In many cultures, the first day of Spring (aka the vernal equinox) is celebrated as the first day of the New Year. In Iran and some neighboring cultures, these observances are known as Nowruz (Romanized spellings differ) which means "New Day" or "New Light." The precise origins of Nowruz—believed to be a Zoroastrian observance—are shrouded in the mists of history, but it is certainly ancient.
In Iran the present day celebrations last 13 days. It is a time to quite literally "clean house" (something nearly all Iranians partake in), buy new clothes for the new year, exchange gifts (on the exact moment of the start of spring) and visit friends, family, and neighbors. There are, in fact, a delightfully extravagant number of rituals and customs observed for Nowruz. Enjoying the great outdoors, picnicking, and visiting parks and the countryside are highly favored Nowruz activities.
The word "Sabzi" in the recipe below means "green herbs." On the night before the first day of Nowruz, many if not most Iranians will enjoy Sabzi Polo Mahi, a dish consisting of rice cooked with green herbs served alongside smoked and fried fish. Unsure of the local availability of the right kind of smoked fish (although people do improvise with other sorts of fish when the need arises) the recipe of the month describes a different way of cooking with Sabzi.
Although not a dish specific to Nowruz, Ghormeh Sabzi is an exceedingly popular dish in Iran. Iranian food often employs a great deal of herbs such as mint, dill, parsley, basil, fenugreek leaves, chives, etc. Persian cuisine goes back a long way.
The oldest surviving cookbook is the Kar-nameh dar bab-e tabbakhi va sanat-e an ("Manual on cooking and its craft") written in 927 A.D. As Iran is a vast country with many different regions, there is a great deal of variation in the cooking found there.
Rice is a staple of Iranian cooking and over the centuries Persian cooks have devised many ingenious (and somewhat complicated) methods of cooking and preparing it. Celo rice is rice that is browned and made crispy (the crust is known as Tah Dig employing clarified butter and/or yogurt). Iranian and Afghani rice cookers differ from East Asian ones in that the former can create the desired tah dig crust.
Another popular method of cooking rice in Iran is called polo (variously spelled, similar to rice pilaf which is a derivative) which is rice either mixed or cooked with herbs and other ingredients. And there is keteh rice which is plain white rice cooked by the absorption method. There are also regional varieties of rice in Iran, most resembling Indian or Pakistani basmati rice.
Many Iranian cooked dishes contain fruits (or fruit juice) such as apricots, cherries, plums, pomegranates, prunes, and raisins. Dried limes (limoo amani) are often used in stews to add a bit of piquant bite.
- 1 - 1 1/2 pounds of stew beef or lamb diced into 1 inch cubes
- 1 can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed¹
- 4-5 dried limes (limoo amani) perforated (depending on size)
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 1 large onion chopped fine
- 4 garlic cloves chopped fine
- 1 1/2 cups of chopped Spinach
- 1/2 cup of finely chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
- 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup finely chopped chives or scallion (green onion)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fenugreek leaves (shanbalileh)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups of water
- Hi-temp cooking oil (Ghee, Grape seed, Safflower, Peanut, Light (not virgin!) Olive Oil)
- Optional ingredients for this recipe are potatoes and leeks.
¹ Note regarding beans. You may prefer to use dry beans for this recipe. If so, use the equivalent of half as much as canned beans. Soak the beans for 5 hours or more (overnight is best). Drain the soaking water and then vigorously boil the beans for 10 minutes. Add the beans at the beginning of the simmering process (at step 11 below), not the middle.
- Sauté the onions in a tablespoon or two of oil on medium heat, in large flat-bottomed pot or iron casserole.
- About 2 minutes later, add the garlic.
- Stir unions and garlic frequently until the onions are fully translucent.
- Add turmeric powder and continue heating for an additional 2 minutes.
- Fully dry the beef or lamb with paper towels or a clean cloth (this helps browning significantly).
- Turn the heat up to medium high and add meat to the casserole and brown on all sides.
- Remove casserole from burner.
- Add 2 tablespoons of oil to a new deep frying pan and heat to medium high.
- Sauté the spinach, parsley, cilantro, chives (or scallion tops) and fenugreek leaves in the oil until they darken and just start to brown. Don't burn them or they will turn very bitter!
- Add the sautéed greens and water to the casserole, turn on the heat and bring to a simmer.
- Cover the casserole and simmer for 45 minutes.
- Poke a couple of holes in each of the dried limes, being careful not to poke any holes in your hands. I use the point of a knife sharpening steel. It works like a charm.
- Add the perforated dried limes, lemon juice and beans to the casserole and stir.
- Add pepper and salt to taste.
- Cook for an additional 45 minutes or longer testing the tenderness of the meat (which should be quite tender).
- Add more water if necessary; this dish should be the consistency of stew, not soup.
- Optionally remove the dried limes before serving. They are very sour and quite an adventure to bite into.
- Serve over the Kateh rice. A side dish of plain Greek style yogurt or tzaziki is a nice complement.
Kateh Rice Preparation:
Kateh is the easiest Iranian rice to cook, but it is nevertheless greatly savored. Ghormeh Sabzi is commonly served over Kateh rice. Basmati rice, now commonly available in the United States, is similar to Iranian forms of rice and in fact is widely available in Iran. Many cooks and recipes call for rinsing basmati rice until the water is clear. As we have discussed about Japanese rice, this step is optional. In our experience, rice sold in the U.S. is very clean and basmati rice is not overly starchy. Rinsing the starch that is present is not too good for the environment. However, Basmati rice does improve in taste and texture if it is pre-soaked. Pre-soaked rice also cooks faster. Older aged rice needs more water to cook than recently harvested rice. But I had good success with the following method. Measure out the amount of rice you desire (cooked rice is about 3 times the volume as uncooked) into a medium sized saucepan. For this recipe 2 - 3 cups would work out fine. Add water in proportion to 1 1/2 cup to each cup of rice. Let the rice soak for 20 minutes or more. Salt the water (to your taste, you can also add some ghee or butter at this point) and then put the rice on the stove and bring to a boil on high heat. As soon as the water begins to boil, cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Some Iranian cooks wrap the pot lid with a clean cloth (like a dish towel) before covering the pot to get a good seal. My mother actually employed this method (and she was not Persian) and it works fine. The rice should take about 20 minutes to fully cook. After serving rice, the best thing to do is to store the excess in your freezer.
Recipe by T. Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Shari K. Johnston-O'Neill
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