Small Plates: 17 posts

Recipes for salads and other side dishes

Persian Olives in Walnut-Pomegranate Sauce

For the symphonic complexity of Persian cuisine, with all of its rice pilafs bathed in saffron and rosewater, meats flavored with dozens of herbs and desserts made out of nuts and flowers, it’s the simplest dishes that illustrate most fully the imaginative riches of this venerable culinary tradition. It can be said that Persian cuisine is the closest relative to perfumery. It’s based on accords and notes.

One of the most popular accords is walnut and pomegranate. It’s a perfect harmony of sweet and sour, delicately smoky and fruity. You can build plenty on this base, but one of my favorite recipes is a simple blend of green olives in a walnut-pomegranate sauce. The dish is called zeytun parvardeh, which means preserved olives, but with the word “parvardeh” having the secondary meaning of “nourished,” it also makes me think of olives that have been well taken care of before they ended up on my plate. You will be too after tasting this dish.

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Cauliflower with Saffron and Coriander

Saffron has the reputation of a luxurious spice. Use it in tiny quantities for the most delicate of preparations like custards and seafood bisques, advises many a cookbook. Certainly, unless you live in saffron producing areas like Iran, Turkey or Kashmir, you’ll pay more for saffron than other spices in your collection, but its flavor is so dramatic that it’s worth a splurge. What I don’t agree with is using saffron only in special occasion dishes. Life is too short for that.

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Saffron has a medicinal-leathery scent, with a hint of apricot and floral notes. Its fragrance will entice on its own, but it’s bold enough to stand up next to strong flavors. Today’s recipe is a good example. It’s a cold cauliflower dish, and it’s a good vehicle for saffron. The combination of coriander, saffron and white wine is the right blend of spice and acidity, and it gives cauliflower elegance that one doesn’t usually expect from cruciferous vegetables.

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Rosemary : Herb and Note

Herbs can add a bracing touch to fragrance and food. Elisa explores all facets of rosemary.

I never much liked the dried version of rosemary – neither the flat, somewhat dusty flavor nor the stabby texture, like dead pine needles, appealed. The first time I tried fresh rosemary, I was blown away. It felt like another species entirely – firm but pliant in texture (easily chopped with a sharp knife) and with a full, complex, room-filling scent when you cook with it.

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Just by looking at it you could guess that rosemary smells piney – woodsy and green. It contains camphor, that bracing, pungently minty note common to evergreen trees, mothballs, and Tiger balm, as well as caffeic acid, a phenolic substance also found in eucalyptus bark. But my favorite thing about fresh rosemary, which I rarely see mentioned, is a distinctly buttery note – a savory milky aspect that makes anything you add it to smell and taste extra rich.

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Honey Marinated Peppers

My grandmother Valentina’s approach to food is simple–if it doesn’t taste good, it can’t be good for you. She doesn’t have patience for the self-induced sufferings of health food devotees, and she remains suspicious of green juices, raw beet salads and salt-free cabbage soups. I once loved to experiment with all of the above. To my credit I even convinced a friend to try a raw food diet for a week. Such an idea in the Soviet Union during winter wasn’t for the fainthearted. Our food supply was ideal for Park Slope locavores–seasonal. It meant that once we got fed up with last year’s apples and carrots, we moved onto raw potatoes. There is a reason–and I suspect, evolutionary sense–why humanity has chosen to give potatoes some form of thermal treatment.

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After that infelicitous experience,  I’ve remained immune to most food fads, preferring instead to follow Valentina’s logic. Above all, it must taste good. Although Valentina doesn’t care for raw lettuce, she has a repertoire of vegetable salads, many of which she makes during the summer and preserves for the winter. Her pantry shelves are lined with jars of pink cabbage, eggplant slices in a spicy sauce, pickled zucchini or honey marinated peppers. Since Belgian markets have peppers all year round, the latter is an effortless dish to put together, summer or winter. I skip the canning part.

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Saraban : Persian Spiced Hazelnuts

Saffron, pistachios, apricots, pomegranates, angelica seeds… When my inspiration for scent pairings starts to wane, I flip through my favorite Iranian books and think of the vibrant combinations of Persian cuisine. It’s one of the world’s most sophisticated, with complementary and contrasting flavors used in a single dish. There are rice pilafs steamed until every grain is separate and glossy and then embellished with saffron scented butter and rosewater. Poultry is cooked with fruit and sweet and sour sauces. Meat is grilled in a variety of ways and vegetables star in everything, from soups to jams. Even something as simple as a yogurt cucumber salad is served topped with a flourish of golden raisins, walnuts and herbs. Every mouthful is an adventure. Every taste is a surprise. It’s a cuisine custom-made for perfume lovers.

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If your perspective on Iran comes from the news, then you’re likely to associate it with the brutal events of the 1979 Islamic revolution, religious intolerance and reprehensible treatment of women. Persia, on the other hand, may connote the orientalist visions of roses and nightingales. As Greg and Lucy Malouf note in their marvelous book on Persian cuisine, Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, “there is an element of truth and exaggeration in each version, but they are, of course, one and the same place… This duality, these contrasts, the opaqueness–once we arrived in Iran, we realised that they all contribute to a very real sense of mystery, and of reward.”

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