Iran, part two: Fesenjan

It should be no surprise that I have a thing for pomegranates.

Pomegranate

Pomegranate

One of the first times I ever organized a dinner party, in a tiny apartment in the 17th where I cohabited with a then-boyfriend, I wanted to make something with pomegranates. This was in 2008, I thought I was so clever when I googled the ingredients I wanted to use in order to find a suitable recipe.

The recipe that I found and ended up making was from a Persian cookbook writer I hadn’t heard of yet, and was for a dish I had never tasted. Khoresh-e-fesenjan, or Pomegranate Khoresh.

The dish was delicious, however the sauce was a bit thin. I would forget about it over time, and years later while preparing for my trip to Iran, I would re-learn about fesenjan: the magical pomegranate and walnut stew.

In Kashan, the mother of one of our CouchSurfing hosts had just finished making her yearly batch of pomegranate molasses, from her husband’s pomegranate trees cultivated on a small farming plot outside the city. She sells most of it to neighbors, keeping a few jars for the family’s yearly consumption.

Upon learning about this, my jaw dropped to the bottom limit of my hijab. “Could I try some?” Of course. Her mother appeared with a dollop of thick burgundy substance on a plate with a coffee spoon.

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Its taste is unlike anything else I’ve tried – it doesn’t have the same syrupy consistency as most of the Lebanese or Turkish pomegranate molasses I can find here in Paris, and it almost tastes as if it has vinegar added to it. (It doesn’t.) The secret is that she cooks the juice down for six hours, so the liquid evaporates and the natural sugars in the juice act as a thickening agent on the rest.

I sheepishly asked if, perhaps, there was enough leftover for me to purchase a kilo myself – and bring back home to Paris. Of course there was!

Pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate molasses

Her mother was touched that a foreigner was so interested in her cooking, and we had an exciting conversation about recipes translated through patient Fatema. What follows is the word-by-word verbatim, noted down in my journal, about how to make a proper fesenjan.

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Iran, part one

That first morning in Tehran, we stepped out into the street and I could smell bread. A friend’s father had told me about it: san-gak, sounds just like “saint jacques” (the French term for sea scallops.) I could smell it but I couldn’t find it, so we went to a nearby youth hostel for breakfast.

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

After that first day, spent exploring Tajrish market, I had a better idea of what a bakery should look like. We’d found a few in Tajrish – selling naan-e-barberi, and little cornmeal sesame muffins whose name I never managed to learn.

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

The second morning, I followed my nose and found the bakery, and let my male companion push his way into the Iranian line and claim one san-gak for our breakfast. He flicked the hot stones off the back of the bread as it cooled a bit on the metal rack before collecting his change and, following the local example, folding the bread into thirds and sticking it under his arm like a newspaper. We bought feta cheese and cherry jam from the corner store (“Hi! How are you today!” the shopkeepers recognized us from the day before…) and headed back to our apartment to have breakfast.

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

In Shiraz, we found the city’s best ice cream and I marveled at its elasticity. We met lovely CouchSurfing hosts who gave me the great joy of helping out in the kitchen – to decorate cardamom saffron rice puddings in celebration of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Decorating in Shiraz

Decorating in Shiraz

At Persepolis, our guide organized a picnic lunch. His wife’s Shirazi salad was the best I had during the whole trip.

Lunch at Persepolis

Lunch at Persepolis

In Yazd, we bought a whole box of baklava and snacked on it for days. The saffron rock sugar (nabat) was starting to work its charm on us, and by our final days in Iran, we’d buy a whole kilo to cart home and share with family and friends.

Baklava in Yazd

Baklava in Yazd

In Kashan, I’d learn how to make fesenjan from the mother of a Couch Surfer, who was just as excited to discuss cooking as I was – translated through the mind of our host. To be continued…

Setting the table in Kashan

Setting the table in Kashan

 

Eggplant Caviar and Muhammara

Mom’s broccoli casserole.

Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.

My eggplant caviar.

These are the dishes that will, without fail, provoke at least one or two members of the party to come up and ask “Can I puh-leeze have the recipe for that??”

When it comes to my eggplant caviar, well, for a long time I didn’t have a recipe. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t my recipe. I’d follow different variations of other people’s recipes until I finally just stopped using one. Sesame paste, cumin, salt, garlic, maybe a splash of lemon (or maybe not,) and just keep adjusting until it tastes right. (One time I did try a Greek version: no sesame or cumin, but a dash of red wine vinegar and lots more olive oil. Delicious, but doesn’t hit the same spot on my tongue.)

So after many requests, I finally decided one day to write the whole thing down. My recipe. Here it is:

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant caviar
3 small eggplants (330 grams)
2 Tablespoons tahina (sesame paste)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 Tablespoon olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 Tablespoon toasted pine nuts, optional

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F. Pierce the eggplants a few times with a fork or a sharp knife and place them on to an aluminum lined baking sheet.
Bake them in the oven, turning them over every 20 minutes or so, until the skin is blackened. You’ll know they’re done when the flesh inside feels totally soft and broken down when you prod them with a spoon. This can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 100 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the eggplant, and the room temperature.

Let the eggplants cool – then, cut them lengthwise in half one by one, and scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Combine all other ingredients and blend with a hand blender (or transfer to a food processor and mix until fine.)

This is best prepared a few hours in advance so that the flavors can blend together. Refrigerate it while it’s resting, but take it out 30 minutes before you plan to serve. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and, if you’re feeling fancy, some toasted pine nuts. Serve with pita bread or crackers.

The next-most-popular dip I bring to parties is based on a Persian / Middle Eastern dish, Muhammara. The sweet and savory combination of red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses is a crowd pleaser.

Pomegranate trees in Iran

Muhammara isn’t very photogenic, but this pomegranate trees is.

Muhammara
1.5 cups (120 grams) walnuts
4 roasted red peppers (230 grams) drained
1 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 clove garlic, pressed

Toss all ingredients in a blender or in a bowl with a hand mixer. Blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature with pita bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

I scream, you scream…

Given our tiny Parisian apartments and limited storage space, my culinarily inclined friends will often daydream about shared purchases: slow cookers, waffle makers, raclette grills, and most recently – ice cream machines.

When Frances suggested an ice cream machine, I thought long and hard: does it really make sense to lug it uptown and downtown every week, or every time my French lifemate wants more homemade chocolate sorbet? But then a light bulb went off.

dsc_1250.jpg

Pumpkin coconut ice cream

Another dear friend, Meta, was leaving town for 11 months – and she is known for commencing her dinner parties with asparagus soup adorned with a scoop of homemade foie gras ice cream.

Meta agreed to lend us her ice cream machine, and so, for the last two months, it has made many trips between the 19th and the 11th in a sturdy shopping bag hung from the handlebars of our bicycles.

We started with the masters: studying techniques and flavor combinations for sorbet and ice cream from Serious Eats, David Lebovitz, and NYT Cooking. Then we started branching out and dreaming up our own combinations: Frances, most notably, for roasted peach / miso / ricotta ice cream, and in my case, for doing a mashup of two recipes from Lebovitz to make a perfect fall flavor: pumpkin ice cream with coconut milk and cardamom.

"Potimarron" - red kuri squash

“Potimarron” – red kuri squash

Lots of websites try to tell you that you CAN make ice cream even without an ice cream maker, but to be honest, if you don’t have one of these frozen turbine machines, just stick to granita. In our case, the cheapest turbine machine is only around 40 euros at Darty, so even when Meta comes back, I think we’ll be investing in some new kitchen appliances.

Pumpkin Coconut Ice Cream

Inspired by two recipes from David Lebovitz: Pumpkin Ice Cream and Coconut Ice Cream with Saffron

Ingredients
400 ml (14 oz) coconut milk
200 ml (7 oz) light cream (18% fat)
95 g (1/3 cup plus 2Tablespoons) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
180 g (3/4 cup) pumpkin puree (see note)
60g (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon dried ginger
1 heaping Tablespoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 or 2 grinds of pepper

Method

Start by preparing the bowls you’ll need: two medium, one large, plus one large saucepan.

Fill the large bowl halfway with ice cubes and some cold water, and place one of the medium bowls in the ice bath. Pour the cream into said medium bowl and set aside.

Beat the egg yolks in the other medium bowl until well combined.

In the saucepan, heat the coconut milk, granulated sugar, and salt over medium low heat. Once it’s hot and producing steam, but before it bubbles, take it off the heat. Whisk about three spoonfuls of the warm milk, one at a time, into the egg yolks to heat them gently without scrambling them. Once they are lukewarm, pour them into the saucepan with the rest of the warm milk and add the cardamom pods, cooking over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

Pour this custard into cream in the ice bath. Add the pumpkin puree, dark brown sugar, vanilla, ginger, and black pepper and mix well.

Cover and set the custard in the fridge overnight. The next day, pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing down on the cardamom pods to extract as much custard as possible, then freeze the mixture in your ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze for 4-5 hours before serving.

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a "cat's tongue" cookie

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a “cat’s tongue” cookie

Note: pumpkin puree

Living in France, I’ve gotten used to making my own pumpkin puree for soups and pies, since we don’t have handy cans of Libby’s for sale at every supermarket. If you’re using canned pumpkin make sure it is 100% pumpkin. Other options are frozen pumpkin puree, available in France at any Picard store.

To make your own, simply cut your squash into cubes: you can peel it, or not. Squashes with thinner peels don’t need to be peeled (like a small butternut, or a kuri squash,) but bigger ones (like French potiron) are better off peeled.

Steam the squash over boiling water for 5-12 minutes, or until you can easily pierce it with a knife. Allow to cool slightly, then puree in a blender, food processor, or with a hand blender.

The wax and wane of the cheese plate

Christmas Cheese Plate, 2007

Christmas Cheese Plate, 2007

When I was still somewhat ‘new’ to France, in 2007, I ate a meal at a restaurant along a medium sized port city in Normandy that concluded with an impressive cheese plate. The waiter hauled the thick wooden board over his shoulder and told us what all the different cheeses were, and allowed us to choose.

In awe, I had to discreetly ask my dining partners to repeat the names of some of the cheeses. I had assumed they were all from Normandy, since the French are so attached to their regional cuisine (after all, this was following a meal of fish dishes in cream sauce served with rice and boiled potatoes…) To my surprise the cheeses came from all over the country, although the majority of them were from that dairy-farm-rich state along the sea.

The fact that my dining partners could remember them all was just as impressive as the spread of cheeses itself. The round orange one wrapped in twine? Livarot. The whiter, square one that was being cut into elegant triangles? Pont l’Eveque. And the whitest creamy one that stood higher and firmer than the rest? Coulommiers.

I couldn’t believe they remembered them all. But how? De Gaulle once famously remarked that it was impossible to govern a country with 365 different kinds of cheese, but how did everyone remember their names?

I made a silent vow to myself to start to remember those cheeses, to know what kinds of milk they were made from and whether or not it was common to find raw-milk varieties. The fat contents were less important – except for the triple-cream beauties from Burgandy, like Brillat-Savarin, but the regions were vital in understanding the family tree of French cheeses. Some regions are more famous for their semi-mature aged cheeses with thick crusts that (most people) don’t eat, while others age their cheeses in beer or nut liquor.

There was no clear-cut etiquette about how many cheeses one was expected to ask for off the board at a medium-range restaurant. Weight-minding women took one or two, most people took three, and burly men who had nothing to fear took four. I don’t think anyone had the gall to ask for five. The waiter expertly cut each sliver of cheese in whatever way was custom for that cheese, with whichever shape of knife was most appropriate.

A year later, I celebrated Christmas with the same Norman family. Three days worth of hand-written dinner menus were displayed on the piano downstairs as folks arrived from all over northern France for an extended eating celebration.

By day three, the cheese plate had finally dwindled itself down to one board, having been two fully packed boards on the first night.

These days, the cheese plate in my apartment in Paris is just as much a staple as the board was at those meals. The cheese plate waxes and wanes as the weeks go by – the bag the cheeses are kept in will rotate depending on what cheese shop we went to last, whether or not we (or a friend) brought something creamy and delicious back for us from another region (the best Beaufort from the Alps, 36 month old Comté from the Jura, or ash-coated Sainte Maure de Touraine – which costs half the price in Tours as it does in Paris.) The cheeses shrink and grow, multiply, and sometimes, completely disappear – requiring a total refresh of the cheese plate.

While I have my favorites close to home, sometimes when I’m in a neighborhood I don’t usually frequent, I’ll stop at one of my (other) favorite cheese shops to stock up on something I know they’ll have plenty of. Here below are a list of some favorites, and other Parisian noteworthy fromageries:

La Fermette, rue Montorgueil : specialties from Burgundy like Délice de Bourgogne, Soumaintrain, Brillat Savarin, Ami de Chambertin, and the dried figs stuffed with foie gras in December.

Au Coeur du Marché, rue d’Aligre: the “hall of horrors” with very dried goat cheeses, specialties from various French regions such as that long chevre whose name I always forget, the lightly smoked brebis, and various English and Spanish cheeses.

Autour du Fromage, rue de Charonne: for a St Félicien that is always perfectly ripe.

Beillevaire, various locations around Paris: the Machcoulais, and other house-made productions from their dairy plant in the Vendée.

Laurent Dubois, place Maubert: well known for the fact that he doesn’t only sell the cheeses, but ages them too, in the cellars below Paris’ 5th arrondissement.

Blueberry Cobbler

This is one of those dishes that missed its final photo shoot. It’s just so good that when you pull it out of the oven, you gaze in awe for a moment, and then immediately leave the room because you know that if you look at it any longer you’ll never have the willpower to give it the 15 minutes or so it needs to solidify and cool off before you should thrust a spoon into it. When you come back to heap a serving onto a small dessert plate, the last thing you could possibly thing about is grabbing your camera before you dig in.

I made this twice this summer, the first time in my mother’s kitchen in Connecticut. While traveling in the States late July, I bought a pint of blueberries almost every day and ate them as snacks while wandering around New York City in the heat, while reading in the Amtrak, and while sitting on a friend’s back porch outside of Boston.

When we got to my mother’s house, I told my French counterpart that I needed to make a blueberry dessert while we were in New England because the blueberries in France cost around twice as much. I nosed through my mother’s cookbooks, eyeing the recipes of my youth, but deciding to make something much simpler – no sour cream, no buttermilk – just blueberries, a bit of sugar, and a touch of topping.

The first weekend we were back in France we were perusing our usual Marché Aligre on a weekend morning, when I spotted a fruit seller on the corner of the square – Les myrtilles, 1 euro les deux ! 

Blueberries - two pints for a euro

Blueberries – two pints for a euro

In disbelief, I approached the plastic pint containers, expecting the berries to be covered in mold. I picked up two, three, four boxes – not moldy. I was sure the berries wouldn’t last very long (since the cheapest fruits at the market are usually waiting to be consumed immediately,) but I bought six boxes to the hefty tune of 3 euros. (Usually, a one-pint box of blueberries will cost 4-6 euros.)

I re-made my cobbler, and found that, unexpectedly, it actually tasted a bit better here in France – thanks to the better quality of our butter (sorry, Americans!)

Preparing the cobbler - before topping

Preparing the cobbler – before topping

Blueberry Cobbler
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s recipe: http://markbittman.com/blueberry-cobbler/

500-600g (5-6 cups) blueberries
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar, divided
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
75g (½ cup) all purpose flour
115 grams of butter (1 US stick) softened, plus scant extra for the dish
pinch salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Rinse the berries and dry them – I do this by letting them sit on the windowsill for an hour or so. Butter an 8 inch (20cm) square ceramic dish, and preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Gently pour the berries into a large mixing bowl and toss them with 1/2 cup sugar and the cornstarch, mixing carefully but well enough to ensure no lumps of cornstarch remain, then pour them into the baking dish.

Pour the other 1/2 cup of sugar into the mixing bowl along with the flour, salt, and baking powder, and mix well. Cut the butter into thumbnail-sized cubes and incorporate it into the dry mixture along with the egg and vanilla, being careful not to let it get too soft. I mixed it together with my hands, with a bit more force than tossing a salad, pressing the flour and sugar mixture into the butter cubes with my thumbs.

Once you have a mostly uniform, but sticky and thick, batter mixture, spoon it out into heaping tablespoons on top of the blueberries.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, checking after 20 minutes, until it is fully golden and browning at the edges.

Let it sit for at least 15 minutes before you dig in!

 

Michel’s Red Onion Tart

We sat around the thick wooden dining table after sunset in Avignon. The sky was still deep blue, slowly turning black, reflecting the colors of a mood ring.

We’d made dinner for our hosts – as we like to do when we play the role of overnight guest. Stuffed tomatoes and zucchinis (courgettes), a reminder that summer was quickly on its way, and a salad as a starter.

Ottolenghi’s red onion, walnut, and goat cheese salad with arugula (rocket.)

Michel commented on the onions with a grin “Ah, l’oignon rouge… quelle douceur.”

“Wait a second, don’t you have a red onion dish that you make?” my partner in crime interjected.

Red onions

Red onions

Michel smiled and nodded, pleased that his good friend’s eldest son remembered the recipe, one of his potluck staples.

“What was it again? A savory tart?”

I remembered, too – I’d already heard about the red onion tart during family dinner discussions of summertime get-togethers with the friends from Avignon.

Michel told us the story of having been invited to a conference in Spain that he didn’t want to attend. The conference booklet had included the dinner menus for each evening. One night, the group was to eat a “Catalane onion tart,” and Michel, curious about what such a tart would possibly taste like, decided to make it up himself.

“So, I added a bit of cinnamon, some red wine, and some small dried raisins. Cooked the red onions in a frying pan, and then poured the whole thing into a pie crust and browned it in the oven.”

“Wasn’t there some crème fraîche too? Or shredded swiss cheese?” asked Michael, testing his childhood memory.

“No, not at all!”

“Do you put lardons?” I asked, inquisitively.

“Of course I do!”

Michel beamed in telling us that he’d made the tart for a neighborhood association dinner, and minutes after having laid it down on the table, it had disappeared.

After dinner and before bed, I scribbled down my notes about the tart and vowed to recreate it, myself. Like a game of Telephone, I give you the Catalan onion tart, and invite you to make yet another version, if you please.

Thyme

Thyme

Michel’s Red Onion Tart

Serves 6 as a light dinner main with a salad, or more as a happy hour snack.

Ingredients

25 grams (3 Tablespoons) pine nuts, lightly toasted
100g lardons, chopped fine
3-4 red onions, chopped (500 grams)
1 cinnamon stick
1.5 Tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
60 cl (¼ cup) red wine
45 grams (4 Tablespoons) Corinthe raisins (see note)
3 eggs
15 grams (3 Tablespoons) fine breadcrumbs
one puff pastry pie crust
salt, pepper, olive oil

Method

Start by sautéing the lardons until lightly browned and crispy, about 2 minutes.

Add a splash (about 1-2 Tablespoons) of olive oil, the onions, and the cinnamon stick and sauté over medium to medium low heat stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and sweaty, about 8-12 minutes.

Sautéed red onions with raisins

Sautéed red onions with raisins

Add the thyme and red wine, stir well to incorporate, and continue to cook until all the wine has evaporated.

Taking off the heat, add the raisins and allow to cool.

While the onions cool, heat oven to 190C/375F. Blind bake the crust with pie weights (or a bunch of beans that have been collecting dust in the back of the cupboard…) for 12 minutes, remove weights/beans and continue to blind bake for 3-4 minutes until golden brown.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, season with salt and pepper. Discard the cinnamon stick and add the onions to the egg mixture, along with the breadcrumbs and toasted pine nuts, and mix well.

Pour the mixture into the piecrust and bake for 28 minutes, turning halfway to ensure an evenly browned crust.

Serve lukewarm or at room temperature, with a glass of red wine.

Michel's Red Onion Tart

Michel’s Red Onion Tart

Note: Corinthe raisins are small, black raisins and they work perfectly in this tart because they are about the same size as the pine nuts. If you can’t find them, regular black raisins would work, too.