu with the soup, so naturally, I decided to make jollof rice with the stew.  Jollof rice is infused with tomato puree and baked along with onion and carrots.  The recipe calls for an optional addition of noodles, but I eliminated them to make the dish gluten-free, for Hannah.  We also had some leftover parsnip from an earlier (non-alphabet) meal, which I decided to slice like the carrots and add in.  It turned out to be a good move, in my opinion, adding a nice crunch and sweetness to the dish.  The guests seemed to agree – the rice was, by far, the highest rated dish of the meal, averaging 6.4 (all 6’s and 7’s)!  I baked the rice in the oven, as suggested, in a pyrex casserole dish, and that helped, I believe, in making the rice fluffy and keeping it fairly moist.  If I make this recipe again, I may try to add other root vegetables, since the carrots and parsnip seemed to add so much.

The Vegetable:
Many of the Ghanaian vegetable dishes are stews, which I felt would clash with the goat stew.  Instead, I chose to make kelewele, or cubes of fried plantains.   I used ground ginger, instead of freshly grated, and cut down the amount of cayenne by half.  As a result, the dish wasn’t all that spicy, but still had a bit of heat, which contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the plantains (if I make the recipe again, I would probably use more cayenne, closer to what is suggested in the recipe) .  As usual with frying, it took quite a while to make, especially since I was using a smallish pan, to avoid using up too much oil.  On the other hand, who doesn’t like fried food – the guests liked this almost as much as the rice, with an average rating of 6.0.

Overall, there weren’t any bad recipes, but nothing that really stood out, except maybe for the jollof rice.  I will be looking out, though, for other countries where goat is featured, since I really thought that was a tasty part of the meal.

Up next: Still undecided – probably one of either Iceland, Iraq, or Iran!