Saturday, April 11, 2015

Persian Jeweled Rice

Let’s go to Persia today! Or let’s save some money on airfare and instead make some Persian food!

When I was in Atlanta a few weeks ago for work, one of my traveling buddies found a Persian (Iranian) restaurant for us to visit. Boy, am I glad he did because it was good! We had a goat cheese appetizer with pistachio relish, split a lamb kabob entrĂ©e with a side of jeweled rice, and for dessert he got baklava with pistachio ice cream while I got cardamom cake (think strawberry short cake, but the cake part is flavored with cardamom, and it's garnished with fresh tarragon). They also brought out fresh naan throughout the meal, and an herb and cheese plate at the beginning (it had fresh mint and tarragon, a cube of really good feta, walnuts, radishes, and olives). If you’re in Atlanta or are planning to visit, I highly recommend Rumi’s Kitchen. Such good food, excellent service, and decently priced for the quality and quantity you get. For all that food, our total bill (with tip) was $61.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and house church friends start asking me how the trip to Atlanta was and what yummy things I ate while there. Of course I went on and on about Rumi’s, and both friends’ response was something along the lines of, “Let’s do Persian food for house church soon.” So we had a Persian feast this past Friday! Since Persian/Iranian food is less familiar to most West Texans (and probably most white U.S. Americans), I was a little worried that a few of us would get really into the adventure while the rest of the group would be skeptical of the flavors and/or the complicated recipes. But everyone was such a good sport and cranked out a truly amazing feast! As one friend said to me Friday night, “You set the bar really high with this Persian menu, and we jumped right over that bar.” Since this post is long, I'll wait until my next post to share our menu, pictures, and another recipe.

At least in my mind, Persian cuisine is most similar to Middle Eastern food, but it’s also pretty distinct. Thanks to its geographic location as well as its history, Iranian cuisine has integrated a variety of other food traditions into its own cuisine—including Turkish, Central Asian, Russian, and more. For a quick primer, check out this article on the 10 Essential Iranian Dishes.

For our house church feast, I wanted to come as close as possible to recreating the rice dish I'd had at Rumi’s. It had orange zest, pomegranate arils, and slivered almonds. I think it also had cranberries. And it had some other grated fruit that I suspected was fresh apricot. They also provided ground sumac for us to sprinkle over the top. From the 10 Essential Iranian Dishes article, I determined that “jeweled rice recipe” was what needed to form the foundation of my Google searches.

Jeweled rice comes in many different forms. But most of the recipes I found had some dried and/or fresh fruit, some toasted nuts, spices, and of course rice. Some also had fresh herbs on top. Some were vastly more complex than others. Some were yellow like this one, others were white like I had at Rumi’s. I settled on this recipe but also adapted it. This dish is pretty involved and time-consuming, as there are lots of elements to prepare separately before bringing the whole dish together. That was fun for me because it gave me the chance to explore some new techniques and flavor combinations. It also meant using a lot of bowls, pans, and counter space, especially since I was making a double batch.

That said, you will need some counter space or nearby table where you can spread out. Almost every step of the recipe concludes with “set aside.” You’ll also need a fine-mesh strainer for rinsing and draining the rice. Other than that, all tools and equipment are pretty basic. In the recipe below, I split it into two phases: Phase A is prepping and cooking all the components, and part or all of it can be done a day or two in advance. Phase B is where you put everything together.

I forgot to let my fruit mixture and rice come to room temp before layering everything in the pot . . . so after it simmered for 35 minutes it was still cold. Oops. If that happens to you, no worries! I scooped out the top layer of rice and about half the fruit and microwaved it, then turned the burner up to about medium in order to better toast the bottom layer of rice. When the microwaved portion was warmed up, I added it back into the pot and put the lid back on so it would finish warming through. And you know what? It turned out just fine. So be of good cheer. This dish is complex and has some unfamiliar techniques--and if this is your first foray into Persian cooking like it was mine, there’s a good chance everything will not go perfectly. Just embrace it, improvise, and you’ll be good.

A few random notes: I doubled the quantities listed below, and it filled my 4-quart Pyrex bowl. For house church I left out the onion due to a friend’s onion intolerance; it was really good without the onion, but I bet it’d also be really good with, so I’ve kept the onion in the recipe. If you wanted to add some greenery to this, fresh tarragon would be phenomenal, and fresh mint would also be good. See also my notes at the end of the recipe.

Persian Jeweled Rice

Adapted from The Gutsy Gourmet
Yield: 4-6 servings for a regular meal; plenty more servings for a potluck

1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 cups basmati rice
1/4 cup dried apricots
3/4 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 medium carrots
Peel from one orange (cut into matchsticks—not zested on a microplane)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 Tbsp. + 3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground turmeric + about 1/8 tsp. in a later step
Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup pomegranate arils (seeds)

Phase A: Preparing and cooking the various components. All of Phase A can be done the day before. That’s what I did.

1.  Heat a dry skillet over medium to medium-low heat. Spread almonds evenly in the skillet and toast, shaking/stirring periodically, until toasted and fragrant. Remove to a plate; set aside and allow to cool. If using two kinds of nuts, toast each kind separately since almonds take longer to toast than pistachios.

2.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Using a fine mesh strainer, rinse the rice grains under cold water until the water turns clear. Add the rice to the boiling water, and cook for just 6-7 minutes, until the grains have lengthened but are still firm. Drain the rice and rinse well under cold water. Drain well. Spread rice on a rimmed baking sheet; set aside and allow to cool. (I think spreading it out like this also helps the rice dry out a little so the final dish isn’t too wet and mushy.)

3.  Rinse and peel the carrots. Then either grate them using a cheese grater or cut them into 1-inch matchsticks. Use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove the outer orange layer of the orange peel, trying to get as little of the white pith as possible (see notes below). Thinly slice each piece of orange peel to make mini matchsticks. In a saucepan, bring sugar and 1 cup of water to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the carrots and orange zest, reduce heat, and simmer for 10-20 minutes, until carrots are tender (more time if carrots are cut into matchsticks, less time if they’re grated). Drain and set aside. (Are you sensing a theme here?)

4.  Slice/julienne dried apricots into matchsticks. Warm some water in a small bowl or 2- to 4-cup measuring cup. Add the dried apricots and cranberries to the hot water. Let soak for 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.*

5.  Heat butter and 1 Tbsp. of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, season with salt, and cook, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes, or until onion is beginning to brown. Add cardamom, cumin, and turmeric. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low. Add reserved cranberries and apricots. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the reserved carrot mixture. Season to taste with salt. If proceeding immediately to Phase B, stir in the toasted nuts as well.

If saving Phase B for another day, transfer onion-carrot mixture into a container and store in the fridge until ready to use; then stir in the nuts before proceeding to Phase B. Transfer rice into another container and store in the fridge. Before proceeding to Phase B, be sure to pull everything out of the fridge at least 30-60 minutes ahead of time to let them come up to room temperature. Or warm it slightly in the microwave.

Phase 2: Putting everything together and, most importantly, serving!

6.  Get out a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. Get a clean lightweight kitchen towel and lay it over the opening of the pot. Then put the lid on and fold the towel up over the top of the lid, securing with rubber band, clothespin, file clip, or whatever you have on hand. The goal is to have the towel in place (I guess to absorb extra moisture from the rice?) while keeping it from catching on fire from the burner. Set the cloth-wrapped lid aside.

7.  In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine 1/4 cup warm water with a sprinkling of turmeric (maybe 1/8 tsp.?).

8.  In the large heavy-bottomed pot, heat remaining 3 Tbsp. oil over medium heat. Add half of the rice and spread evenly; add the fruit mixture and spread evenly; add the rest of the rice and spread evenly. Use the end of a wooden spoon, poke 5-6 holes all the way through to the bottom of the pot (to help release steam and help the rice cook evenly). Drizzle turmeric water over the top.

9.  Put toweled lid onto pot. Cook 5-8 minutes, until pot begins to steam. Reduce heat to very low and cook, without stirring or touching, until rice is tender and bottom layer is browned and crispy, about 30-40 minutes. (I’m not entirely sure how you’re supposed to know when the bottom is crispy without messing with the rice. I just trusted the timer, went for about 35 minutes, and hoped for the best.)

10.  Spoon rice into a large serving bowl, mixing it up as you go in order to distribute the fruit and turmeric color throughout the rice. Use a spoon to scrape up the layer of crispy rice on the bottom; break into pieces if it doesn’t do that on its own; spread them around on the top of the rice (or serve them in a small bowl on the side). Apparently the crispy rice is a big deal in Persian cuisine. The Gutsy Gourmet even called it a “Persian delicacy!” Sprinkle pomegranate arils over the top just before serving.

11.  Now, dish yourself up a good-sized helping, sit down with some friends and let your feet rest, and enjoy the fruits of your hard labor!

  • I adapted some of the ingredients based on what I like and what I remembered from the rice I ate at Rumi's. But in case you like any of the things I left out, here are some possible reverse substitutions: Instead of 1/2 cup almonds, use 1/4 cup almonds + 1/4 cup pistachios or pine nuts. Instead of 3/4 cup cranberries, use 1/2 cup cranberries + 1/4 cup chopped dates. Instead of dried apricots, use raisins.
  • *Let's talk about saffron. This recipe called for saffron, but that's expensive so I opted out of that. There's not a real good flavor substitute for saffron, but turmeric will give you the same color. You just have to be careful with turmeric, because if you use too much it can give an off taste to your food. If you want to use saffron: In step 4, soak 1/4 tsp. saffron threads in a small bowl with 1/4 cup water; set aside. In step 5, add 1 Tbsp. of the saffron water when you add the cardamom, cumin, and turmeric to the fruit mixture. Skip step 7. In step 8, drizzle remaining saffron water over rice in lieu of the turmeric water.
  • For the orange peel, I found it easier to peel off narrow pieces and use a gentle hand to the peeler/knife gets a pretty shallow cut. But since oranges are round and peeler blades are straight, you’ll still get some pith. To remove some excess, put orange zest strips pith-side up on a cutting board, then use a utility knife to scrape off some of the excess pith.