I’ve had a pretty ridiculous week of work considering it’s the last week of the summer break. The fall semester starts next week, which for me means teaching, meetings, job applications for next fall, and just a general increase in hustle and bustle in addition to my research and writing. And right now I feel like I should be savoring my relative freedom but the truth is that it’s a lot of work, preparing to be busy. I’m planning on preparing some make-ahead meals for the fall, like these panko-crusted chicken cutlets. I still have some “summer” projects I’d like to finish, like canning whole tomatoes, but I’ve had to hold off because tomatoes are really just starting to arrive with some abundance in Minnesota. So let’s just say, I’m trying to remain relatively calm by treating these next 3 weeks as an in-between/transition period.
In spite of all the work stress, I somehow found a reserve of energy today, a reserve deep enough to corral the energy to make a Persian dinner. As those of you have tried making Persian rice dishes know, it’s something you have to do many times before you can kind of relax about it. And since I don’t churn out amazing, complex dishes every night like all the women in my extended family, I’m still babying and coddling my rice, so to speak. Surely you know the saying, “a watched pot never boils.” Tonight I behaved as though I was the speaker of those words. In the midst of household cleaning, talking to Matt, and trying to re-organize our cupboards, I absentmindedly made some really great zereshk polow.
Zereshk polow or rice with barberries is a one of those classically tart and slightly sweet Persian rice dishes. It’s almost always served with chicken, whether it’s a whole roast bird or baked or pan-fried pieces. It is also a very traditional dish. You can find it in any household, in any part of Iran. I have been missing Iran a lot lately. I miss my family and friends so much, but also just the feeling of being there. I miss the way people interact with each other in public, the smell of the air, the taste of everything. And it’s still so crazy and thrilling to me that a few spoonfuls of these berries and rice can take me back there.
If you live in a major metropolitan area you can find barberries. If the vendor is reputable, they’ll be in the fridge or freezer. I think they have become slightly more popular in the West since Yotam Ottolenghi uses it in some of his Persian-inspired dishes.
There are different ways of making rice for different Persian dishes. I will do a post soon for a “master” recipe on both chelow (plain steamed rice, usually served with stews and kabobs) and polow (rice that is mixed with other ingredients). However, the first few steps in the polow recipe that follows below can be used to make any other polow dish such as sabzi polow (rice with herbs), loobia polow (rice with green beans and beef), adas polow (rice with lentils) etc.
P.S. I have a new logo thanks to my talented sister, Goli. I absolutely love it.
(adapted from The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida)
For the rice:
1 lb/500 g Basmati long grain rice (I like the brand Tilda)
4 tbsp salt
4 oz grapeseed oil
4 tsp saffron water*
2 oz clarified unsalted butter
For the barberries:
1 oz dried barberries
2 oz unsalted clarified butter
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp saffron water *
Pick over the rice, and wash it thoroughly in lukewarm water. You should do about 5 or 6 washes until the water runs as close to clear as possible. Do not skip this step. It’s important as it removes the extra starch, giving the rice a fluffy texture as opposed to sticky and also allows the fragrance of the rice to release more fully. Once you have washed the rice, put it in a large bowl and cover it with lukewarm water and 2 tbsp of water. Leave it there for at least 2 hours.
At this point you should prepare your barberries. Pick over them, removing any stems. Wash, pat dry, and fry in butter, stirring constantly. Barberries burn very easily so be very careful. Stir in the sugar and liquid saffron, remove from heat, and set aside.
Using a fairly large non-stick pot with a lid, bring about 8 cups of water with 2 tbsp of salt to a rapid boil. Strain the rice that was resting and pour the rice into the boiling water. Bring back to a boil and keep it on a boil for 2-3 minutes. At this point, test the rice to see if it is ready (about parboiled). The grains should be soft on the outside but still firm in the middle. It might take a couple minutes more but keep an eye on it. Once it’s ready, strain the rice and rinse it with lukewarm water. Toss the rice gently in the colander. (I prefer this one.)
Return the rinsed out pot to to the stove and add the oil and 2-3 tbsp of water. Wait for the oil to heat up and sizzle. Sprinkle one layer of rice across the bottom of the pot. Make sure this layer is evenly spread and that there aren’t any empty spaces with the pan peeking through. Getting this layer even will help you make tahdig, the crusty layer of rice that forms at the bottom of the pot. Then spread 1/3 of the prepared barberries across this layer. Then another layer of rice, followed by another layer of barberries. Repeat until you have used all your ingredients, making sure to finish with a layer of rice on the top. You should prepare these layers in a pyramid shape. Once you are done layering, use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke a few steam holes in your rice pyramid. Wrap the lid in a clean tea towel and place it firmly on the pot.
Keep the heat on high for another 3-6 minutes until the rice is steaming. This helps the tahdig form. Then turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and keep the rice on for at least 30 minutes. You can leave it on this low setting for up to an hour. (Shaida says you can leave it for longer but I haven’t tried that yet.) During this time, you can make the chicken (my recipe below).
When you’re ready to serve the rice, place the pot on a cool surface (I use the sink) for a few minutes. This helps the tahdig dislodge so it is easier to remove. Melt the butter. Mix 2-3 tbsp of rice with the liquid saffron andd reserve as a garnish.
Gently mix and serve the rice on a large platter, garnish with the saffron rice and pour the melted better over everything. Remove the tahdig and serve it on a separate plate.
PAN-FRIED CHICKEN WITH TURMERIC AND ONIONS
2 chicken breasts, with the skin-on and the bone removed
2 tsp turmeric
1 medium onion, sliced
1 tbsp saffron water*
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Season both sides of the chicken generously with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and the turmeric. In a large oven-proof skillet, heat the oliv