Mast-O-Khiar (Yogurt with Cucumber and Fresh Mint)

In the West, yogurt is mostly eaten sweetened with fruit, sugar or honey. I have to admit I’ve never been a fan. It has always puzzled me why anyone would want to mask  the amazing tart  flavour of pure, delicious plain yogurt. I’ve even tried the whole greek yogurt, fruit and honey thing……it just doesn’t work for me.  Personally, I prefer to celebrate yogurt natural flavour with fresh and savoury ingredients.

Persians, like many other Eastern cultures, do not consume a great deal of dairy. But the one exception is yogurt. Yogurt is a staple in Iranian cuisine. I have fond memories as a child of watching my grandmother making vats of homemade yogurt when she would visit from Iran. There really is nothing like homemade yogurt and I have made a promise to myself that one day I will attempt to make it.

Mast-o-Khiar is a traditional Persian yogurt dish made with fresh mint and cool cucumber. Growing up, my mother made this dish with dried mint but over the years has changed her recipe to include fresh mint  and sometimes adds other herbs such as tarragon, chives and basil. Some people prefer to add walnuts or rose petals, while others even include raisins. Personally, my favourite is the simple fresh flavours of the mint, cucumbers and green onions.

Mast-o-Khiar makes a wonderful appetizer, side dish or even a dip for vegetables or bread. I often keep it in my fridge and have it as a healthy snack. In the summer months, my mother sometimes thins the yogurt with bit of ice water and it makes a delicious and refreshing cold soup.

Mast-O-Khiar
(serves 6)

1 750 gram container of plain yogurt (full fat or 2% preferred….my favourite is Liberte Organic 2%)
1 seedless english cucumber, peeled and diced finely
2 green onions (green & white parts), sliced thinly
¾ cup chopped fresh mint leaves
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl.

Taste and season with more salt and pepper if necessary.

Serve chilled. Enjoy!

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Vanilla Cupcakes with Saffron Rosewater Buttercream and Pistachios

Legend has it that King Jamshid of Persia discovered sugar on Nowruz (Persian New Year), so it only seems fitting that I should post something sweet for the holidays. Now, I’m sure that cupcakes aren’t your traditional Nowruz dessert, but I think after you try these they will be.

I adore cupcakes. A couple years ago I took a baking course purely devoted to cupcakes. In fact, for a short time I considered starting a cupcake business……because that’s what Toronto needs more of, cupcake shops. Anyway, during that period there were a lot of cupcakes baked in my house and this particular cupcake was one of my creations. I remember thinking that these would be a perfect, modern Persian New Year dessert.

The base of these cupcakes are adapted from  a recipe by New York’s famous Magnolia Bakery. My cupcakes have the same delicious vanilla base but it’s the icing which sets these confections apart. Creamy and delicious, the flavours of saffron, rosewater and pistachios distinctly remind me of Persian ice cream. As a child I was not a huge fan of Persian Ice Cream (what child likes the taste of rosewater!) but now I enjoy its sophisticated flavours and love them even more in cupcake format.

Vanilla Cupcakes with Saffron Rosewater Buttercream & Pistachios
Makes 1 dozen

3/4 cup self-raising flour
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1 cup sugar
2 egg, at room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
Rosewater Saffron Icing (recipe to follow)
3 tbsp chopped salted pistachios

Using an electric mixer cream the butter. When the butter looks smooth, add the sugar and beat on medium speed for about 3 minutes. The mixture should look fluffy.

Add one egg and beat the mixture. Add the second egg and beat until incorporated.

In a separate bowl mix the two flours. In another bowl mix the milk and vanilla. Add one-third of the flour to the egg sugar mixture. Beat until incorporated. Make sure to start at a slow speed or the flour will go flying everywhere. Also, make sure to not overbeat….just until incorporated. Add half of the milk mixture into the batter and beat until incorporated. Make sure to use a spatula to scrape down any batter at the sides of the bowl. Add another third of the flour and beat. Add the rest of the mix and beat till incorporated. Finish with the last of the flour and beat until well blended.

Line your muffin tin with cupcake wrappers and fill each one about 3/4 full (I like to use an ice cream scooper to drop the batter). Pop them into a 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes (a tooth pick put into the centre should come out clean). Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Saffron Rosewater Buttercream

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups icing sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp rosewater
1/8 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water (cooled)

Cream the butter until smooth. Add two cups of icing sugar and the milk. Beat on medium speed for about 4 minutes. The icing should be smooth.

Add the cooled saffron water, the rosewater and the rest of the icing sugar. Beat for 2 minutes until creamy. If the icing seems too thin you can add in more icing sugar. If it’s too thick, you can add a touch more milk.

To ice the cupcakes, you can either use of spatula and simply spread the icing on the cupcakes or you can use a piping bag for a more decorative effect by swirling the icing on top.

Sprinkle a little bit of the chopped pistachios on each cupcake.

ENJOY!!!

Sabzi Polo va Mahi (Herbed Persian Rice and Pan-fried White Fish)

Persian New Year (Nowruz) is celebrated every year to signify the beginning of spring. In our home, nothing says spring like Sabzi Polo va Mahi. This delicious traditional New Year dish is supposed to bring luck – the herbs in the rice represent rebirth and the fish represents life.

Like all Persian dishes everyone has their own version but I share with you my mother’s recipe. Fluffy rice perfumed with fragrant herbs and spices and delicious crispy golden fish. Spring is in the air!

Sabzi Polo va Mahi
(Serves 6)

3 cups basmati rice
1 cup dill, chopped
1 cup chives (or you have use the greens part of green onions), chopped
1 1/2  cup cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh fenugreek (optional)
4 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp ground saffron
1 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp chopped dill stems (optional)
4 tbsp butter
salt & pepper
canola oil
Fried Fish (recipe to follow)

Wash as much starch off the rice as possible. To do this put the rice in large bowl, cover with cold water and agitate it with your hands. You will notice that the water will become milky. Drain the water and repeat. Keep doing this until the water is clear.

After the rice is washed cover with 8 cups lukewarm water and 1 1/2  tbsp of salt. Allow the rice to soak for at least 30 minutes. The longer it soaks, the more flavourful and fluffy the rice will be.

Fill a large non-stick pot ¾ full with water with 1 tbsp salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Drain the soaking rice and add to the pot of boiling water. Turn down the heat slightly to medium-high (it should still be boiling) and boil for 6 minutes stirring occasionally.

Add the dill, chives, cilantro, flat leaf parsley and the fenugreek to the water and simmer for about 2 minutes and then drain in a wire sieve.

In a small bowl combine the cumin, cinnamon and the ground saffron.

Clean out and dry your pot. Pour enough canola oil in your pot to just cover the bottom. Add two tablespoons of water and the dill stems (optional).

Using a spatula add a layer of rice to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle 1 tsp of garlic and 1/4 of the spice mixture.

Add the rice in layers forming sort of a pyramid (about 4 layers total). In between each layer sprinkle some of the garlic and the spice mixture. You can also add an extra dash of ground saffron on the top if you desire. Pour 1/3 cup water over the top of the rice and the butter.

Using the back of a wooden spoon, poke three holes in the rice. Cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat. Turn down the heat to medium low and take a clean dish towel (or a double layer of paper towel)  and cover the lid of the pot  Let the rice steam for 30-40 minutes.

When the rice is done, use a spatula to gently sprinkle the rice onto a serving dish. Invert the pot onto a plate to loosen the ta-dig.

Mahi (Pan-Fried White Fish)

3 large fillets of white fish cut into 12 pieces (skin on or off depending on your preference)
2 eggs
1/4 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water
salt and pepper

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs with the saffron water. Marinate the fish pieces in the egg mixture for 30 minutes – 1 hour.

Pour enough canola oil into a large frying pan so that there is a 1/4 inch of oil at the bottom.  Heat the pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot (to check heat add a tiny splash  the egg marinade to the pan, it should sizzle right away). Add the fish pieces in batches (do not crowd the pan).

Cook the first side until golden and crispy (about 5-6 minutes). Flip over and cook the second side until golden (about 4 minutes). Drain on paper towel.

This fish is traditionally served with wedges of Seville Orange (use lemons or limes if you can’t find any)- squeeze some of the juice over the fish just before eating. Enjoy!

Kuku Sabzi (Fried Herb Omelette)

Persian New Year is just around the corner and I thought I would post a few traditional and not-so-traditional New Year’s dishes. Persian New Year (Nowruz) is an exciting time of year for us – a time of good fortune and new beginnings.  Growing up, my Canadian friends were always jealous of this holiday – who wouldn’t be? It was mandatory that I buy new clothes and I was showered with money (crisp new bills at that) by older relatives and family friends.

Food is also a very significant aspect of Nowruz. On New Years Eve, the traditional dinner is Sabzi Polo va Mahi (Herbed Rice and Fish) and Kuku Sabzi (Fried Herb Omelette). I always look forward to this meal, especially the Kuku. Food for Nowruz is very symbolic and it represents what we wish for in the coming year. The Kuku represents fertility (the eggs) and rebirth (the herbs). There are different ways of making Kuku Sabzi – some people bake it in the oven, some add zereshk (dried barbarries), but I love my mother’s version, made with walnuts. It was passed down to her from her mother and now I am passing it on to you.

Kuku Sabzi
(Serves 6)

5 large eggs
1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 cup dill chopped
1 cup chives (or you have use the greens of green onion), chopped
3 leaves of romaine lettuce
1 tbsp chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
canola oil

Put all the ingredients, except the walnuts, in a blender (or you can use a food processor) and blend until smooth.

Add the walnuts and stir with a spoon.

Pour enough canola oil into a large non-stick frying pan so it’s about 1/4 inch high with oil (about 1/2 cup of oil). Heat oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot pour the kuku mixture in pan. In order to check to see if the oil is hot, add a tiny bit of the mixture in and if it sizzles it’s hot enough.

Turn down the heat to medium and cover for about 15-20 minutes. It is ready to flip when the edges have browned.

Flip the kuku. You can flip it whole or you can cut it into wedges and individually flip them. Fry the second side for about 6 minutes.

Drain oil on paper towel and Serve!

Persian Saffron and Lemon Roasted Chicken

Lemon and saffron are a classic flavour combination for chicken in Persian cuisine. If you’ve ever visited a Persian Kabab restaurant you have probably sampled Jujeh Kabab – delicious skewers of barbequed chicken marinated in lemon, saffron & yogurt.

Although this dish has somewhat a similar flavour profile to Jujeh Kabab,  I find that roasting the chicken adds a lovely crispy texture and delicious aroma. Lemon and Saffron Roasted Chicken pairs exceptionally well with many Persian rice dishes, especially Zereshk Polo.

Saffron & Lemon Roasted Chicken
(serves 4)

4 chicken legs, bone in & skin on (you may use bone in & skin on breasts if you wish)
juice of one lemon
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp ground saffron disolved in 2 tbsp boiling water
salt and pepper

Put chicken in a marinating dish and season liberally with salt and pepper. Pour the lemon  juice and the olive oil over the chicken and turn to coat. Using a pastry brush, coat both sides of the chicken in the saffron water.

Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge for at least one hour or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place chicken in roasting pan and roast for 45 minutes. At about 20 minutes into the cooking process use the juices to baste the chicken using a baster or a spoon if you don’t have one. Baste again at about 35 minutes.

When ready take it out of the oven, cover very loosely with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.

This chicken dish goes very well with many Persian rice dishes such as Zereshk Polo (Rice with Saffron & Barbarries, Albaloo Polo (Rice with Sour Cherries) or Adas Polo (Rice with Lentils, Dates & Raisins). But it is also delicious with simple steamed rice, potatoes or salad.

Zereshk Polo (Persian Rice with Barberries and Saffron)

Iran is known for many of its exports …… oil, saffron, rugs, and of course Persian cats:) But one commodity that many in the West may not know of is zereshk. Iran is the biggest producer of zereshk in the world. Zereshk are dried barbarries –  small delicious tart berries that have been cultivated in Iran for over 200 years. They are used in jams, dried fruit leathers and candies. But one of the most popular dishes that features zereshk is Zereshk Polo.

Zereshk polo is one of the easiest and yet most elegant Persian dishes to prepare. This traditional rice dish has the perfect balance of tart and sweet. Zershk Polo is delicious on it’s own, but I find that it goes exceptionally well with Saffron and Lemon Roasted Chicken.

Zereshk Polo (Persian Rice with Barberries & Saffron)
(serves 4)

2 cups basmati rice (preferably Indian)
canola oil
3/4 cup zereshk* (dried barbarries)
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp butter**
1/8 tsp ground saffron disolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
salt and pepper

Follow instructions to make Persian Rice (click on link for recipe). You may omit the potato if you wish and the rice itself will form a crust.

When the rice is ready you can begin making the zereshk mixture.

Wash the zereshk by soaking them in cold water for a couple of minutes and then draining them in a sieve.  Melt the butter in a small frying pan under medium heat. Add the zeresk, 1/2 tsp salt and the sugar. Cook for about two minutes over medium-high heat. The barberries will get a bit fragrant and plump slightly. Turn the heat off and add the the saffron water.

There are a number of different ways that you can serve this dish. Some people add the zereshk mixture to the rice and let it steam together but I find that this turns the zereshk brown and not as appetizing. Some serve the rice and sprinkle the zereshk mixture on top. But I prefer to mix it in right before serving that way you get the sweet and tart in every bite.  Pour the zereshk mixture (reserving some for serving on top as well) on the rice and very gently mix in. Using a spatula, sprinkle the rice on serving dish and scatter the remaining zereshk mixture on top.

You may serve the Zereshk Polo on it’s own but it goes exceptionally well with Saffron & Lemon Roasted Chicken (click on link for recipe!)

*You can find zereshk in Iranian or Middle Eastern supermarkets

**You can substitute vegetable oil for the butter in order to make this a vegan dish.

Persian Inspired – Quinoa Salad with Feta, Dates and Mint

There is nothing authentic about this dish. In fact, my grandmother would probably raise an eyebrow from her grave at the thought of using quinoa in a “Persian” dish. Truth be told, I am pretty sure she would have never heard of quinoa. For those of you who are not familiar with quinoa, it is a highly nutritious seed with mild nutty flavour that originated in South America. It is often used as a substitute for grains such as rice or couscous and I think it’s the perfect base for salads.

This dish was inspired by my favourite Persian breakfast – toasted Persian barbarry bread, feta cheese and fresh dates. I love the combination of the salty, creamy feta cheese and the sweet dates. The mint adds freshness and the pine nuts add a nutty flavour. Enjoy this salad as a side dish or a healthy and delicious light lunch.

Quinoa Salad with Feta, Dates & Mint

1 cup quinoa
2 green onions* (green & white parts) sliced thinly
1 cup chopped dates (preferably medjool or fresh)**
120 grams good sheep milk feta cheese, cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp honey
salt and pepper

Rinse the quinoa well in a sieve. If you do not do this the quinoa might have a bitter taste.

Bring 1 1/4 cup water to boil. Add the strained quinoa. Turn down the heat to low, cover and simmer for 12 minutes. Take it off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with a spoon.

Cool the quinoa. In order to cool it faster, spread it out onto a cookie sheet.

In a bowl, combine the cooled quinoa, the dates, feta, green onions and the mint. Toast the pine nuts by heating a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the pine nuts and stir frequently or shake the pan for about 4-5 minutes until the pine nuts become fragrant and lightly toasted. Watch carefully! They can go from toasted to burnt quickly.

Add the pine nuts to the quinoa mixture. Whisk the olive oil, apple cider vinegar and the honey in a small bowl. Pour over the quinoa salad and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Chill for at least 30 minutes. Enjoy!

*If you find the taste of green onions strong, you can just use the green part which has a milder flavour.

**You can find fresh dates at Persian supermarkets. Medjool dates are available at most regular supermarkets.