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Seasonal Pantry: How to use yogurt in Persian cuisine

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We’re lucky to live in an area with some of the finest milk in the country. Cows in Marin and Sonoma counties have a relatively stress-free environment, with gently rolling hills for grazing and fresh grasses for much of the year.

This makes shopping for dairy products easier, with so many high-quality locally-sourced choices. And when it comes to yogurt, we have excellent options and can ignore those brands that travel a distance. It is a good idea to check the ingredients if you are unfamiliar with a particular brand. Plain whole milk yogurt, the best all-purpose yogurt, should contain nothing more than milk and live yogurt cultures. Cream is okay, too, but if gum or other stabilizers are added, I’d pass, especially if you are using it in a recipe.

Yogurt is the most common dairy product in many of the world’s cuisine’s, especially those of India and the Middle East. Because yogurt is so readily available, it is an easy place to start exploring the cuisine of Persia, which makes abundant use of it in soups stews and desserts. Today’s recipes can all be made with what we typically have at hand or can snag easily with a quick trip to the market.

If you want to like beets more than you do, I suggest making this dish with golden, white or Chioggia beets, all of them milder than red beets. If you already love red beets, you’ll be dazzled by the beauty of this dish.

Borani-ye Laboo Yogurt with Beets & Mint

Makes 3 to 4 servings

2-3 medium beets (about ½ pound), cooked and peeled (see note)

3 cups local whole milk plain yogurt

1 garlic clove, crushed and minced

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

8-10 spearmint leaves, cut into very thin ribbons

2 ounce feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup walnut pieces, lightly toasted

Cut the beets into 3/8-inch pieces and set aside.

Put the yogurt into a medium mixing bowl, add the garlic, season with salt and pepper and whisk well. Add the beets and spearmint and use a rubber spatula to fold them into the yogurt. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator, covered, for up to several hours.

To serve, stir well and transfer to a serving bowl, scatter the cheese and walnuts on top and enjoy right away.

Note: Beets are best when cooked in a hot (375 degrees) oven until tender; steaming dilutes their flavors. To bake them, rub them with just enough olive oil to coat the outsides, set on a baking sheet or even directly on an oven rack and cook until tender, from about 35 to 60 minutes, depending on their size. Use a bamboo skewer to test for doneness.

Serving suggestions: Enjoy as an appetizer with flatbread or crackers and as a condiment with stews, braises, kababs and rice dishes.

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Borani -ye Esfinaj Yogurt with Spinach & Garlic

Makes 3 to 4 servings

1 pound young spinach leaves, rinsed but not dried

4 cups local whole milk plain yogurt

1 garlic clove, crushed and minced

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

¼ cup toasted red walnut pieces or ¼ cup pomegranate arils, optional

Put the still-damp spinach into a large pot, such as a wok, set over high heat. Cover and cook for one minute. Uncover, use tongs to turn the spinach, cover and cook for one minute more or until all the spinach is wilted.

Transfer to a colander to drain and cool.

Meanwhile, put the yogurt into a large bowl, add the garlic and whisk thoroughly.

Squeeze any excess moisture out of the spinach, add it to the yogurt and use two forks to separate the leaves and incorporate them evenly into the yogurt. Season with salt and several generous turns of black pepper.

Tip into a serving bowl, scatter walnuts or arils on top, if using, and enjoy right away.

Serving Suggestions: Serve as an appetizer with warm flatbread or alongside stews or rice dishes.

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In the United States, we tend to use fresh herbs, except for basil, in small amounts. But in many of the world’s cuisines, herbs are used in much greater quantities, as you see in this classic Persian soup. You want about 4 cups chopped parsley, 3 cups chopped cilantro and 2 cups chopped spearmint. The soup is delicious and filling, especially at this time of year. It also keeps well, properly refrigerated, for four or five days, so don’t be concerned about the yield if you are cooking for just one or two people.

Aash-e Dogha Persian Yogurt, Herb & Meatball Soup

Serves 4 to 8 servings

2 large yellow onions, peeled and trimmed

— Clarified butter or mild olive oil

4 large garlic cloves

— Kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup dried chickpeas

— Black pepper in a mill

1/3 cup white rice

½ pound ground lamb

¼ pound ground beef

1 large bunch Italian parsley, large stems removed, chopped

1 large bunch cilantro, large stems removed, chopped

1 medium bunch spearmint, large stems removed, chopped

1 bunch green onions, trimmed and sliced into very thin rounds

3 cups local plain whole milk yogurt, such as Straus or Bellwether Farms

Cut one of the onions into small dice.

Set a large soup pot over medium low heat, add enough butter or oil to coat the pan, add the diced onion and sauté until limp and fragrant, about 12 minutes. Mince 3 garlic cloves and add to the chopped onion; set the remaining garlic clove aside. Sauté one minute more.

Season with salt, stir in half the turmeric and the chickpeas and pour in 5 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, stir and reduce to very low; simmer gently for 1 hour. When the beans are almost tender — typically in about 50 minutes — add the rice and continue to cook.

Meanwhile, set a box grater in a medium mixing bowl and grate the onion and the remaining garlic clove, using the large grating blade. Add the remaining turmeric and season with salt and pepper. Add the meat, breaking it up into small pieces, and mix well. Set a sheet of wax paper or a clean cutting board next to your work surface and on it, form the mixture into small balls, about the size of a cherry.

Carefully add the meatballs to the chickpea mixture, spacing them apart so they don’t stick to each other. Cover and cook very gently for about 30 minutes. Add the chopped parsley, cilantro, spearmint and green onions, cover and continue to cook for another hour to hour and a half, until the flavors have fully melded. Gently stir the soup now and then as it cooks.

Remove from the heat and stir in 2 cups of the yogurt. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. If the soup is too cool, set it over low heat and warm it through but do not let it boil.

Ladle into large soup bowls, top with a very generous dollop of yogurt and a few turns of black pepper and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “California Home Cooking.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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