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Iranian food is complex, flavorful and delicious, redolent with the flavors of floral rosewater, pungent vinegar and musky saffron. And yet it often flies under the radar, including here in Wine Country.

There are no Persian restaurants here, but there is an experienced chef from Iran — Shari Sarabi, owner of Baci Cafe & Wine Bar in Healdsburg. Every spring, Sarabi honors his heritage by cooking a traditional feast for the Persian New Year celebration known as Nowruz in late March, inviting the community to partake over the course of two nights.

The holiday is like three of our major holidays rolled into one, combining the gift-giving of Christmas, the painted eggs of Easter and the two-week vacation of summer.

“We celebrate for 13 days,” Sarabi said. “People take weeks to clean the house beforehand, and then people visit and go to each other’s houses.”

The holiday, which originated with Zoroastrian traditions dating back to the 6th century, is celebrated by many countries along the Silk Road, from Afghanistan and Azerbajian to Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. For the Zoroastrians, the celebration of the return of spring was one of the holiest days on the ancient calendar, symbolizing the spiritual triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow.

“The tradition is at least 3,000 years old,” Sarabi said. “There are millions of people across the world who are celebrating.”

Like the Chinese New Year, the rituals revolve around new beginnings and a desire to ensure health and wealth for the family in the coming year. In advance of the spring equinox, families fill their houses with spring flowers, children plant trays of edible seeds for the New Year’s table and the cooks prepare sweet treats and procure fruit and nuts to serve to guests or to bring to other family members.

The climax of the holiday is the arrival of the spring equinox itself — Nowruz means “New Day” — at the exact moment when the day and night are equal over the equator.

This year, that celestial occurrence fell on March 20, and Sarabi marked the occasion by creating a symbolic “haft sin” table to preside over two multicourse feasts at Baci.

“The haft sin is very important,” he said. “It’s all about culture and nature and history.”

The table includes seven items beginning with the letter “s” to symbolize the seven elements of life. Items may include apples (seeb), garlic (seer), vinegar (serkey), sumac (somagh), hyacinth (sonbol), sprouts (sebzeh) and coins (sekey.)

Families also customize the table with a symbolic book, candles, painted eggs and a mirror.

“I put out a book of poetry by Ferdowsi,” Sarabi said. “He wrote a mythological book that teaches about life.”

Of course, the feast itself also carries symbolic weight, with green garlic, green herbs and green vegetables playing a starring role as harbingers of spring and the earth’s renewal.

At Baci, as in many Persian homes, Sarabi starts the feast by placing a variety of condiments and appetizers out for his guests.

The “sabzi” plate includes rehydrated walnuts and almonds, feta cheese, radishes and green herbs such as basil and tarragon.

He also serves several dips: a yogurt and garlic dip; a yogurt, cucumber and dill dip; a chopped tomato and cucumber salad; and “torshi,” an assortment of spicy, pickled vegetables, including radishes, cauliflower, carrots and sunchokes.

“Every family makes a different recipe,” he said of the torshi. “I use my grandmother’s recipe, which is very simple.”

Along with the condiments, Sarabi makes a flatbread known as “nan barbari,” for dipping.

The pickles and the yogurt help balance out the fattiness of the meal. The must-have dish at the Nowruz meal is “sabzi polo mahi,” an herbed rice served with a white fish.

“That’s like the Thanksgiving turkey,” Sarabi said. “The rice is made with fresh green garlic, parsley, leeks, cilantro and fenugreek. Then we put in turmeric, cinnamon and saffron.”

For the white fish, Sarabi uses either mahi mahi or halibut. He lightly flours and spices it, then dips it in egg and sautes it in olive oil. The fish is finished with a squirt of tangelo.

For the rice, Sarabi said, you can use a Teflon pot on top of the stove. The key step is to make sure the bottom of the rice gets nice and crispy, forming a savory crust.

“At the end, you flip it,” he said. “People are waiting for the ‘tahdig,’ the crispy part. Tahdig means the bottom of the pot.”

Other New Year’s dishes prepared by Sarabi include a citrusy beef stew made with dried lemon and an array of lamb, beef, chicken and tomato kebabs. Both are served with rice.

For dessert, Sarabi creates big mounds of sweets: baklava with almonds, fried pastries and Persian ice cream flavored with rosewater, pistachios and saffron.

Sarabi’s father was a farmer who grew sugar beets in Iran, but after running into difficulties with the Shah, his father decided to leave the country in 1968 and took his family with him. Sarabi was 14.

The family ended up going to Europe, then Kuwait and eventually to New York City, where they boarded a Greyhound bus

To please his parents, Sarabi graduated from University of San Francisco with a degree in business and economics.

Then he followed his passion and started cooking, opening the original Baci restaurant in Hawaii in 1985.

He and his wife, Norway native Lisbeth Holmefjord, moved to Sonoma County in the mid 1990s. The couple has been marking the Persian New Year with a feast at Baci for the past seven years.

Sarabi, who grew up in Tehran, fell in love with food as a child in the kitchen with his grandmother.

“Iranians love food,” he said. “That’s how we show affection … everything revolves around food.”

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Torshi

Makes about 6 quarts

1 quart boiled water, cooled

2 large carrots, washed and peeled

2 large cucumbers, peeled

1/2 pound sunchokes

1 small cauliflower

1 small celery

1 pound hot Italian peppers (or pepperoncini in a jar)

2 whole garlic cloves, peeled

1 bunch parsley, washed, dried and finely chopped

1 bunch cilantro, washed, dried and finely chopped

1 bunch dill, washed, dried and finely chopped

1 bunch tarragon, washed, dried and finely chopped

1 quart white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

4-5 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

Boil the water and set aside to cool.

Wash all the vegetables and cut into 1-inch pieces or smaller

Wash and dry all the herbs, making sure they are completely dry.

Place all the vegetables in a large bowl. Add all dry ingredients, vinegar, water, herbs and spices and mix well.

Let the mixture sit in a cool place overnight.

Next day, mix it well and put in very clean glass jars, filling the jars with liquid (you can add half part water to half part vinegar if you need more).

Seal and place in the fridge for at least two weeks. The longer it sits the more flavors develop. Use as a condiment.

___

Persian-Style Sabzi

Polo (Herbed Rice)

with Tahdig

Serves 6 to 8

For Sabzi (herbs):

2 bunches Italian parsley

1 bunch cilantro

2 bunches dill weed

4 whole green garlic

1 bunch fresh fenugreek (or use dry)

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 teaspoons liquid saffron (see recipe below)

For rice:

1 pound high-quality basmati rice

1/2 stick unsalted butter

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup water

1/2 cup kosher salt

4 tablespoons liquid saffron (see recipe below)

3 1/8 cups water

For Sabzi: Wash and dry all the greens and chop fine. Set aside.

For rice: Wash the rice several times until the water from the runoff is clear (this is very important).

After washing, put the rice in a bowl and cover with water until it is an inch above the rice.

Add the salt and let it soak for a few hours or overnight.

Cook the rice similarly to the way you would cook pasta. First, get a large pot and bring 3 quarts of water to boil.

Then add the rice along with the salted water that it was soaking in. Cook the rice for about 7 to 9 minutes until it doubles in size and is still al dente.
Then drain the rice in a colander and rinse with cold water. Let the rice cool to room temperature before moving on to next step.

Melt the butter and mix it with olive oil and water. Once the rice is room temperature and dry, in a large, nonstick Teflon pot add half the butter mixture and 2 teaspoons of liquid saffron.

Add a 1-inch layer of white rice. In a large bowl, gently mix the herbs with the rest of the rice, the turmeric and cinnamon, being careful not to break the rice grains.

Add that mix to a 5-quart, nonstick pot (such as a Dutch oven) and place it on medium to high heat and cover.

When you see steam coming out, pour the rest of the melted butter over the rice, cover the top of the pot with a clean cloth and place the lid on top of the cloth. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 40 minutes.

After 40 minutes or so, remove the lid and the cloth.

Place a large plate that is at least 2 inches wider than the pot and carefully flip the rice over. Let it cool for 10 minutes and serve with the fish.

___

Liquid Saffron

Makes 1 1/8 cup

2 grams good-quality Spanish saffron

1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

2 tablespoons hot water

1 cup cold water

Place the saffron in a fine mortar and pestle wiht the granulated sugar. Grind to a very fine powder. Next place in a squeeze bottle and add the hot water. Shake well for a very minutes until very aromatic, then add the cold water.

You can leave this in the refrigerator for future use, adding a small amount of saffron to your favorite dishes. This adds the saffron aroma to the food but doesn’t affect the taste too much.

___

Pan Fried Alaska Halibut, Iranian Style

Makes 6 servings

2 1/2 pounds of halibut filet

1 cup all-purpose flour for breading

— Egg wash (4 eggs and 1/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon turmeric

— Kosher salt and pepper

— Olive oil for frying

— Lemon halves, for garnish

— Parsley, for garnish

Trim and cut the halibut into six even pieces, then dry and salt the fish. Pour the oil into a large saute pan of medium high heat and bring to 350 degrees.

Mix flour, salt, pepper and turmeric and add the halibut to the flour mixture. Pat and shake the extra flour off. Place in the egg wash and fry in the hot oil on each side, about 2 minutes or until golden brown.

Place the halibut on a paper towel briefly before serving.

To serve family-style: Place the Herbed Rice on a large platter with the fried fish on the side. Garnish with lots of lemon halves and a few sprigs of parsley.

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

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