The day of the Spring Equinox also marked the beginning of Nowrooz, the Persian New Year, a 13 day celebration observed by Iranians the world over. Its roots are to be found in Zoroastrianism and it’s possible that Jewish Purim is an offspring of this New Year/Spring/life renewal celebration.
If you live in LA, it’s hard not to come across, if not Persian culture, at least Persian cuisine (and no, “The Shah of Sunset Boulevard” does not count as a cultural landmark). Along Westwood Boulevard a string of Persian restaurants and grocery stores await even the most casual visitor. Saffron ice-cream is a guilty pleasure of mine and, despite not being very well acquainted with Persian food, over the years I sampled a variety of delicious dishes; after all, the flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine are not dissimilar or, at least, they complement Mediterranean food.
I have always loved that Persian rice, also called Jewelled rice, that is often served with meat. Rich in nuts and dried fruit, it’s sometimes flavored with turmeric or, my favourite, saffron. Iran is worldwide famous for the best pistachios and saffron and both ingredients shine in this dish.
Using ingredients I had at home, and thus ending up bastardizing the result, I decided to give it a try, after having seen yet another reminder of the upcoming Nowrooz. What I particularly love about this rice, besides the sweet and salty blend of flavours, is the crust that develops at the bottom of the pan while the rice cooks undisturbed. Armenians make a similar dish, with fewer ingredients, and the crusty cake at the bottom is the prize.
I started with rinsing two cups of Basmati rice which I then par-cooked in boiling, salted water for about 5 minutes. I drained it and set it aside.
While the rice was cooking, I chopped an onion which I caramelized in a pan with some olive oil, for about 10 minutes.
What I had in the pantry included currants, dried cherries, some dried apricots that had seen better days, pistachios and sliced almonds. I used about 1/3 of a cup of each of the dried fruit (I chopped the apricots finely) which I added to the pan with the onion together with a sprinkle of cinnamon, cumin, allspice and black pepper.
Some of the recipes I consulted called for a non stick pot or a heavy Dutch oven. Petrified of having to throw a pot away by the end of the night, I opted for a non-stick, which might have been a mistake. I melted 4 tablespoon of butter in it, spread half of the rice, topped it with the dried fruit and onion mixture and finished with the rest of the rice. I went with the suggestion of letting the rice cook, uncovered and untouched, for about 6 minutes on medium heat (other recipes have you add the water and cover the pot immediately).
I then added about half a cup of water, sprinkled some saffron on top, covered and let the rice cook for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, I toasted the pistachios and almonds for a few minutes in the oven. After 30 minutes, I let the rice rest off the stove for a few minutes, spooned it in a dish and eagerly looked for the crust at the bottom. Whether it was the truly non-stick pan, or whether I didn’t cook the rice at the beginning long enough, I will never know. All I found were patches of crust here and there. Nonetheless, after having sprinkled the nuts on top, the rice looked and tasted amazing and it was a wonderful accompaniment to a roasted chicken.