Persian meatloaf with fresh herbs and barberries

Dast peech-e gusht

دست پیچ گوشت

You thought only your grandmother made the best meatloaf? Well, who knew, Persians make meatloaf too and they are not shy about stuffing lots of flavors into their meatloaves. The main component that remains consistent is the signature Persian flavor profile; a touch of sweet that is balanced with sour and the refreshing company of fresh herbs.

Disclaimer: my grandmother did not make us meatloaves!

These styles of meatloaves are quite popular and highly adaptive to regional tastes, preferences and traditions associated with each region.

I made mine with beef, a mix of fresh herbs, carrot and pear. Also in this version, like a game of hide and seek, I hid 3 hard-boiled eggs that are revealed only after slicing the meatloaf. There are no wrong combinations here, you can mix and match your favorite flavors and vegetables to create a meatloaf that is truly personalized to your taste preferences and palate.

Prefer lamb to meat, no problem. Want less red meat and prefer turkey, also not a problem. Want to swap the pear with an apple? That works! Carrots in meatloaves won’t work for you? Well, swap it out with parsnips or butternut squash or celeriac or sweet potato or rutabaga or turnip or… You get my point!

Evolution!

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Hearty beans and rice stew with beef and herbs

Aash-e Sholeh Ghalamkar

آش شله قلمکار

What looks like a soup or a stew, but is neither? It is Aash!

Aash is a slow-cooked Persian dish that combines a variety of beans, grains, sometimes noodles, herbs, spices and meat. Its texture most resembles a thick soup.

Aash is quite versatile and has many variations. It can be a comfort food, but it can also be served “majlesie style” – meaning the kind of meal you’d serve at a fancy dinner party. It can be the main course, or be served in small quantities as part of a family-style spread. Aash has its roots in traditional Iranian holidays such as Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

This version of Aash is quite hearty, and a favorite amongst Iranians. As with most such dishes, it is garnished with caramelized onions and topped with a flavor-packed mint and garlic sauce. Aash is often served with a piece of Persian flatbread, which makes it both satisfying and complete.

While the recipe that follows uses an immersion blender, it is traditional in Iran to use a “Gusht Koob”, which is a wooden implement something like a cross between a potato masher and a meat tenderizer.

To make matters even more interesting, it is also quite common to have a hot bowl of Aash for breakfast!

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Barberry and saffron lamb stew

Khoresht-e zereshk

خورشت زرشک

What are these bright red, tart, sharp, tangy, mouth puckering berries? Well – they’re Iran’s very own barberries!

When I try to describe these berries to my students, I am always asked what familiar fruit are they most like? “Are they like raisins, or goji berries, or cherries? Oh, I know, are they like cranberries?!”

The answer of course is: none of the above, and there are NO substitutions for these little gems. Barberries grow in the pleasant and mild climate of north eastern Iran near the city of Mashhad, which coincidentally is Iran’s biggest saffron producing area.

Saving me a trip to Mashhad, these days I can purchase my barberries from a local eastern Washington State farmer, Cryus Saffron, who sells his barberries and saffron at Seattle’s famous Pike Place market.

I have been to Mashhad twice, once as a child and then again as a teenager. My first trip was with my mom, aunt and cousins in an overnight train from Tehran – my one and only train ride in Iran!

Barberries and saffron go hand in hand like a well-composed symphony. Sometimes barberries are sweetened to create an invigorating sweet and tart flavor, and sometimes they are used on their own as a souring agent in stews or kuku dishes (egg frittata style dishes).

This stew showcases the prized barberries, which are sweetened with grape molasses and paired with lamb that is cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce until the meat falls off the bone. To make this more of a visual feast, it is then topped with lightly sauteed slivered almonds and pistachios and rose petals.

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Chickpea and lamb meatballs in an aromatic and spicy tomato-mint sauce

Khoresht-e Nokhodchie

خورشت نخودچی

I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about Isfahan these days. So I started searching online and paging through cookbooks for inspiration to see what intriguing and tasty dish I could come up with to share.

This is a simple Isfahani stew that once again has familiar elements such as lamb, chickpeas (in this case in the form of flour), tomatoes and spices, that are combined in a unique and surprising manner to create an extraordinary flavor profile and texture.

More about Isfahan:

Isfahan is a city in central Iran, known for its classical Persian architecture, traditions, gastronomy and a unique accent. In the center of the city is the huge Naqsh-e Jahan Square which houses the 17th-century Shah Mosque, whose dome and minarets are covered with mosaic tiles and calligraphy. Naghsh-e Jahan Square is one of the largest city squares in the world, and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Isfahan is Iran’s 3rd largest city with a population of nearly 2 million, and is home to numerous mosques with eye catching minarets, 16th century bridges, bustling bazaars, churches and cathedrals, museums and tombs. A must see for every Iranian and visitor to Iran!

I visited Isfahan only once, long ago. I must have been about 10 years of age, so my first-hand memories are a bit on the fuzzy side. I do remember the grandness of the town square and the beautiful and vibrant colors of blue, green, turquoise and red, all surrounding a vast reflecting pool with fountains. My most vivid recollection is the narrow stair climb up the minarets, much like the climb up Notre Dame Cathedral’s towers, for those who know Paris.

These days Isfahan, still so far away, is in my daily life. I serve as a board member of a brilliant organization called Seattle-Isfahan Sister City Advocacy (SISCA), whose primary purpose is to normalize the human relationships between these two great cities. In our effort to narrow the gap and bring more awareness of Persian culture, every year we host two events in Seattle: one featuring Persian food (food diplomacy that we call Chefs Without Borders), and another celebrating the traditions and rituals of the Persian New Year.

I am SISCA’s food guy!

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Stuffed onions with beef, rice and herbs

Dolmeh-ye piaz

دلمه پیاز


Caution: you must be an onion lover to proceed!

Name a culture, and you will quickly realize how many dishes start with some member of the onion family. Onions and all of their relatives are cherished and celebrated in Iranian culture. The onion family includes red, white and yellow onions, green onions, garlic, leeks, garlic chives and shallots. And in Iran, you also have Museer, which is an Iranian variety of shallot that most closely resembles elephant garlic, as well as Tarreh, which is a cross between American leeks and green onions. In the US these ingredients are available dried at Persian markets.

Just about every dish in Iran starts with and includes some member of the onion family. It is customary to have fried or caramelized onions prepared ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator to start off the dishes. Still more dishes are finished off with gently fried garlic, mixed with herbs, as a finishing garnish.

This dish celebrates the art of stuffing vegetables, which in Farsi we refer to as Dolmeh. Thinking of stuffed grape leaves? Yup, that; as well as stuffed peppers, eggplants, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and so on!

In this dish, the onions are stuffed with rice, herbs and either beef or lamb, and slowly cooked in a rich broth to create a tenderized and sweet perfection.

A coming together of ingredients in creative ways to improve the overall experience of the dish.

Unity!

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Lamb stew in tomato saffron sauce with caramelized quince

Khoresht-e Gheymeh ba Beh

خورشت قیمه با به

Quince is an ancient fruit that finds its origin in the Mediterranean and Middle East region, which offers the perfect climate for the tree to flourish. Quince is quite tart, dense and aromatic, and is typically not eaten raw; it is rather cooked in stews or baked in desserts or jams.

The fruit is typically harvested in mid to late autumn before the first frost. Iranians particularly love this fruit because of its delicate rose scent as well as its tart flavor. As with most things tart in the Persian cuisine, quince are celebrated and brought into balance with the addition of some sweetener.

For some, pumpkins mark the arrival of the fall season, while for me it has always been the first sighting of quince and pomegranate.

Celebration!

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Eggplant stew with chicken in tangy tomato sauce

Khoresht-e bademjan ba morgh

خورشت بادمجان با مرغ

Eggplant, otherwise known as the potato of Iran, is used in variety of stews, kukus (egg based dishes), and layered rice dishes.

This stew is a well known, popular and respected dish that finds itself served frequently and proudly on a Persian table. The very special and unique ingredient in this dish is “ghooreh”, which showcases Iranians’ love of all things sour. Ghooreh is the Farsi name for unripe sour grapes. Once harvested, they are then juiced, frozen or dried into a powder. These elememts are used anywhere acidity is called for.

Pride!

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Rice pilaf layered with green beans and beef in a seasoned tomato sauce

Lubia Polo

لوبیا پلو

Ask an Iranian what their favorite rice dish is, and they’ll likely say it’s Lubia Polo. They’ll then proceed to tell you how they make their version and why it’s the best! Though quite simple in composition, this dish has such richness because of the way the ingredients are cooked and the integration of lots of umami flavors such as tomato paste, turmeric, and cinnamon!

On a visit with my mom recently, we reminisced about this dish and prepared it together, exploring the various traditions and techniques associated with this well-known dish. She recalled how she used to make it for us in Tehran using good quality lamb meat with a thin layer of fat. She very specifically used an aromatic and flavorful oil called Roghan Kermanshahi, which is a type of sheep or beef lard from the city of Kermanshah.

As you might expect, it’s hard to find Roghan Kermanshahi in the suburbs of Chicago, so we opted to use European style butter in its place. With a good quality cut of beef (with some marbling), and a flavorful Italian tomato paste, the result was simply divine!

It never ceases to amaze me how a familiar flavor or scent can stir up so many emotions, memories and thoughts. My aunt Azar made the world’s best Lubia Polo!

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Tangy kebabs marinated in pomegranate and herbs

Kabob-e Torsh

کباب ترش

Kebabs are a quintessentially Iranian (and Middle Eastern) dish that’s widely available at Persian restaurants in Iran and abroad. It also takes center stage at dinner tables in Persian homes. Iranians have both a tendency and a capacity to elevate their dishes according to the availability of specific regional ingredients, and kebabs are no exception. This dish has its origin in the Caspian Sea region of Iran, where the climate lends itself to growing a wide range of produce, fruits, herbs, and of course rice.

What makes this dish delightfully flavorful is the use of various fresh herbs and pomegranate juice or paste, allowing the meat to marinate and tenderize over an extended period of time. Sour and aromatic elements create a magical signature combination in Persian cuisine, and this dish highlights and showcases this perfect harmony.

Traditionally, this dish uses a very specific fresh herb that grows in the Gilan and Mazandaran provinces of Iran and is called chochaagh. However, chochaagh is not widely known in the rest of the world and is only available locally. So when preparing this dish, I rely on all the other aromatic herbs that are easily available to create the flavor profile that best matches the original dish from the Caspian Sea.

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