Persian Jeweled Rice

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Earlier in the week my dear friend and her mom (and son, too) came for portraits and her mom brought me a tin of saffron. Saffron is not something I regularly splurge on, but when it was gifted to me in such a sweet way I knew that was a sign to make one of my very favorite dishes, Persian Jeweled Rice. {Also, I am sure that only Americans call it this, but I have no idea what it’s called when in Iran. If every I travel to Iran, I will report back.}

I love food. I love cooking food, and as is quite obvious from my physique, I also love to eat food. I especially love food from the stretch of the world from France to Iran. It’s so fascinating to me to see how the flavors extend to the neighboring nation, and then are layered with local touches, and then again carried over to the next neighbor. One can find so many common flavors in Turkey, Greece, Iran, but also vastly different arrangement and combinations. That is what I love about food… it tells a story.

My love affair with Persian Rice began in my twenties. A friend who had recently immigrated to the states invited me over for a meal. We shared very little language, but a deep love of food and understanding of the communion between people when they share it. As I was driving to the address, I started to feel anxious because I had driven deeper into the not great part of town than I had ever driven before… I was not scared or worried for my safety, but as someone who is exceedingly sensitive I started to feel … I don’t know the word? Embarrassed maybe?… for my friend, who’s manner was so regal and sophisticated yet lived in a part of town that featured chalk outlines and a heavy police presence. My feelings only intensified when I was buzzed inside and saw there was no furniture and we would be dining on old quilts. I immediately went into my “this is great! I love this!” mode while inside feeling sorry for my friend and his family. With his own very limited and broken English he translated for his mother and told me that we were having rice. Obviously I was in a frame of mind that my hosts had nothing to give, and I felt so guilty over the humble meal of rice. I made a mental note to find a way to get more food to my friend’s family. Rice. A dinner of rice, offered so proudly. I choked back tears as my friend shared pictures and stories of Iran. I could barely focus but it seemed that his mother was struggling in the kitchen for someone who was simply making rice, so I offered to help, thinking that perhaps rice was an American staple that she hadn’t mastered.

 

So foolish.

 

When I turned the corner into the small little galley kitchen, I realized that the amazing scents that I thought were the candles were actually coming from the stove top. His mother was spooning rice in the most gorgeous shade of yellow into a large pot, shaking, adding another scoop. I watched her craft a pyramid of the visually stunning rice, seal the pot, wrap it in a towel, and then my eyes caught three bowls with fragrant slices of orange peel, deep red berries, rich, toasted nuts. I immediately recognized the hue of the rice as saffron-infused, which is certainly not befitting of the humble meal I believed we were sharing.

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Instead of being embarrassed for my friend as we sat down on the floor over candlelight for our meal of rice, I was embarrassed for myself as I moaned over every bite. The flavors are just so complex… tangy, perfumed, crunchy, chewy, sweet, salty, rich. It’s truly my favorite thing to eat and also to make because it must be made with intention. It’s not a side dish to be thrown together as a back up chorus for the meal, it’s the main attraction and it’s perfect for a lingering meal prep with tiny hands. It’s been served at every Persian wedding I’ve attended, a meal fit for celebration and joy.

I also learned hard lessons that evening over rice. About privilege and strength and perseverance. About how hard it is to arrive in this country, but the freeing richness of freedom. That no amount of living in hard places and requiring three deadbolts can steal the thrill of sleeping in safety, no longer waiting for a knock at the door. What I assumed was something that would make my friend and his family feel “less” was instead an accomplishment that I could not even fathom in my privilege. They survived.

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Life would change for my friend, as it does for so many refugees. When one has the determination required to begin anew, one likely posesses the determination to rebuild, as well. He would go on to become a surgeon and to purchase a beautiful home for his mother, marry a woman from that neighborhood that I visited him in and welcome two beautiful daughters for his mommy to teach to make rice. I like to think that maybe they serve it with something local, thus continuing the marriage of food and culture that sends me pouring over cookbooks from every region.

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If you, too, would like to sample this dish, here is the recipe that I used:

(adapted from a Kitchn interview with Najmieh Batmanglij)

3 cups basmati rice

2 tbsp salt, divided

two large oranges

1 c dried whole barberries (source below)

1 tsp loosely backed saffron

1/3 c white sugar

1/4 c orange blossom water (source below), divided

2 tbsp oil (or butter)

1/2 c sliced raw almonds

1/2 c raw pistachios

1/2 c golden raisins

2-3 large carrots, matchstick cut

1 cinnamon stick

2 tsp ground cardamom

 

Wash the rice in a large bowl with cold water, swish around with your hands and then drain. Repeat until the water is clear, it took me six times. Cover rice again with cool water and t tbsp salt and leave to rest for up to twenty four hours, at least two. When ready, drain and set aside.

Peel strips of the orange peel from both oranges. I used a vegetable peeler. Some of the pith is fine so not too much care is needed. When both oranges are peeled, (save the orange for juice or give to kiddos) stack your beautiful orange peels and slice into very thing strips while boiling a pot of water. Once your water is boiling, throw in your orange peels for one minute, then drain and rince in cold water. Set aside.

Pick through your barberries, removing any stems of sand. Now, I should tell you here that you *can* use unsweetened cranberries, but I have done this and just don’t think it’s the same. Put your barberries in a small strainer, but that into a bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak for 20 minutes, then drain again and give a good rinse. Set aside.

With a mortar and pestle, or the back of a spoon and a ceramic plate, grind the saffron and a few pinches of sugar into a fine powder. Add the powder to a small bowl and add 3 tbsp of orange blossom water.

Heat one tablespoon oil over medium heat and when hot add the nuts, sautee for one minute, then add raisins. Toss together and pour into a separate bowl.

Next heat 1 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp sugar and 2/3 of the saffron-orange water mix and add the carrots and orange peel. Saute for two minutes and then add the remaining sugar, the remaining saffron-orange mixture, the cinnamon and cardamom and 1 c water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cook for ten-ish minutes until the carrots and oranges are caramelized and the liquid is thick and syrupy. Drain the syrup from the carrots and orange peel into a bowl, setting each aside.

On to the rice! In a large, heavy pot bring ten cups of water to a boil. Add the last two tbsp of salt, remaining 1 tbsp of orange water and the rice to the post and boil for around six minutes until a grain is firm and chewy but not crunchy. (if it were pasta, we’d call it al dente). Drain the rice, rinse with cold water and dump into a bowl.

Pour the beautiful orange syrup that we drained from the carrots and oranges over the rice and toss until the color is uniform. Taking one spoon at a time of the rice, pour into the pot, shaking after the first few additions to create a firm base, then spooning into a pyramid shape in the center. Put the lid on the pot and wrap a towel around the lid and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes.

Discard the cinnamon stick and arrange the rice on a platter with the barberries, toasted nuts and orange/carrot mixture. I’ve had it served both ways: mixed together and separately. It’s such a beautiful dish that I always mix everything together so the “jewels” can shine: rice and carrots/oranges as gold, barberries as rubies, pistachios are emeralds, almonds as pearls. A meal for celebrating!

(*I order all of my mediterranean spices from www.sadaf.com and luckily they also have an amazon shop with prime shipping on more common items like the orange blossom water and barberries)

 

 

 

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