16 October 2006

Paper Chef 22: The Immobilized Arm Edition

Posted in events, food at 1:16 am by Tricia

Paper Chef is a mostly-monthly event where food bloggers are challenged to cook creatively given 4 ingredients, chosen somewhat randomly from a list of nominations. I’ve participated once before, and came close quite a few times (like once this summer where I had all the ingredients and an idea – but only saw it after the deadline!).

This month finds us at Paper Chef #22 – The Slow Edition. The ingredients are: barberries, pumpkin, spinach, and “something slow.” “Slow” characterizes most of my work in the kitchen right now, so I have that covered without even trying (or rather, by trying at all). And as soon as I saw the barberries, I knew I’d be turning to my Persian cookbook, New Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmangli.

New Food of LifeThis cookbook was a Christmas gift in 2002, from my younger brother-in-law and his bride-to-be. Along with the cookbook was an assortment of specialty ingredients, including a package of dried barberries (zereshk). I was scared off them for a bit, since I was pregnant at the time and one of my books said that (herbal preparations of) barberries were an abortifacient and to be avoided during pregnancy. I never found out for sure if I needed to be worried about cooking with them – centuries of Persian cuisine would suggest not, but to be safe, I set them aside. And I set them aside for almost 4 years, because I’m just now using them. Every time I went to try one of the recipes in the book, I was put off by either the list of ingredients or the length of preparation. But length of preparation fit the Paper Chef theme this month, so that was fine.

The index in this cookbook is not so great, because it only shows a few recipes for barberries, even though they appear throughout the pages. But using the index, I started by looking at the barberry khoresh recipe (p 221) – khoresh being a slow-cooked stew. Nearby I found a spinach and prune koresh (p 219), a spinach and orange khoresh (p 222), a butternut squash and prune khoresh (p 215), and (not in today’s theme) a rhubarb khoresh (p 241) that I will be so all over next June. The obvious next step was to create my own barberry-spinach-pumpkin khoresh, but my attention turned to something else instead: oven-baked rice (p 152). Even before I noticed “bake in the oven for 2 to 2 1/2 hours” near the end, the oven-baked rice appealed to me more than the khoresh (not to mention the fact that I’m not sure any of my pots can stand in for the dutch oven best suited for khoresh). I somehow overlooked the “preparation time: 1 hour 40 minutes” that proceeded that “Cooking time: 2 hours 30 minutes.” A 4+ hour meal preparation, started at 4:30, is not so accommodating to hungry children! But they probably weren’t going to eat much of it anyway (exotic flavors and smells, mixed textures), so they got plain chicken and plain rice.

Oven-baked rice: the name sounds simple enough, but is actually quite complicated. Like many Persian dishes in this cookbook, it’s all about making a beautiful rice crust (which becomes the presented top when you turn the baking dish over onto the serving dish). Oven-baked rice is a polow, a dish which layers rice with meat, fruit, and vegetables. The rice is pre-soaked and parboiled. The other ingredients get cooked separately, then it all gets layered together and steamed in the oven. The oven-baked rice recipe I consulted (shirazi polow-ye galebi) incorporates chicken, onions, eggplants, and barberries along with the rice melange (rice, ghee, egg yolks, yogurt).

So I had my idea, and I had dried barberries. I have a couple pumpkins from my CSA, but wanted to reserve them for other uses, so decided to substitute butternut (which I used in place of eggplant in the recipe). I also have spinach from my CSA (as featured in a local newspaper story!). I used the spinach as a side for the casserole.

The result, for the ‘home’ category: oven-baked rice with barberries and butternut squash, served on a bed of spinach. (Recipe in separate post.)

There are many ways this dish fit the slow theme. Most obvious is the preparation time: close to 5 hours when all is said and done. (We cheated, though, and ate some before the 2.5 hours of steaming was complete). Clean-up will be slow, because of all the pots, pans, and mixing/measuring containers I used. It took a long time for me to get around to this recipe – I’ve had the cookbook for nearly four years but only tried smothered rice before this. And my immobilized left arm slows down all the preparation these days.

Was all the effort worth it? Well, I cannot yet be judged on the quality of my rice crust (“the reputation of Iranian cooks rests on the quality of their tah dig, or golden crust”), because we spooned out some of the food before the dish finished steaming and didn’t do the full presentation. (I’ll try that as leftovers on Monday – but should I reheat it them flip, or flip them reheat?) But what we tasted was wonderful! The combination of flavors was marvelous and rich: the pan-roasted squash and onions were soft and slightly sweet; the sweetened-yet-tart barberries add a touch of zing as they burst in your mouth, the chicken was moist and flavorful, and the rice pulled it together (despite being somewhat salty on its own, since I skipped a rinse step). It was rich in a satisfying but not overwhelming, even though we didn’t get much of the bottom-which-becomes-top-crust (yogurt + egg yolks). We both really enjoyed it.

I served it on a bed of spinach and arugula. I sauteed the greens in the barberry cooking pan, hoping to pick up a touch of the sweetness. I sauteed them in melted butter, sprinkled with cumin, and added splash of pomegranate vinegar at the end. The simplicity made it the perfect accompaniment to the complex polow.

I’d definitely try this (or other recipes from the book) again – but only if I start the preparation right after lunch! Now to visit an Arabic grocery to track down more barberries…

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