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Category: Family & Traditions

The Fire Of Our Lives

The Fire Of Our Lives

There is something uniquely special about the appeal of fire, we love being around the warmth and glow it creates. There is something that draws us towards the bonfire and the hearth. I believe our memories- conscious or subconscious, personal or collective are a part of that draw. Most of us have treasured memories of people who have cooked for us- Mothers, Fathers, Grandparents, friends… We cherish these memories because they are a special reminder of the love and generosity we’ve received in our lifetime. We gather around the fire, and the hearth and our tables to pay homage to that gift. To quote Michael Pollan, “a good pot holds memories.

Tahran, Iran circa 1970

 

Most cultures have some form of grilling tradition which usually results in groups of people in the family or community gathering around a fire and sharing a meal together. Kebabs in the Middle East, Asado in Argentina, Tandoor in India, Churrasco in Brazil, Luau in Hawaii, Sausage Sizzle in Australia,  Gogigui in Korea, Hibachi in Japan, Chuanr and Char Siu in China, Sataay in Southeast Asia, Lechon in the Philippines, Braii in South Africa (for which there is a national day and anthem, which I learned about from Bon Appetite). And of course there is the classic American Backyard BBQ which many of us enjoyed this past Memorial Day Weekend.

 

Each of these traditions have their own unique style and flavor, but the common denominator is the communal aspect of the tradition. The lyrics in South Africa’s Braii anthem go “We stand united at the bonfire. We raise our glasses to the clear, blue sky, tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.” Gathering around the grill is universal. When we don’t have an actual fire, we gather in our kitchens. Near the hearth, near the source of the fire, around those whom provide for us sustenance and satisfaction. One of my personal highlights of the year is that moment when I bring the turkey out of the oven on Thanksgiving day. Surrounded by friends and family who applaud and cheer as if I just invented bread! I love that moment and appreciate their gratitude. Everyone wants to take a picture with me and the turkey- which incidentally works out nicely, it gives our bird the right amount of time to rest.

As an avid cook, I may be biased on the importance of cooking and how it elevates our experience. Beyond my personal passion, there is an important evolutionary aspect of cooking that may be represented in the fires we gather around.

Cooking is what separates us from our evolutionary cousins, what made us civilized creatures. Learning to cook elevated humans from lone animal to more intelligent beings. Some neurologist believe the reason humans have bigger brains than gorillas is because we learned to cook. By using fire to cook our food, we spent less time foraging and less time chewing our food. This allowed us to get more energy out of our food, allowing our brains to grow. Although the human brain is 2% of our body mass, approximately 20% of what we consume fuels brain activity. The more calories we consumed, the more our brains grew.  With more time spent around the fire, we spend more time together and learned from one another.  This topic is artfully covered by the fantastic Michael Pollan in his book Cookednow a stunning docu-series on Netflix. A visually captivating, poignant and educational series.

“The discovery of fire and its use with cooking completely change our evolutionary curve, enabling us to shrink our guts and grow our brains…The cook fire tamed us and socialized us by giving us the institution of the meal.” -Michael Pollan

This history of us is fascinating. Cooking plays a role in how we came to be creatures which have the capacity to enjoy life. A transformation occurred when we stopped cooking for survival, and started cooking for pleasure. So raise a glass to friends and loved ones who cook for you and who’s kitchens you’ve gathered around. Not only are they the source of many of our best experiences, it may also be that without them we would be a lot less intelligent!

I love to grill and summer BBQ’s are a wonderful way to gather around the fire for “old times” sake.

This week I’ll share my favorite grilling recipes with you. From the now (somewhat) famous
“Naz Burger”, to fun marinades for grilled chicken and fresh summer veggie recipes.

Happy Summer, my fellow humans!

Mama’s Mexican Fiesta

Mama’s Mexican Fiesta

My beautiful Mother Edna is one of my greatest inspirations- in life and in the kitchen. In life she is and always has been an incandescent source of light + love and my rock. In the kitchen, she is a creative genius. Cooking with my Mother has always been a pure source of joy for me and I have learned much from her over the years. She makes amazing dishes and somehow manages to always keep it healthy yet interesting. She is the master of creating Persian dishes, but balances that with new and modern recipes. There is never a dull moment in Edna’s Kitchen and thanks to her, many lovely meals have been enjoyed in our family Home.

Much like in Italian culture, in a Persian family you show people how much you love them with food. Combine that with the generous magnanimity of the graciousness of Persian hospitality and every gathering becomes magical. I grew up in a home in which my parents embraced that sentiment along with a deep passion to make the people we love happy by bringing them together and hosting beautiful meals. The pots and pans in that kitchen are exhausted! I can’t tell you how much work and effort they’ve been a part of over the years. I love these pots… so many meals, so many trips to the market, so many onions peeled, so many glasses of wine filled… so many memories, so much hard work and ultimately, so much love.

One of many cabinets filled with heavy duty pots and pans. More than kitchen utensils, they have been the vessels through which Mom’s beautiful cooking has messenger-ed her love for gatherings, people, family and friendship.

 

Given her exceptional skills in the department, our Mom (whom we adoringly call Duda) is usually cooking for us. On rare special occasions, I get to cook for her. This past Mother’s day was one of those special days. And in true Duda character of originality and unpredictability- she asked for Fish Tacos! When Mama asks for a Mexican Fiesta, she gets the best Fiesta! In this post I share with you the fun menu we enjoyed. It’s not an easy task, but Duda was pleased. Not only with the fish tacos, but also with sharing another delightful meal with her family, in her kitchen of pots, memories and laughter.

Tequila-Lime Baked Fish Tacos

Fish tacos, how we love them so… truly one of my favorite things to eat. I enjoy indulging in crispy fried versions once in a while, but in general prefer a healthier baked or grilled version. With the immense flavor of this tequila-lime recipe nothing will be lost, promise! There is just something so gratifying about a good fish taco. All you need is a white flaky fish, a zesty salsa with a kick, guacamole, a crunchy slaw and of course a nice amount of citrus and spice and everything nice!

My family loved this recipe and I hope you enjoy it too. With summer just beginning, this is the perfect dish to make for warm afternoons in the backyard served with a refreshing margarita!

¡Buen apetito!

 

 

 

Vibrant and Colorful Mango Salsa

This colorful salsa is fun to make, fun to eat and a feast on the eyes! The gorgeous colors make the table festive and the sweet and sour flavors are explosive! Great on fish tacos or as a dip.

 

Nani’s Guacamole

I think avocado is the most magnificent fruits in the world! It is rich, creamy, earthy, nutty, and savory. Avocados also have great health benefits. The list is long but to name a few they are high in potassium, good fats and they are one of the few high protein fruits. I love it’s creamy texture and use it as a substitute for butter or oils often. And of course, nowhere is the beautiful avocado highlighted more than in a classic guacamole! I don’t use garlic or tomato’s in my recipe, but feel free to add them if it makes you happy…

P.S. This recipe also works really well for avocado toast. It’s excellent on toasted sourdough bread with a couple of slices of tomato and a pinch of sea salt. Yum!

 

 

Pico De Gallo

Salsa Fresco

Forget store-bought salsa and with a few simple steps make your own tasty Salsa Fresca!
In Spanish, pico de gallo literally means the “beek of the rooster.” An internet search led me to several colorful explanations for the etymology of the term, but mostly urban legends and no definitive answer. According to Wikipedia “in Mexico it is sometimes called salsa mexicana (Mexican sauce). Because the colors of the red tomato, white onion, green chili are reminiscent of the colors of the Mexican flag, it is also sometimes called salsa bandera (flag sauce).” So there you go.

Now, let’s make some yummy flag sauce! This is a party favorite to be enjoyed as a dip with chips, and it ends up being great on tacos, nachos, burritos, grilled chicken… and so on.

 

Azi’s Red Cabbage Slaw
Honey-Lime-Cumin Vinaigrette

This was the first time I made this and it ended up being great. I love using red cabbage for it’s beautiful color, slightly bitter and peppery flavor and many health benefit- Vitamin C, A, K and dietary fiber to name a few. It adds a nice crunch to the otherwise soft textured fish taco and marinated in a honey-lime-cumin vinaigrette it became a great addition to our fiesta!

In case you’re wondering, it’s called “Azi’s Slaw” because my beautiful sister Azadeh was a big help in the recipe testing of this dish. She has always been a dream sous chef, putting up with my colorful antics in the kitchen… Thanks, Sis!

 

 

Fresh Lime Margaritas

Who doesn’t love a citrusy fresh margarita! A natural addition to our Mexican themed celebration but also a fun drink to make all summer long for those hot weekend afternoons to enjoy with chips and dip and friends.

Skip the high sugar content margarita mixes and make this fresh version at home. You can either use agave nectar, honey or make a simple syrup in minutes. I usually use agave nectar, but since this was a celebration we indulged a bit by using sugar. No biggie, everything in moderation! Just combine 1/2 cup sugar in 1 cup water in a saucepan and cook on medium heat until sugar dissolves. It only takes a few minutes.

¡Salud!

 

 

Master sous chef Azi and I toasting to a successful meal!

 

 

 

 

Persian Stuffed Peppers (Dolmeh)

Persian Stuffed Peppers (Dolmeh)

The term “Dolmeh” can be traced back thousands of years in the form of various stuffed vegetables and was popular all over ranging from the Middle East, to Central Asia, and surrounding areas. The vegetables stuffed could include tomato, pepper, onion, zucchini, and eggplant.  Stuffed grape and cabbage leaves were also part of this tradition and can be traced back even further in culinary history. One explanation for etymology of the word dolmeh is from the Turkish verbal noun  dolmak,  which means “to be stuffed.” Makes sense.

In the Persian Empire, references of dolmeh are traced back to the 17th century and the courts of the Shah (king). According to Wikipedia, Alī-Akbar Khan Āšpaz-bāšī,  chef to the court of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah, recorded dolmeh as a special category of Persian cuisine and gave recipes for stuffing grape leaves, cabbage leaves, cucumbers, eggplants, apples, and quinces.

My beloved late Grandmother made dolmeh combining green stuffed peppers and stuffed cabbage leaves in a large pot. She used tomato sauce and the end result was delicious! This is a picture of the dolmeh she made for us when my mom and I visited her in 2009. Those beautiful hands made many lovely dishes for us on that trip. And they all had the common ingredient of love incorporated. Many of my cooking inspirations are connected to that trip. Since my family immigrated from Iran when I was a child, this was the only time I cooked with her as an adult and I cherished every moment.

It seems the popularity and timelessness of this dish, is due to it’s simplicity. Stuff any vegetable with other vegetables, herbs and/or meat and you have a rich dish that satiates any palette.

I made my version of dolmeh for Nowruz (the Persian New Year) and they were a hit! The only dish with no leftovers and that says a lot for any meal in an Iranian home where abundance is the key ingredient to any feast.

It is a relatively easy recipe and quite healthy. You can make it meat-less by eliminating the ground turkey or chicken for a vegetarian option, nothing will be lost. The fresh herbs add such great flavor and aroma! Serve it up as a main or side dish and enjoy!

 

 

Nowruz! The Beginning of Spring & The Persian New Year

Nowruz! The Beginning of Spring & The Persian New Year

My favorite time of year has arrived! The first day of Spring marks the Persian New year, celebrated for over 3,000 years. It translates to “new day” and represents a fresh new beginning. Scientifically called the vernal equinox, it occurs the exact moment the sun crosses the celestial equator and spring begins in the Northern hemisphere. The duration of the day and night are equal, on so begins a new cycle of life.

As a child growing up in Iran and for the last 27 years in my Iranian-American diaspora community, Nowruz not only evokes fresh beginnings, but it also connects me to  my family’s traditions and an ancient heritage left in the distant places where my ancestors once used to live out their hopes and aspirations.

The notion of hope and a fresh chapter in the story is life, is universal. Nowruz is celebrated by an estimated 190-250 million people around the world and has been kept alive through a series of beautiful and meaningful symbolic traditions. Growing up the scents of memories of Nowruz were distinct: smelling the hyacinth (sombol) wafting through the house, shopping at the market for greens and goldfish, spring cleaning, leaping over bonfires, buying new clothes, reading the poetry of the eternal Hafez of Shiraz and sharing festive meals with loved ones. These traditions are what make this holiday so special. We set a haftseen, a table filled with symbolic items to represent some of these traditions. We visit loved ones, exchange gifts and eat lots and lots of beautiful foods and sweets.  There is symbolism in the food as well. For example Persians traditionally eat “Sabzi Polo Mahi”- Basmati rice with fresh dill accompanied by fish.  The fresh herbs represent rebirth and fish represents life.  Some of the symbolism of the haftseen is mentined below. These are just to name a few. In the coming days I’ll be posting the various recipes of the delicious food we enjoy over this festive holiday.

For the moment here is the Basil and Roses menu and a sneak peek of the dishes we enjoy over this 13 day holiday.

Wishing you all a beautiful New Day and all the best new beginnings your hearts desire! Nowruz Mobarak!
نوروزتان پیروز ، هر روزتان نوروز !

Sabzeh/Sprouts- grass grown from wheat or lentils, representing rebirth

Seeb/Apple– representing health and beauty

Samanu– A sweet creamy pudding, representing humility

Senjed– sweet and dry fruit of the lotus tree, representing love

Serkeh/Vinager- representing age and patience

Seer/Garlic– representing medicine and good health

Somaq/Sumac– A spice representing sunrise and light overcoming darkness

 

 

 

Musical Inspiration

Leila Forouhar- Nowrooz

Green Garden Herb Basmati Rice Without a rice cooker

Green Garden Herb Basmati Rice Without a rice cooker

Thanks everyone for the feedback on this recipe! Many of you asked for instructions on how to make it without a rice cooker. We gave it a go and the results were equally wonderful- and we ended up with a bit of delicious tahdig (crunchy bottom) to boot!

The recipe utilizes the same ingredients as the rice cooker version. Here, I used a nonstick standard pot.  Instructions are below. Feel free to share your results and happy cooking!

 

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Baklava

Baklava

Like many other traditional foods of the past, the origin of baklava is difficult to narrow down. Every ethnic group with ancestry connected to the Middle East has some claim to this delicious pastry.  It seems generally accepted that Baklava was first made by the Assyrians around 8th century B.C.- who layered nuts with unleavened flat bread and drenched with honey.

The type of nuts or syrup ingredients often suggest the origin of the recipe. Syrup with rose water and cardamom is most likely be from Iran or Arab countries. While syrup with cinnamon and cloves is more associated with characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and those of the western part of the Middle East. The Greeks version is often more walnut heavy.

I’ve had them all! Persian, Greek and Turkish baklava are all sumptuous in their own way. The Persian iteration  with the saffron + pistachios reminds of my Grandmother. The Greek variety takes me back to a wonderful trip to Mykonos a couple of years ago and the Turkish version echoes the sound of the call to prayer which we I  had in the Sultan Ahmed area of the the old city in Istanbul.

In a water-front cafe in Mykonosimg_20140809_170208

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At the top of the world in magical Santorini
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In Istanbul, the honey on the baklava had a unique flavor, served with a rich cream. It was really enjoyable with tea or Turkish coffee of course!img_20151005_000044

So I decided to create my own version, taking a bit of inspiration from each culture. What can I say, I like the harmony of honey and nuts and dough. After all, there is a reason in ancient times Baklava was considered the food of the Gods!

My recipe is below. The layering requires a bit of patience and time but the end result is well worth the effort.

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Musical Inspiration-

Soap Kills – Cheftak

Beer + Basil Braised Brisket

Beer + Basil Braised Brisket

Brisket is one of my favorite dishes to cook for my family. It’s warming and satisfying and one of those meals that’s wonderful to share. As we bunker down for the cold days of winter in NY, it’s the perfect hearty meal for a family dinner or for entertaining during the holidays.

There are many flavor combinations you can use for the braising liquid and aromatics. In this recipe I combined beer an basil and it was fabulous!

Tonight’s menu also included Rosemary Sea-Salt Baked Potato Chips and a Cucumber-Onion Salad with Thai Basil. Meat and potatoes are always a good compliment and the lightness of the cucumber salad is a nice contrast to the richness of the meat and potatoes. The Thai bail echos the sweet basil from brisket and it all comes together nicely.

 

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Healthy Eggplant & Egg Pita Sandwich (Sabich!)

Healthy Eggplant & Egg Pita Sandwich (Sabich!)

There are many delicious vegetarian sandwiches which originate from the Middle East and Sabich is one of my favorites! Possibly even second to Falafel which is so wonderful.

Sabich is inspired by Iraqi/Israeli street food and is dense with flavor. The chopped salad and pickles in brine offer a nice textural contrast to the softer eggplant and hard boiled egg. The hummus ties it all together.

Similar dishes like this exist in other Mediterranean cultures. In the Persian home I grew up in, Saturday morning breakfasts often included an eggplant and egg dish. Recipe testing for this post reminded me of simple family moments on casual weekend mornings. I remember my Father used to put red and white onion peels in the water when boiling the eggs which beautifully colored the eggs with gentle watercolor-like shades of amber, red and brown. This “colorful” memory made me smile. How simple things like discarded onion skin can increase the value and beauty of our experiences.

Try this for a weekend brunch or a meatless Mondays and you will not be disappointed!

Traditionally, the eggplant is fired, I saute or roast for a healthier alternative.

 

 

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Tahdig Flippin’

Tahdig Flippin’

This is how you simply and swiftly flip the Persian cake of savory golden goodness you’ve created in the rice cooker. The “Tahdig” is arguably the crowd favorite at any  meal so every cook wants to proudly present their masterpiece. By cooking it in a rice cooker you get a tahdig cake of the golden crunchy goodness to be enjoyed by all.

Note- you must do the flip with confidence. Tahdig flipping is not for the light hearted!

Here, my cousin Payam demonstrates:

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Green Garden Herb Basmati Rice with Basil, Mint, Chive + Rosemary (and an unexpected virtual trip home)

Green Garden Herb Basmati Rice with Basil, Mint, Chive + Rosemary (and an unexpected virtual trip home)

Rice is the ultimate comfort food. It has been farmed by people for over 10,000 years.

In the Hindi language “Bas” means “aroma” and “Mati” means “full of.” Growing up in a Persian family, that beautifully fragrant and earthy aroma  is part of the essential scents of home. The cue of happiness and an eternal symbol of family dinners, celebrations and tradition.

Cooking traditional Persian rice (with tahdig of course) is truly an art form. For how to create such a saffron scented masterpiece check out Persian Mama’s great recipe here. For a simpler and quicker recipe, I use a rice cooker. Not all rice cookers can deliver the crunchy and golden bottom of the pot goodness. Generally the Pars Brand rice cookers do the trick.

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In this rendition, I highlight herbs in the garden using basil, mint, chive and rosemary for an aromatic rice dish guaranteed to feed the soul (nousheh jan...). I was recently in Philadelphia and ate at one of the best restaurants on the scene in recent years: Zahav. Here Chef Michael Solomonov beautifully highlights modern Israeli cuisine. I was greatly inspired by his vision, the story behind his culinary ventures and the flavors of the amazing meal we had that October eve in the city of brotherly love. The Zahav menu excited my senses and my palate was dancing, curiously processing the familiar and the new. As you looked around, most diners had a sense of exploration, discovering the colorful melody of flavors and layers in each dish. Simple, humble and deep flavor that payed homage to the chef’s roots and to the beautiful simplicity of the pleasures we can receive from the fruit of the earth.

For me personally, what resonated the most in this culinary adventure were the familiar flavors of home in the smoky eggplant, the coriander, the homemade bread, the grilled meats and the pomegranate. But most notably-  in the herbed basmati rice. The Al’Haesh dishes (grilled over coals) are served with a side of the basmati rice that was not only delicious, but momentarily took me home. This humble side dish became the center of what all the other plates harmoniously danced around. This beautiful little pot of rice had the power to transform me to another place and time. To the familiar places where we feel safe, comforted and loved. To where I remember being happy. To the quite corners of memory,  to our mother’s cooking and the taste of my grandmother’s love in an old kitchen in Isfahan.  Maya Angelou  says “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” I found myself at home in this beautiful experience, and I hope you do too by trying my basmati rice recipe.

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Ingredients:
3 cups uncooked basmati rice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large white onion
1 1/2 cups chopped chives
5 tablespoons chopped mint
3 tablespoons chopped basil
1 cup chopped cilantro
1-2  tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1/ 1/2-2 teaspoons black pepper (adjust to taste)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt (adjust to taste)

Directions:
Wash and drain rice.
Place rice in rice cooker. Cover with approx 1 inch of water above rice.
Add olive oil, onion, basil, mint, chives, cilantro, rosemary and salt + pepper.
Mix and turn on rice cooker. Continue to mix ingredients a couple of more times in the first 3-4 minutes if cooking so all ingredients are evenly spread throughout.
Let rice cooker do it’s magic!
Cook rice for approximately 1- 1 1/2 hours, or until the indicator lets you know the cooking is completed. A smaller rice cooker may only take around 45 minutes. The timing can vary depending on the size and model, but trust their settings. I’ve never had an issue.
Once cooking is finished, remove lid and place a plate on top of rice cooker bowl. Holding the sides with oven mitts, flip the golden rice cake with confidence!
Valiantly demonstrated by my cousin Payam, here:
If you don’t have a rice cooker, see here for instructions on how to cook in a regular pot.

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Musical Inspiration:

The Idan Raichel Project

http://idanraichelproject.com/en/