Persian cuisine is an ancient one that is more familiar than one might think; if you have eaten in a typical Indian restaurant in the United States which serves Northern Indian food, you have eaten dishes which have their roots in Persia.
The Persians conquered the lands of Northern India in the sixteenth century, and brought their language, customs, clothing, architecture, music and most importantly as far as I am concerned, their food. If you have partaken of a korma in an Indian restaurant, you would not feel in the least bit odd eating a koresh, which, like an Indian korma, is a rich braised dish that sometimes includes ground nuts or dairy products in it. If you have eaten a rice pillau or a layered biryani in an Indian restaurant, then the complex layered pilafs of Persian food would taste quite familiar and comforting to you.
Most of my knowledge of Persian food is indeed “reverse engineered” from my study of the foods of Northern India, but I have had experience with Persians and Persian dishes for much of my life.
One of my friends from elementary school to high school, Nina, was Persian-American. Her mother was born in Persia, or as we think of it, Iran, and came to the United States with her husband to go to graduate school. They ended up staying, and becoming naturalized citizens. Nina and her mother were both dancers and singers, and both of them were wonderful cooks. She always had interesting lunches that she brought to school with her, kept warm in a thermos. When she opened up her thermos, I always hoped to have a taste of whatever wonderfully fragrant dish was hidden inside. Usually it was some sort of rice dish, sometimes with tiny lamb meatballs that were seasoned delicately.
Those little tastes of Nina’s mother’s cooking captured my imagination and held my attention for decades and a few years ago, I decided to set out to learn a few things about Persian cookery. When I started studying in earnest, I realized that much of what I had learned about Indian cookery was applicable to Persian foods.
One dish that has become an instant favorite in my household is called “Albalu Polow,” and it is a layered rice pillau or pilaf that is mainly flavored with sour cherries. The recipe I learned is from Najmieh K. Batmanglij’s fine book, A Taste of Persia.
When I was at the farmer’s market Wednsday, and saw the quart baskets of sour cherries lined up, I recalled Najmieh’s recollections of the sour cherry harvest in her parent’s home. “The crates were placed in the garden by the stone fountain and gently sprinkled to wash off the dust. Then they were transferred to brown wicker baskets to be made ready for jam making. But my three sisters and I saw to it that only half of them became jam. We soaked all our sense in sour cherries: we hung double stemmed ones over our ears for earrings; we pinned clusters to our clothes for broochesl we squeezed the juice onto our lips to make them red. And, of course, we ate them, masses of them, fresh, juicy and luscious. We feasted on cherries. At lunch there would be rice with sour cherries and meatballs….” (pg 108 A Taste of Persia.)
My thoughts filled with the idea of pilaf made with fresh sour cherries, I bought two quarts, and rushed home. It didn’t matter to me that I had only made the dish with dried sour cherries before–here was a chance to taste heaven on a plate.
Long ago, I had begun the process of adapting the recipe, not only to my own tastes, but to a different cooking style. I ended up reworking the recipe considerably in order to be able to utilize my rice cooker. Though this simplified the recipe, I also ended up adding a few ingredients here and there in order to make it taste just the way I would like. For example, I used less sugar in the cooking of the cherries in order to make a syrup to flavor the pilaf, and I added caramelized onions to the dish. I changed the meat for the meatballs from ground beef to ground lamb, and I added more seasoning to them over the years. The only seasoning the original recipe called for was cinnamon, onion and salt; I eventually added freshly ground pepper, a bit of garlic, some cilantro (which I learned may have originated in Persia), and coriander.
At any rate, here is my version of Persian Cherry Pilaf, which Zak (who swears this is one of his favorite foods ever) declares is even better with fresh cherries. The flavor is sweet, tart and rich with the aroma of spiced lamb. The cherry juice stains the rice a roseate hue, and the fruits themselves soften to a velvety texture from being cooked twice. The almonds add crunch and a pale color, while the cilantro adds an herbal fragrance and sparkles of green to the dish.
Persian Cherry Pilaf (Albalu Polow)
1 pound ground lamb
1 large onion–3/4 sliced and reserved, and 1/4 minced
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 handful fresh cilantro stems and leaves
1/2 teaspoon coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups pitted tart cherries (pit over the cooking pot in order to save as much juice as possible)
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups water
1/8 cup olive oil
3 cups basmati rice, rinsed and drained
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 handful cilantro leaves, minced
Grind up minced onion, garlic, cilantro and spices into a fine paste. Mix together with ground lamb until smooth. Form into meatballs about the size of hazelnuts.
In a medium saucepan, heat cherries, water and sugar to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for about twenty minutes. Carefully drain cherries, reserving juice in a measuring cup–there should be more than two cups–probably close to three cups of juice.
In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat olive oil on medium heat. Add meatballs, and carefully brown on all sides. They are delicate, so instead of stirring them, I like to just shake the pan to turn them. When they are about halfway done and the lamb fat has begun to render out of them, add onions, and cook until the meatballs are completely brown and the onions are dark golden, shaking the pan or stirring gently as needed to keep them from burning.
With a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, pull meat and onions out of the pan and put in the bowl of a rice cooker.
Put frying pan back on the fire and allow olive oil and lamb fat to heat up. Add drained rice to it, and stir, cooking until every grain of rice is coated with oil. Scrape it into the bowl of the rice cooker and gently mix together with the meatballs and onions. Add drained cherries and mix again.
Measure out your cherry juice and add enough chicken broth to equal 4 1/2 cups total of liquid. Dissolve salt into the liquid. Pour into rice cooker bowl and set bowl into cooker, close lid and hit the “Cook” button.
Allow rice to cook. When the timer shows ten minutes left, add almonds, sprinkling them on top.
When the timer goes off, open the cooker, and when the steam stops pouring out, stir the rice gently to fluff it. There will be a crust of dark red rice on the bottom that is rich and caramelized. That is the best part.
I serve it sprinkled with a few more almonds and garnished with the minced cilantro.
This is really good with a salad of mixed greens garnished with fresh goat cheese and dressed with a simple vinaigrette made with olive oil, a bit of salt and pomegranate molasses, which is the concentrated juice of pomegranates. It makes an awesome, if somewhat rich, salad dressing.
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