Since my fortieth birthday and beginning analysis, I’d decided to teach myself to cook. Not only did I want to leave behind my past life as a junkfood junkie, but I wanted finally to realize my dream of having friends over for dinner. Anna and I were working on the phone phobia, so I wanted to have some recipes under my belt when I finally found the courage to invite people into my home.
I ordered this gorgeous cookbook from Amazon. Oh, my. That was thirty dollars well spent. This book has rich glossy photos, poetry, lore, explanations of celebrations and holidays, a wedding meal, recipes for salads, drinks, cookies and pastries…you name it.
I decided to learn to make zereshk polo baa morgh or barberry rice with chicken, the recipe featured on the cover of the hefty cookbook.
To this day, the preparation of this dish is one of the most meditative and sensual exercises I know.
INGREDIENTS (from New Food of Life)
- 3 cups long-grain basmati rice
- 1 frying chicken, about 3 lb, or 2 Cornish game hens
- 2 peeled onions, 1 whole and 1 thinly sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 4 tablespoons hot water
- 2 cups dried barberries (zereshk), cleaned, washed and drained
- 2/3 cup clarified butter (ghee), or oil
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon Persian spice mix (advieh) or 1 tablespoon ground cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons slivered pistachios
First of all, if you want to go completely traditional, which I do, you need ghee. So I start by making a batch of my own ghee the day before.Also done the day before is the rinsing of the basmati rice–five times or until the water runs clear. Then you leave the rice to soak overnight in very salty water (2 tablespoons salt in 8 cups of water). This helps the long grains hold up better when cooked. It ensures a fluffy rice. I usually leave the rice and salt water resting atop my refrigerator and put a large round glass serving dish on top to keep dust and things out.
The chicken, by the way, practically cooks itself in a covered baking dish. Najmieh says:
Place the whole chicken in a baking dish. Stuff the bird with one of the whole onions, the garlic, and sprinkle with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon saffron water. Cover and bake in a 350 F oven for 1.5 to 2 hours.
Oh, how I love that moment on day 2 when it’s time to take the lid off the soaking rice and put my face down near the fragrant basmati water. Breathe in deeply. Aahh, there’s nothing like it.
You rinse out all the salt using a colander and/or two bowls. This takes a lot of swishing and pouring from one bowl to another. I use my bare hands. It’s relaxing.
The barberries–which should be red when you buy them and which can be stored in your freezer until time to use–also must be rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. They are full of sand and grit and stems that must be plucked out, as well as a few tiny teardrop-shaped leaves. As I’m picking and sorting, tossing aside the uckie looking berries, I think loving thoughts about the friend or friends who will share this meal with me. Najmieh says, “Clean the barberries by removing their stems and placing the berries in a colander. Place colander in a large container full of cold water and allow barberries to soak for 20 minutes. The sand will settle to the bottom. Take the colander out of the container and run cold water over the barberries; drain and set aside.”
Saute 1 sliced onion in 2 tablespoons butter, add barberries and saute for just 1 minute over LOW heat because barberries burn very easily! Add 4 Tablespoons sugar, mix well, and set aside.
The cooking process itself has many steps–if you want a proper tadig or golden crust to form on the bottom of your rice. First you parboil the rice on high heat in salt water for just a little while. As Najmieh explains:
Bring 8 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large, non-stick pot. Pour the washed and drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly for 6 to 10 minutes, gently stirring twice to loosen any grains that may have stuck to the bottom. Bite a few grains; if the rice feels soft, it is ready to be drained. Drain rice in a large, fine-mesh colander and rince in 2 or 3 cups lukewarm water.
While the rice is parboiling, you can put your saffron strings into the mortar with a bit of sugar and grind it to a fine orange powder. A few tablespoons of hot water added to this makes the key ingredient that will go on the chicken and also into the rice. Be careful! This mixture stains fingers and countertops and, well, everything it touches.
When the parboiled rice is rinsed and set aside, you get the big pot ready to accept the rice again. Najmieh says, “in the same pot heat 4 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons water.”
In a bowl, mix 2 spatulas of rice, the yogurt, and a few drops of saffron water and spread the mixture over the bottom of the pot to form a tender crust (tag-dig).
Next you mound 2 spatulas full of rice into the middle of the pot atop the yogurt mixture. Sprinkle some spice mix on top of the mound and then top that with a layer of the barberries. Repeat: rice layer, spices, barberries; rice, spices, barberries. Soon you have a huge pyramid of rice and your ingredients are all used up. Way to go! (The pyramid shape give the rice room to expand.)
Cover and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat.
Mix the remaining melted butter and saffron water with 1/4 cup of water and pour over the pyramid. Place a clean tea towel over the pot; cover firmly with the lid to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 50 minutes or longer over low heat.
Those were Najmieh’s words. I personally do the above 2 steps a bit differently. I start the fire on the high end of medium and keep it there until a wet finger struck against the outside of the pot toward the bottom gives a ssssssss. That means you will have a good tadig and you can now turn the fire very low and keep it there until your guests arrive. (The wet finger hissing trick isn’t in the book. I learned it from my friends Najmeh and Zarrin. They learned it from their mothers, who learned it from their mothers.)
Before the rice is done cooking, wet down a tea towel with cold water. When the rice is done cooking, set the hot pot of rice down on the cold towel. This helps release the tadig from the bottom of the pot.
Decorate the top of the mound with almonds and pistachios.
THE SPICE MIX (advieh-ye polow)
- 2 tablespoons ground dried rose petals (gol-eh sorkh)
- 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (darchin)
- 2 tablespoons ground cardamom (hel)
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin (zireh)
Mix all the ground spices together in a bowl. Store in an airtight container to preserve freshness.
If I ever make this dish for you, it means I love you.