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Seasonal Pantry: How to make Persian rice, a classic from Iran

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The late filmmaker Les Blank, known for his documentaries about blues, folk and other traditional American music, once said the tradition people keep the longest when they move to another part of the world is their food — their style of both cooking and eating.

This resonates through the generations, as handwritten recipes on yellowing scraps of paper are handed from one family member to another and another.

This understanding has always led me to my bookshelves whenever trouble erupts between the United States and another country. I pull relevant cookbooks from my library shelves, thumb through recipes and search for passages about regional ingredients and markets. If the book includes family stories, all the better. How we eat and how we feed each other says so much about who we are. In recent days, I’ve returned to my Persian cookbooks, many of which I gathered during the Gulf War. By then, I already had a working understanding of Persian cuisine, as I’ve always loved it, but more as an eater than a cook.

As ingredients have become more readily available — in the late 1980s, it was all but impossible to find pomegranate molasses, a staple in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines — I’ve focused more on cooking.

The best way to become adept at preparing a specific cuisine is to first become adept at eating it. Once you begin to navigate and understand different flavor combinations, focus on the basics — the techniques and dishes most common on the daily table.

Over the next few weeks, Seasonal Pantry will feature several Persian dishes, beginning with chelow, or Persian rice. The crisp crust on the bottom of the pan is considered a special treasure, so perfecting the technique is essential for creating meals with traditional elements.

Once you’ve got the hang of the technique, you’ll be able to dispense with the recipe and prepare it by heart.

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When making this for the first time, you might feel awkward, as if you were walking on an unknown trail or hearing a complex song for the first time. Why? Because this is not how we typically cook rice in the United States.

If you grew up in Iran, on the other hand, making this might be as easy as riding a bicycle, something you never forget, even if you haven’t done it in years. It is classic Persian home cooking, adapted primarily from a recipe in Yasmin Khan’s “The Saffron Tales” (Bloomsbury, $35, 2016), one of my favorite Iranian cookbooks. Khan suggests that if your crust comes out soft, you should increase the heat a bit next time. If burns, lower the heat in the initial stages of cooking.

Whenever I serve this fragrant rice, I like to have plenty of good whole milk yogurt alongside, either Bellwether Farms or Straus.

Many versions of this recipe call for Greek yogurt, but that is not necessary in Sonoma County, as we have thick, rich, tangy yogurts that resonate beautifully with Middle Eastern foods. Greek yogurt is typically a bit sweeter or at least less acidic; the acid makes the flavors blossom.

Persian Rice

Serves 4 to 6

1 ¾ cups white basmati rice

— Kosher salt

— Pinch of saffron strands

— Pinch of sugar

2 tablespoons boiling water

1 tablespoon butter

1 ½ tablespoons sunflower oil or olive oil

Put the rice into a colander or strainer set in a large bowl. Cover with water, shake the rice, drain and cover with water again. Repeat several times, until the water runs clear. In a bowl, cover the rice with water by at least 2 inches and set aside for 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Fill a large saucepan with water, set over high heat and add 3 tablespoons of salt. When the water boils, stir in the rice, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the rice is soft on the outside but still hard on the inside. If the outside has not yet softened, cook for another 3 minutes. Drain the rice, rinse in tepid water, cover and set aside.

Put the saffron into a small mortar or bowl, add the sugar and use a wooden or ceramic pestle to crush the saffron and sugar together. Cover with the boiling water and set aside.

Set an 8- or 9-inch nonstick saucepan (at least 3 inches deep) over medium heat, add half the butter and all the oil and, when the butter is melted, add half the saffron liquid and a generous pinch of salt.

Scatter enough rice over the bottom of the pan to cover it in a single layer. Use a spatula or large wooden spoon to press down on the rice. Mound the rest of the rice on top, positioning it so it forms a sort of pyramid.

Use the end of a wooden spoon and poke four holes in the rice, about halfway between the edge of the pan and the center of the pyramid. Divide the remaining butter between these holes, pressing it in. Carefully spoon the remaining saffron water over the rice.

Gently drape a tea towel or four layers of paper toweling over the rice and tuck or trim the edges so they don’t catch fire. Cover the pan’s lid and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Lower the heat to very low and cook 15 minutes more.

Remove from the heat and let rest 10 minutes.

Fill the kitchen sink with about 2 inches of cold water. Working carefully, set the saucepan, with its lid still in place, in the water. Hold it there for 15 seconds and lift out.

Set the pan on a clean work surface and carefully remove the lid and toweling. Set a large platter on top and quickly but carefully invert everything, so the platter rests on the work surface with the pan inverted on top of it. Gently lift off the pan.

If all goes to plan, you should have a beautiful cake-shaped mound of rice with a crispy golden top.

Serve right away, with a main dish, side dish and condiments of your choice.

Variations:

For herbed rice, remove the stems of a small bunch of Italian parsley and a small bunch of cilantro. Chop the leaves. Snip a small handful of chives into small pieces and cut a handful of spearmint leaves into thin strips. If you like dill, chop anywhere from 2 tablespoons to ½ cup (I find dill overpowering and typically leave it out). Crush and mince a clove of garlic; grate the outer zest of a Meyer lemon or orange. After scattering a layer of rice over the bottom of the pan, fold the herbs and zest, very gently, into the rice before mounding it in the saucepan. Continue as directed in the main recipe.

Before adding rice to the pan but after adding the butter, oil and saffron liquid, line the pan with very thin slices of peeled potato. Season with salt and layer the rice on top as described in the main recipe.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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