May 15, 2008

Curiously Delicious Khoresht-e Rivas

I must admit, I have a terrible time following recipes. I always have to sprinkle in something new, change a cooking technique, replace certain ingredients, the list goes on. I wonder what this is about? I guess I like to think of it as leaving my own mark, somewhat like an uncharted expedition, oh yes the dish has been done, BUT I must go one step further. Or perhaps, I simply like improvement, to leave taste buds utterly satiated.

Hmmmm, maybe it's a bit of both?

While reading over a recipe I envision the flavors and ask lots of questions; Are the spices toasted? Are the shallots left to bloom in vinegar before being whisked into olive oil? Are the herbs fresh or dried? What type of salt? Will tap water suffice? Earthenware or stainless steel?

So today, while making Claudia Roden's Khoresht-e Rivas, (Rhubarb Lamb Stew) my microplane tempted me to add a heaping teaspoon of fresh ginger to the sauteing onions. Rather than adding the spices to the water, I awakened the earthy scents by warming them with the browned cubes of lamb. In the place of allspice and cinnamon, I added Garam Masala. Although Roden doesn't specify which type of allspice, I'm under the assumption one should use Persian Allspice for this very Persian stew.

I should mention that I'm currently reading Jeffrey Steingarten's brilliant book The Man Who Ate Everything (Yes, I know it's taken me long enough, so many books, so little time). While reading through his Staying Alive chapter (his quest for the cheapest survival diet), I ran across a recipe by Najmieh Batmanglij (New Food of Life), which calls for Persian allspice, not our ever familiar Jamaican allspice, but rather a robust blend of spices. This particular allspice is created by mixing together, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom and 1/4 teaspoon of cumin. So commenced my search for Persian allspice. Many recipes seem to blend together cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, coriander, cloves, ginger and some add a touch of turmeric.

So, I reached into my cupboard for a bottle of Garam Masala, which translates to Sweet Mix, although typically used in Indian cooking, it closely resembles the Persian ingredients that I discovered in my detective digging. A mixture of black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander. Containing six of the sometimes eight spices found in Persian allspice. I opted not to add turmeric, but did add fresh ginger, which I much prefer over the metallic dried version any day. I also dropped in a fresh bay leaf and left the stew to simmer.

After a little over an hour the Persian scents seeped into our walls and spilled into every room. A taste.... it is unusually sour and tart. Curiously delicious! Especially when spooned over nothing else, but Persian rice. Roden comments that in Iran, "it is said that no other country prepares rice in the same perfectionist manner. The result is a light, separate, and fragrant grain."

Roden has you bathe basmati rice in a few changes of lukewarm water and then a quick rinse under cold water using a fine-mesh strainer. Next step, bring about one quart of salted water to a vigorous boil and sprinkle in 1 & 1/8 cup basmati. Boil for about 6 minutes or just when the grain is a little underdone, "it must be slightly harder than you would like to eat it." Drain under cold water using a fine-mesh strainer and rinse under lukewarm water. You then add a tablespoon or so of butter or oil to the bottom of your pan and a couple of spoonfuls of rice. Pour in the rest of the rice and another tablespoon of butter or oil. Cover the lid to your pot with a clean dish towel, I simply tie up the loose ends and pin them altogether with a rubber band. Place the cloaked lid over the rice and turn on the flame to high heat for a few minutes (YES a few minutes, don't fear when you hear the crackling crust forming, just keep picturing a glorious golden shell), until the rice is hot enough to steam, turn to low heat and let steam for 20-30 minutes.

When it's finished steaming, gently cool the bottom of the pot. I just plugged my sink and filled it with a little cold water, then placed the pot in the water for a minute or so. Use a knife to glide around the inside of the pan to loosen the rice, flip this sort of large rice cake out onto a plate and voila a beautiful golden crust known as tah dig encases the moist steamed rice.

Tah dig
is a delicacy offered to guests first. My introduction to the tasty tah dig was many years ago at my good friend Alexandra's house, she makes the best crusty rice ever and serves it with a delicious parsley & lemon stew. I made my first dish of Persian rice and I don't think rice will ever be the same, tah dig is toothy and satisfyingly crisp.

Tasting notes: Savory rhubarb, who would have guessed? A tart punch from the rhubarb and the lemon lighten up the richness of the stewed lamb. A bright herbaceous flavor from the flat-leaf Italian parsley (I skipped the mint, as that's a flavor I reserve for tea and toothpaste). Scrumptious served over rice, especially with bits of tah dig.
Khoresht-e RivasAdapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden

If you aren't one for tart sour savory dishes, then beware. Travis and I both thought it a very curious flavor as we slurped up the last bits, I of course went onto seconds. It's definitely a fresh take on rhubarb, a dish that is a meal rather than just dessert. Delicious!

Serves 4-6 Serve this Persian sauce, which has an unusual tart flavor, with plain rice steamed in the Persian manner or the quick and easy boiled and steamed rice.
4 T butter or olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 lb lean stewing beef or lamb, cubed
salt & pepper
1/2 t cinnamon *instead of cinnamon & allspice, I used Indian 1t of Garam Masala and a heaping t of fresh ginger
1/4 t allspice

1 lb fresh rhubarb stalks
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

Heat 2 T of the butter or oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion until golden add the fresh ginger. Add the meat and saute, turning the pieces, until browned all over. Add the garam masala and saute for a minute or two until fragrant then add the salt. Cover with water and
bring to a boil and simmer for 1 & 1/2 hours, until the meat is very tender, adding water to keep the meat covered.
Trim the rhubarb stalks and cut them into 2-inch lengths. Saute in the remaining butter or oil for a few minutes, then sprinkle with lemon juice and cook for a few minutes longer. Add to the meat sauce with the parsley and mint and simmer for 10 minutes.

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