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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Rice pilaf layered with saffron carrots and candied orange peel.

Havij polo ba gusht

هویج پلو با گوشت

Havij polo is not just another Persian rice dish. It’s rather an experience and a destination, much like getting a stamp in your passport at the end of an exotic journey!

Though there’s quite variety of rice pilaf dishes in Persian cuisine, there are probably 15 that most Iranians would be able to list without even thinking. Havij polo is in my top 5.

What makes this dish so distinctive is its simplicity and the delicate combination of ingredients that lend themselves to creating a highly flavorful, mildly sweet and aromatic dish. Each region of course will make its own variation on this dish by introducing more aromatics such as cinnamon, rose petals or rose water.

This is a good example of a Persian dish that can be easily adjusted to suit your palate and taste preferences. For example, I can’t seem to get enough of the aromatics, so I tend to put saffron, cinnamon and rose water in mine. I also like mine on the sweeter side.

Freedom of choice!

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