Monday, 17 January 2011

Persian cooking class: Shami kebab, jewelled rice, beet salad & quince preserves

Christmas was fast approaching, so our dear Persian Table cooking class hosts, Reza and Tomoko-san, pulled out all the stops for a culinary red-fest. On the menu were donut-shaped spiced meat patties with grilled cherry tomatoes; a salad of beets, black olives and mint, the piece de resistance--jewelled rice--a dish whose reputation had grown to epic proportions in my mind; and for dessert, two varieties of quince preserves with ice cream.

To a Westerner, the word kebab often connotes marinated meats cooked on skewers or perhaps even veggies or fruit on a stick. But that is not the whole story (or even the actual story in the case of skewered fruit!). Across the Middle East, kebab can mean many things, the only common denominator being meat. Take Turkey, for instance. Kebab can be meat cooked just about any way, from sis (shish) kebab to the vertical spit roasted doner kebab and Iskendar kebab to testi kebab, a meat and veggie casserole baked in a clay pot. What I didn't know that the same ambiguity also reigns in Iran, and that extends even up to hamburger-like patties!

There are plenty of recipes for Shami (Syrian) kebabs in Googleland, and though the shape and size seems to vary from chef to chef and country to country, the common elements seem to be meat and some form of legume, often chickpeas, as in Reza's use of besan (gram or chickpea) flour. His Persian take on the dish is ring-shaped burgers well herbed and spiced with turmeric, parsley, tarragon, ginger, garlic and chilli. The chickpea flour and a little baking powder give the patties an airy texture.

The beet salad featured chunks of simmered beetroot with black olives in a garlic-lemon dressing, accented by fresh mint. A very unusual combination. Beets were previously not often seen in Japan, but they are becoming more readily available, now that they have been elevated to "superfood" status!

Jewelled rice is one of the pearls of Persian cooking. In photos, it always looks spectacular, a spread of basmati crowned with saffron-tinted rice, barberry rubies, pistachio emeralds and golden threads of orange zest. Reza's recipe adds almonds and pumpkin seeds for crunch, a collar of spiced onion squares, and a seductive sprinkling of rose petal powder, making the dish truly regal.

I was so impressed with the kebab and rice together, I decided on the spot to make this for my friends in Australia over Christmas/New Year, and smuggled some Iranian saffron into the country for that very purpose (g).

Quince is a quaint fruit often overlooked in the West, but prized in Japan and China for its throat soothing properties (of all things!). Reza and Tomoko-san had prepared two kinds of quince preserves, using two varieties of the fruit, which they served with ice-cream.

Thanks to one of our classmates who looked it up on her mobile phone, we now know that the Chinese variety of quince ("karin" in Japanese) has a smooth skin, whereas the central Asian variety (marmelo or "Western karin" in Japanese) has a bit of a fuzz. When prepared the same way, the flavour and texture of the two were actually quite different. Who knew there was so much going on in the world of quinces?!

Spicy chicken tagine with apricots, rosemary and ginger

I love nothing better than pottering about the kitchen on Sunday afternoons cooking up a storm without having to keep one eye on the clock the entire time. Unfortunately, time wasn't on my side this Sunday night, but I was in luck, as this dish was ready in around half an hour--thanks to my trusty pressure cooker!

It's been a while since we've had Moroccan, and I really don't know why. This dish from Ghillie Basan's Tagines & Couscous: Delicious Recipes for Moroccan One-Pot Cooking ticks all the right boxes for me: sassy fresh ginger right in the fore; tart, fruity apricots taking up the rear; flavourful herbs and a slight chilli bite. It all adds up to a bold and lively dinner ready in almost no time.

This was the first Moroccan recipe I'd come across with rosemary as an ingredient, so I wondered if it was authentic. The jury is still out on that one--I've seen Moroccan sources say a very firm non to that, and others that say it is used in particular dishes. Perhaps it's a regional thing? One criticism I have of ethnic cuisine cookbooks written by by non-locals is that they often don't include the local-language name of the dish. Unfortunately, Tagines & Couscous falls into this category, so there is no way to check with other recipes for the same dish.

But that is a minor niggle, really. This tagine is truly superb and, authentic or otherwise, I will certainly not hold back with the rosemary next time! I used 1 tsp of freeze-dried rosemary, as I couldn't get fresh, but this dish could certainly stand up to more. I think 3 tsp would do the trick. I might also try grinding the ginger to a pulp with a Japanese oroshigane next time round for a different texture.

I've adjusted the original recipe for use in a pressure cooker. If using a tagine/tajine or regular pot, the the cooking time in the original recipe is 35-40 minutes, covered, at a gentle simmer.

Spicy chicken tagine with apricots, rosemary and ginger

2 tbsp olive oil plus a knob of butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 tsp freeze-dried rosemary, 1 tsp chopped finely, the other 2 left whole
40 g fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1/2 hot red chilli, deseeded and chopped finely (or to taste)
1-2 cinnamon sticks
4 chicken thighs
175 g whole dried apricots
1-2 tbsp honey
400 g tin plum tomatoes in juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
leaves from a small bunch of fresh basil

Serves 4

1 Heat the oil and butter in a medium sized pressure cooker. Add the onion, chopped rosemary, ginger and chilli and saute until the onion begins to soften.

2 Stir in the remaining rosemary and the cinnamon sticks. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add to the pot. Brown on both sides. Throw in the apricots and honey, then stir in the plum tomatoes and their juice. (Add a little water if necessary to ensure there is enough liquid to cover the base of the pressure cooker and submerge the apricots.) Seal the pressure cooker and bring to pressure. Turn down heat and cook under low pressure for 5-7 min, or until the chicken is done.

3 Adjust the seasoning. Shred the larger basil leaves and leave the small ones whole. Sprinkle over the chicken and serve with flat bread or couscous.