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North Bay family shares recipes for aromatic Persian cuisine

Through the centuries, the art of Persian storytelling has been celebrated in poetry, visual art, music and films, many inspired by the fantastical folk tales collected in the epic “Arabian Nights.”

Only recently has the outside world begun to appreciate the equally magical and enchanting stories told by the cuisine of Iran, which separates the cold plains of Russia from the deserts of Arabia and connects the Middle East with the Far East. The food is so embedded in history, you can almost taste the past in its mouth-watering stews and buttery saffron rice.

As a result of its central location along the Silk Road, Persian cuisine has been infused with Greek and Indian, Turkish and Russian culture as well. It is a balanced blend of aromatic spices such as saffron and turmeric, sour fruits such as pomegranates and dried limes, nuts like walnuts and pistachios, various herbs and vegetables, flat breads and rice dishes featuring a crunchy “tahdig” crust anointed generously with butter and oil.

But its most popular dishes may be the complex, long-simmering stews served over the country’s staple grain of rice.

“The cuisine takes time,” said Natasha Fooman of San Rafael, who recently gave a cooking class with her mother, home cook Manizhe Fooman, at Ramekins in Sonoma. “You have to cook and simmer, and it’s always best the next day.”

The mother and daughter, both born in Iran, gather in their San Rafael home every weekend to cook a big Persian feast for their children and grandchildren. Manizhe first caught the attention of Ramekins cooking instructor Lisa Lavagetto after winning top awards three years in a row at the culinary contests of the Marin County Fair, which Lavagetto coordinates.

“Manizhe’s Persian food is so delicious and unique,” Lavagetto said. “Their class was different from any we have had before.”

Manizhe hails from the northern city of Rasht, the largest city on Iran’s Caspian Sea coast. She and her husband, Karim, both teachers, emigrated to the U.S. when Natasha was 4 in order to get better educations. Karim has a doctorate in English, and Manizhe took classes in psychology and sociology. Natasha went to law school, and her brother became a doctor. They all live in Marin County, where there are at least two Persian markets where they can shop for traditional ingredients.

During the class, Manizhe demonstrated some of the most famous dishes of her region: Fesenjoon (Chicken in Walnut Sauce with Pomegranate Molasses), Gormeh Sabzi (Beef with Spinach and Herbs), KuKu (Persian Frittatta of Chicken, Peas and Onion) and Persian Loobia Polo (Rice with Beef and Tomato Sauce).

“Our food is subtly spiced, delicate in flavor and appearance and not typically hot or spicy,” Natasha said. “Many recipes date back to ancient times.”

Some of the more exotic ingredients include fenugreek leaves, used in the Gormeh Sabzi stew; barberries, which taste like a sour raisin and are used in the KuKu frittata; and the Sadaf brand of pomegranate molasses, a key ingredient of the complex and pleasantly sour Fesenjoon.

For dessert, the women served a tea also produced by Sadaf - Iran is a country of avid tea drinkers - and a variety of store-bought sweets made from chickpeas, rosewater and pistachios.

Each spring, the family celebrates the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, a joyful holiday that welcomes the vernal equinox (March 19 this year in the U.S.). For the holiday, families share a symbolic meal and visit family and friends to exchange gifts.

Iranians around the world anticipate the holiday by cleaning their homes and shopping for special fruits, sweets, nuts and flowers to display on a holiday “haft sin” table. On the 13th day of the holidays, everyone goes outside to spend time in nature.

“For the feast, you put out the seven flavors, and they all begin with s,” Natasha explained. “My mother’s family would make eggs and color them and put them out. ... And on the thirteenth day, you throw a pot of grass into the water.”

Green herbs also play a big role at the holiday, including the parsley, cilantro, chives and fenugreek leaves that create the aromatic base of a Ghormeh Sabzi beef stew in the class.

“The herbs of the Ghormeh Sabzi have a distinct, beautiful odor,” Natasha said. “It’s my favorite dish.”

Class participant Pam Farrell of Tiburon, a retired cooking instructor, said the Persian class piqued her interest because it was so unusual.

“It’s hard to find classes in cultural cuisine,” she said. “The Persian people are so warm and hospitable, and their food is incredible.”

In the past 10 years, it’s been easier to find recipes from the ancient cuisine, however. Recent cookbooks on Persian cooking include Greg and Lucy Malouf’s “Saraban” (2010), Najmieh Batmangliz’s “Food of Life” (2011) and “Joon” (2015), Louisa Shafia’s “The New Persian Kitchen” (2013), Yasmin Khan’s “The Saffron Tales” (2016) and Naz Deravian’s “Bottom of the Pot” (2018).

Persian families such as the Foomans, however, don’t need cookbooks to host a party. They just stock up on big pots to feed a crowd.

“My mom cooks with love, and she always wants me to eat, eat,” Natasha said. “It’s always about family and togetherness. ... It has been our tradition for as long as I can ?remember.”

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Fesenjoon (Chicken Stew with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses)

Makes 8 servings

2 large onions

1 ½ pounds walnuts, toasted if possible

1 cup water

4 cups chicken broth

2 cup water

8 chicken thighs, skinless

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon pepper

1 20-ounce bottle Pomegranate Molasses, preferably Sadaf brand

2 teaspoons honey

Cut 1 onion in 4 slices and add to blender with walnuts and 1 cup of water. Blend until pureed.

Pour the sauce, 3 cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of water into a large pot and cook at medium heat for 2 hours.

During this time, dice the second onion and fry with butter in a large pan until golden brown. Add chicken and 1 cup of chicken broth, ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon turmeric and put lid on pan and simmer on low heat for 30 to 40 minutes until chicken is cooked. Then add the Pomegranate Molasses and the rest of the salt and pepper in the large pot.

When sauce is thick and brown, add the cooked chicken mixture and 2 teaspoons of honey to the large pot.

Serve over white basmati rice. (recipe below)

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Ghormeh Sabzi (Meat with Herbs)

Makes 8 servings:

3 pounds boneless beef short ribs

1 large onion

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon turmeric

3 cloves garlic, flattened and chopped

4 cups water

4 cups parsley

4 cups cilantro

3 cups chives

2 tablespoons fenugreek leaves

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 14-ounce can kidney beans

Cut beef into 1-inch cubes and chop onion. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil in a pan, then sauté the beef and onion in the pan. Add turmeric and chopped garlic and cook until beef is brown. Add water, cover with lid and simmer on medium heat.

Chop parsley, cilantro and chives. Fry fresh herbs with 3 tablespoons olive oil - or as much as needed. Once herbs are fried, pour them into the beef stew. Add fenugreek leaves, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Cover with lid and cook on low heat for 30 minutes.

After the stew is cooked, add the kidney beans. Serve over white basmati rice. (recipe below)

Persian Basmati Rice

Makes 8 servings

4 cups basmati rice

2 cups water

1/2 tablespoon salt

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

1 stick of butter

Put rice in a pot and rinse the rice twice. Add the water to the pot with rice. Add salt and olive oil. Cook on medium heat for 15 minutes. Check rice to see if you need to add more water. Then add the butter to the rice and gently stir. Cover with a lid and let rice cook 15 minutes more on low heat.

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KuKu (Persian Fritatta with chicken, eggs, peas and onion)

Makes 8 servings

1 ½ large onions

2 medium potatoes

5 cups shredded chicken (from rotisserie or cooked at home)

½ cup green peas

1 tablespoons barberries

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon turmeric

6 eggs

3 tablespoons olive oil

Chop 1 large onion and fry in a pan with a little olive oil until golden brown. Set aside to cool. Put potatoes and 1/2 onion in a chopper. Then put the chicken in the bowl and add fried onions, chopped potato, green peas, barberroes, salt, pepper, turmeric and eggs and stir. Add olive oil in a pan over medium heat and slowly pour the ingredients from the bowl into the pan.

Cover pan with lid and set heat at low for 15 minutes. Flip ingredients to other side and cook for 15 minutes more, or until golden brown.

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Persian Loobia Polo (Rice with Beef and tomato sauce)

Makes 8 servings

For beef and tomato sauce:

1 large onion

½ pounds green beans

4 large tomatoes

½ pounds white mushrooms

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons turmeric

3 cloves garlic, flattened and chopped

2 pounds ground beef

15 ounces tomato sauce

6 ounces tomato paste

2 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 round flour tortilla

For rice:

5 cups basmati rice

1 ½ teaspoons salt

2 cups water

1 ½ tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

For beef: Chop onions, cut green beans, chop tomatoes and slice mushrooms. Fry the onion with olive oil, turmeric and garlic. Then add the ground beef and fry until the beef is brown. Add the mushrooms and stir until everything is cooked. Then add chopped tomatoes and let it cook 5 to 10 minutes more. Then add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, salt and pepper and let it simmer.

Fry the green beans in olive oil for 5 to 10 minutes in low heat.

For rice: Put rice in bowl and rinse the rice twice, then add water and salt and put aside for 30 minutes. In a large pot, add 2 cups water and salt and boil. When the water has boiled, drain the water from the rice in the bowl and pour the rice in the pot of boiling water.

Then stir gently and boil the rice -as you would do for spaghetti - until the rice is halfway done (the grains of rice will still be hard in the middle). Pour the half-cooked rice in a colander and rinse it with water. In the same, now-empty pot, add olive oil and ½ cup of water with ½ teaspoon of turmeric and let it boil gently for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

To assemble: Place the tortilla at the bottom of the pot. Then take a large spoon of rice and spread it on the tortilla. Spread some ground beef, then some green beans, and continue alternating layers of rice, ground beef and green beans several times until all are used.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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