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

 

La Camargue – La Telline

You could have missed the restaurant if you weren’t paying enough attention. Luckily, we were on bicycles, so we saw the little white wooden sign as it emerged from beneath a tree on the front of the property. La Telline.

For my inaugural multi-day cycling trip, we had embarked for 8 days in the South of France. A loop starting from Avignon, going southwards towards the sea, then up and west through Nîmes and Uzès, and back again. We would spend two nights in the Camargue – a preserved wetlands region at the mouth of the Rhône river. The Camargue is known for its rice cultivation, its wild pink flamingos, and its gypsy population in the main city – Saintes Marie de la Mer.

Flamingos in the Camargue

Flamingos in the Camargue

Having done some restaurant research (but not too much) I found mentions of La Telline in a number of places and was charmed but the down-home feel from its website. In red italics at the bottom of the page with a little “no entry” symbol reads the warning “The restaurant does not accept credit cards.” I decided that if we were going to go all-out for one nice (cash only) meal, it should be there. I’d packed a nice-looking skirt that fit smugly over my bicycle shorts, and we set out in the morning from Arles riding along the banks of the Rhône before our lunch.

The dining room at La Telline

The dining room at La Telline

The interior of the restaurant feels like someone’s home – smartly decorated with antique radios, bullfighting posters from decades past, cast-iron tools, ancient water jugs and drinking glasses. Everything delicate about France that you can spy at garage sale is here – but it’s clean and displayed in an attentive, cozy way.

One of their specialties, of course, is tellines – little oblong clams that can be fished in and around the Camargue. They serve them cooked and cooled in a tall round white ceramic dish, stirred with an aïoli thin enough to not disturb the pleasure of a simple dish of steamed clams.

Another specialty is the grilled bull steak. Bulls are grown in the Camargue to support the local tradition of the ferias, or local festivals featuring bullfights. The bulls that don’t have the right “character” to fight are used for consumption. The meat, grilled in front of us on the fireplace, had that same tender firmness of duck breast – but with a distinctly beef flavor.

I ordered the grilled eel, which was also cooked in front of us on the fire. Both of our main dishes were served with locally grown red rice, and a side dish of sautéed carrots with garlic and shallots.

We enjoyed a locally harvested wine with our meal – first, a white with our starter, and then a red from the same vineyard for the main.

As we finished our lunch, the mood of the restaurant loosened up a bit and the patron and his wife chatted with us.The wine we’d drank was from a vineyard just down the road – we’d passed it on our way in.

Where were we staying? asked the patronne, and as it turned out, our innkeepers were close personal friends of the restauranteurs.

During our two days in the Camargue, we’d come to realize that most of the mom-and-pop tourist businesses all knew each other. When we cycled back to the vineyard to pick up two bottles for our stay, the winemaker also nodded at the name of the inn. “Ah! You’re staying at Irène and David’s place.”

We arrived at the inn and Irène was thrilled we’d had a good lunch – “ce sont nos amis proches !” We enjoyed our dinner that night on the small terrace of our little two-room rental apartment.

Besides the restaurant, and the winemaker, our other favorite food-related visit was the Maison du Riz – founded by a local riziculteur, they sell rice from their own production, as well as beer made with their own rice flour. The red rice beer, in particular, had a nice full flavor, with a hint of sweetness from the rice.

Bike on the beach

Bike on the beach

Links for the Camargue:
Restaurant La Telline: http://www.restaurantlatelline.fr/
Mas de Valériole winemakers: masdevaleriole.com
Holiday home Les Mazets du Paty: http://www.lesmazetsdupaty.camargue.fr/
La Maison du Riz: http://www.maisonduriz.com/

and also… excellent bike rental in Avignon: http://www.daytour.fr/?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

Marché des Lices

“Des étrilles, s’il vous plait. Bien vivantes!”

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Les étrilles

The woman in front of me in line orders a variety of crab whose body is no bigger than the circumference of a coffee mug. The hairy, freckled crustaceans are clamoring around in a green basket atop the ice, next to the lobsters who roam lethargically around one end of the stand.

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Marché des Lices

The weekly open-air market in Rennes is a sight to behold, with it’s painfully tender kouign amann pastries (you can never eat just one,) and it’s locally farmed cheeses that don’t have nationally recognizable names, just subtitles on their price signs that read “Ça déchire grave !” (it’s seriously awesome!) Many of the vegetable stands are run by elderly locals, or young apple farmers trying to make a go of it. There are crepe trucks – many crepe trucks – and I stand on the sidelines observing which one has the longest lines to figure out which one is the best.

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Kouign Amann

Extensive Google searching has not revealed to me which market, exactly, is the largest market in France. This is difficult to search for in French because when you look for statistics about the “largest food market” you find all sorts of economic figures about general food sales. In any case, the Marché des Lices can’t be far off from the biggest.

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Breton radishes

There is a kind of overwhelming, food-induced joy that comes over me sometimes: the first time I tried French demi-sel butter, with it’s large sea salt crystals; the first time my taste buds had the pleasure of meeting a Mogador macaron by Pierre Hermé (milk chocolate flavored with passion fruit;) and the first fresh salicorne (samphire) stalk I was able to pick out of the ground myself, along the salt marshes in Guérande, and crunch on.

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Leek to go

When I was an American teenager employed at a gourmet grocery store in New England, I dreamed of French open-air food markets as glorious as the Marché des Lices. There is not one, but two covered market buildings: one filled with butcher counters, and the other filled with bakers, jam-makers, cheese-mongers, and other sellers. The outdoor space lying around the market has different sections: the fishmongers and oyster sellers on one side, fruit and veg crammed around everywhere else. Flowers are up the hill a bit, towards the Place Saint Michel.

The most difficult thing about shopping at this market is that I’m only buying food for a meal or two, before I have to hop back in the train to Paris the next day. It’s not exactly practical to carry home clams or crabs or whole fish filets. On this last visit, I decided to go with clams – sautéed with cider and topped with crunchy salicornes.

Cider-braised clams with salicornes

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Cider braised clams with salicornes

Sauté one finely sliced leek in a generous amount of butter, being careful not to let it brown. Once it is softened, about 8 minutes, add enough clams for a hearty starter for two, and about a cup of brut bubbly cider. Cover the pan, shaking gently every minute or two, until the clams have opened.

Serve topped with lightly steamed salicornes, a heaping of fresh parsley, and a cup of cold cider.

A few addresses in Rennes:

Crêperie Saint Georges, 11 Rue du Chapitre
We were almost put off by the gaudy décor in the entryway – don’t be! The crêpes are inventive and different, and most importantly, delicious.

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Chocolate and espelette pepper crêpe at the Crêperie St Georges

 

Le Haricot Rouge, 10 Rue Baudrairie
THE place to go for a coffee, tea, or hot chocolate on a weekend afternoon. Noteworthy for the various different flavors of hot chocolate, and board games at your disposal.

Bella Ciao, 16, rue Saint Georges
A small local designer boutique with jewelry, handbags, clothing, and home décor.

 

A Salad for Celebration: Autumn Tabbouleh in Virginia

A backyard barbecue for a hundred was in order to celebrate my Aunt and Uncle’s nuptials, in their backyard in Virginia, early last month. Friends who cater on the side were called in to prepare slow-smoked pork shoulder, “Carolina coleslaw,” baked beans, and hush puppies – which are a corn-based fritter, filled with seasonings and herbs like onions and parsley.

Slow-smoked pork shoulder

Slow-smoked pork shoulder

My contribution was to make an enormous salad bowl of what I like to call “autumn tabbouleh” and can fluctuate depending on the vegetables and seasoning available. This dish is one of my weekly staples this time of year, especially for bagged lunches to the office.

What follows is more a loose method than an actual recipe – many variations are possible, seasonally and tastefully.

Autumn Tabbouleh in Virginia

Roasted vegetables:

Here I used a whole butternut squash, peeled, cut into half-inch cubes, and tossed in about 1.5 Tbs olive oil, salt, pepper, and cumin. You could sprinkle chipotle pepper, ground coriander, a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, the list goes on… The squash was roasted at about 180C/350F for 20-30 minutes. You want it to get tender without getting too mushy or browned.

Roast butternut

Roast butternut

There are also four roasted beets – rinsed and wrapped in foil, cook them at 180C/350F for an hour to an hour and a half. Check if they’re done by piercing them with a knife; if they’re tender, take them out of the oven and let them cool before peeling.

Colorful beets

Colorful beets

Raw vegetables:

Celery wasn’t part of the plan, but there were three stalks left in the fridge – peeled, chopped, and away we go.

Three bunches of scallions went into this, rinsed and chopped.

Fruit

I used the seeds of one pomegranate and about a fistful of dried cranberries.

Pomegranate, celery, scallion

Pomegranate, celery, scallion

Aromatics

Cilantro (fresh coriander) went in – a bit more than half a bunch. There was fresh mint in the garden, too, so we added a handful.

Crunch

The autumn tabbouleh needs a bit of texture. In Paris I usually default to chopped hazlenuts or walnuts, but here in the American middle south, I felt inspired by the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) at the food cooperative.

Sauce

This is where things get really approximate. I always make the vinaigrette in a jar on the side, first. I used the juice of two lemons, a splashing of cider vinegar, a heaping tablespoon of mustard (one kind or two?), salt, pepper, and a mixture of vegetable and olive oil. Lid on, shaken up, and then gently combined into the large salad bowl.

Grains

You can use bulgur, couscous, quinoa – even rice (but then I don’t think you could really call it a tabbouleh…) I generally allot for 60-80 grams of grains per portion. Cook according to package instructions!

Autumn tabbouleh

Autumn tabbouleh

 

Picking Pomegranates in Greece

“How does the dip get such a smoky taste? How can you mimic this at home?” I ask, baffled at how delicious simple things like eggplant dip, yogurt, and fried zucchini taste in this country.

“You have to put a couple of pieces of burnt wood in the oven – in the bottom, so that the eggplant gets the flavor of the smoke.”

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Last week, I turned 30 – and one of my birthday gifts was a trip to Thessaloniki to meet family friends and eat our way through town.

The French fries are sprinkled with oregano. The cheeses are all names I’ve never heard of (except, of course, for the feta and halloumi) and are served baked with tomatoes, fried, or covered with sesame seeds and honey (we ordered two of those…) The smoked mackerel with red onions has the same deep wood flavor as the eggplant dip – not like the peppery kind I buy at home in Paris.

“What is this white stuff with the octopus?” thinking it was a sort of a labneh, the Lebanese cheese spread – the waiter looked at me and replied with a simple shrug. “It’s yogurt.” I had imagined I’d be wowed by the yogurt in Greece but this exceeded my expectations.

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

In one of the food markets, a sweet street dog sleeps in front of a stand of salt cod.

In another, fishmongers shout prices of neatly presented octopi – the legs rolled under the bodies so that the carcasses look like sweet seafood flowers.

Lunch in a market fish tavern brings a spare guitar; a bourgeois-looking man who could be a city council member takes up the opportunity to play with an excellent errant accordion player. The other diners sing along to well-known Greek folk songs.

An accordion player at lunch

An accordion player at lunch

Dinner in a rebetika tavern listening to sad folk songs, and a first taste of retsina – a white wine flavored with pine resin. An acquired taste, it goes well with the cold dishes we order first – some perfect tzatziki (“this one is mixed with garlic spread,”), more smoked mackerel, fava bean purée (served with a dash of capers – the perfect addition of salt to the smooth spread.)

Rebetika - Greek folk music - at dinner

Rebetika – Greek folk music – at dinner

Fava bean purée

Fava bean purée

During the day, we climb narrow cobblestone graffiti-ridden streets to the castle at the top of the hill. I admire the pomegranates bursting from trees on small front lawns of colorful urban homes.

Each tree I see, I hope to spy a fruit that I can pick without a ladder. Finally on a small square there is a public tree – with fruits so ripe they’ve burst open on the branch. I climb, grab my prize, and snack on it the rest of the way up the hill.

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

The icing on the cake was a Sunday morning post-hotel-breakfast treat at Hatzis (http://chatzis.gr/), one of the city’s famous pastry shops, for a buffalo milk and rosewater custard. “I can practically taste the grass the buffalo must have eaten,” the flavor is so surprising and unfamiliar to me.

Buffalo milk - rosewater custard

Buffalo milk – rosewater custard

FiorDiFesta

Last summer, Italy beckoned. The way simple things taste in Italy blows my mind. Pizza, ice cream, coffee, tomatoes, and cheese – all held up to their highest possible standard, excruciatingly delicious. Excruciating because I’ll ask myself “Why doesn’t it taste this good elsewhere?”

I wanted to find a food festival. A celebration of wine, cheese, a specific vegetable, whatever – my only criteria were that it happen sometime between late July and mid August. After various extensive Google searches, I came up with the Fiordilatte Fiordifesta: a festival celebrating the cow’s milk mozzarella “fior di latte” in Agerola, south of Naples.

What my Parisian-American food loving brain was expecting: a regional cheese festival with samplings from different producers, perhaps explanations of why their cheese tasted different from other cheeses, milk samples, etc. Maybe there would be a cow or two, a tasting flute, a wine pairing – you see where I’m coming from.

What we got: a charming town-fair atmosphere with carnival toys for little kids, Christmas-season style lighting in the streets, and glow-stick laden teenagers. (There was also a concert by Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi, but I didn’t learn who he was until we were in the school bus shuttle from the parking lot, and a friend who went to Swiss boarding school got to singing “Te Amo” with the driver…)

FiorDiFest_Teenagers

Since this was taking place in Italy, in the country’s foremost cow-milk mozzarella-producing region, there was also excruciatingly good fair food.

FiorDiFest_Signs

The food was extremely organized: it was not a sandwich OR pasta type of festival, it was a sandwich AND pasta AND mozzarella plate AND melon AND cake type of festival. Meal tickets were sold at €10 apiece, and stands were scattered throughout the town’s main street for each of the six courses (plus wine.)

FiorDiFest_Ticket

Having eaten an enormous lunch earlier that day, my travel companions and I all shared one ticket’s worth of food.

FiorDiFest_Secondo

The food looks simple but the thickness of the pasta, the quality of the cheese and the tomato sauce, even the fried cheese balls – this is not your average fair food:

FiorDiFest_Pasta

FiorDiFest_Sandwich

After dancing the night away to Tozzi’s 30 and 40 year old hits, we scurried back to the rental car and back down the hills to Naples.