Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101! As promised, today is about soup, stew and bread.
First, though, let's dispense with the question of what you're supposed to do with the plastic sack of freshly-cut bread, butter, onion halves, lemon halves and ground sumac packets you get at Wholesome Choice, and what to do with the basket of bread and herbs you're given at a more upscale Persian dining room.
When it comes to the Wholesome Choice condiment bag, the various things are actually for separate purposes. The butter is for your rice, the onion and lemon are for your stew or your kabob, the sumac is used like pepper and imparts a citrus-y, very slightly smoky taste to food. That's not to say you can't make a surprisingly good-tasting wrap out of the ingredients, and I do it often.
Sit-down places may serve you a plate of flatbread with a piece of cheese, some onions, herbs such as mint and tarragon, and a lemon. There may be other crunchy vegetables such as radishes or cucumbers, and the cheese is likely to be feta or something very like it. In some cases, the cheese may have been spun in a blender with garlic and olive oil to create a creamy, salty spread served in a bowl.
This is actually a little bit different than the condiments at Wholesome Choice; this is panir-e sabzi, or cheese with herbs, and it's an amuse-bouche or an appetizer, like chips and salsa at a Mexican-American restaurant. Spread or crumble the cheese onto a piece of bread, then dress it with onions and herbs. Roll it up and eat it, enjoying the crunch of the vegetables, the creaminess of the cheese, the chewiness of the bread and the bright notes of the herbs.
Like many places in southwestern Asia, flatbread is the bread of choice.
Nan-e lavash is the single most common bread you'll find. It is a soft, wheat flatbread that's cooked on a griddle so that there are dark, toasty spots. Lavash may be plain or it may have seeds baked onto it; it may be deliberately baked to crispness, or it may be left soft for rolling around food.When it's warm, it is sublime, supple and fragrant and perfect for using as a utensil or a wrap for anything. When it's cold, it cracks like delicious crackers, and when it's stale it tastes like clearance matzoh. When it's made round and from whole grain, it's often called nan-e taftun (but don't get this mixed up with nan-e taftan, which we'll cover in a bit).
Nan-e sangak is the thing everyone stands on line for at Wholesome Choice. It's named for the pebbled surface (originally actual pebbles) on which it is baked. The dough is bizarrely translucent and grey; it gets stretched out by hand and flung onto the pebbles, then wrapped in paper and given to you for the princely sum of about $2. It has a faintly sourdough taste and is surprisingly chewy for how thin it is. Try and make it through the lines at checkout without tearing a piece off the end; I dare you. Just bear in mind that it will turn hard after just a day or so; fortunately, it makes excellent breadcrumbs.
Nan-e barbari is a long, oval loaf with a much brighter flavor, studded with sesame seeds and baked in a stone oven. It is a pulled bread, which means that the crumb is coarse and the gluten strands are very long; this bread tears jaggedly but is wonderful texturally. You will sometimes see barbari served with panir-e sabzi, and a piece of barbari with some soft feta and a cup of strong tea is a very typical Persian breakfast. You can have barbari baked to order at Wholesome Choice, and if you like you can pay a little extra (50 cents) for more sesame seeds on top.
Nan-e taftan is the most fragrant bread, a brioche-like risen egg dough with cardamom and often coriander and herbs baked into it. The water in the dough is the leftovers from steeping saffron, which gives this round, soft bread a yellow cast under the brown, eggy exterior. This bread is delicious sliced all by itself but is sometimes hollowed out to make very flat bread bowls for stew; you'll appreciate the alternative to sourdough bread bowls.
Soups and Stews
If you ate only rice and kebab in a Persian restaurant, you could be excused for thinking you were in a Levantine (Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, etc.) Arabic restaurant. As soon as you see rich, meaty, sauce-heavy stews on the menu, though, you know there's a Farsi speaker in the restaurant somewhere. Persian food features a range of stews, called khoresht, that are a comforting food on a chilly day.
Ash-e-reshteh, or noodle soup, is like minestrone on steroids. It contains vegetables, red beans, lentils, square Persian noodles (called reshteh, hence the name of the dish), spinach and has a lactic kick from the addition of kashk (dairy whey, like thin yoghurt).
Ash-e-jo is barley soup, a rich soup often loaded with greens, lamb, and barley. Ash-e-jo is always served with kashk swirled on top and fried mint leaves set in the center, which lends a complex, slightly bitter, extremely deep flavor to the broth and, I'm convinced, set off the craze about 5 years ago of American chefs frying herbs.
Ab-goosht is not as thick as the ash; it is lamb soup with onions, tomatoes, potatoes and beans. Traditionally, the broth is strained off and served in bowls, while the solids are taken off the bone and run through a food mill, which turns it into a meaty spread that is served separately with flatbread.
Perhaps the most exotic-sounding and exotic-looking stew is fesenjon: chicken cooked in a rich, dark, tart sauce made principally of pomegranates and walnuts. The walnuts are normally deliberately not ground into flour; little bits and pieces find their way into the sauce, providing some textural contrast. This is not a stew to eat at a business lunch while wearing a white shirt--pomegranates leave big stains.
On the other end of the scale is khoresht-e gheymeh, a stew of yellow split peas, lamb and herbs that looks like a slightly thicker version of lentil soup. It contains tomatoes and tomato paste, and a slightly sour, acrid tang that is the hallmark of a very Persian ingredient: dried limes.
Khoresht-e bademjan is a stew of eggplants, lamb and tomatoes that has a red sauce almost like Italian-American "Sunday gravy". Lamb and eggplants are foods with their own particular funks, but for some reason, the combination of the two cancels the gaminess of the lamb and the bitterness of the eggplant.
Khoresht-e sabzi, or more commonly ghormeh sabzi, is Persian chili; herbs including fenugreek leaves and parsley are cooked with beans (kidney beans, black-eyed peas or sometimes chickpeas), then with dried limes and lamb cubes. This might be the ugliest dish in the Persian repertoire--it is a murky, greenish-black mass with a lumpy texture--but it is delicious. Move past the look and just eat it.
Less common Persian stews you may encounter are khoresht-e karafs (celery and beef), khoresht-e bamiyeh (okra and tomatoes) and khoresht-e aloo esfenaj (don't be thrown by the "aloo" here: this is prunes and spinach).
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Stews are normally served with rice in American Persian restaurants, but it's just as authentic to eat them scooped up with flatbread. Like all stews, khoresht improves by being left overnight, which means that if you cut up some bread you have a fragrant, easily portable lunch the next day that won't suffer overmuch from the microwave.
Next week we'll cover the opposite ends of a meal: appetizers and dessert. See you next week!