24 August 2009

Kuku-ye nokhod sabz, kufteh baqali — or, going kuku

Like I did on day one, I wanted to keep my second day of the Persian cooking adventure on the simple side. But the first day had gone well enough that I felt comfortable ramping up the complexity a bit. So whereas I had started with one cooked dish and a raw salad, on this night, I'd have two cooked dishes.

Also, to minimize distractions, so I wouldn't have to be going back and forth between them, I chose one baked, and one slow braised. In addition, the baked dish would be another kuku, following the kuku of the first night. I learn best by repetition, so making a kuku two outings in a row would help solidify the technique in my mind.

Regarding what, specifically, to make, my choice was, as usual, ingredient-driven. The Princess had come home from the local farmer's market the day before with some lovely fresh fava beans. They're one of the signposts of summer for people who pay attention to seasonal ingredients; the flavor is bright, almost nutty, without that odd muskiness that turns some people off lima beans. The only reason more people don't work with them is that breaking them down is a not-inconsiderable pain in the patootie. If you like to meditate for long periods in the kitchen, or if you can swindle somebody else into doing the work for you, by all means, don't hesitate to grab a pile of these whenever you can:

(As always, all pictures are clickable for a larger view. Also, at the request of a reader, based on the preceding post, in-line pictures will be larger starting with this entry.)

So, with these beautiful beans winking at me, I poked through New Food of Life for a bit, looking for a promising option. Searching out of the index, I found a meatball recipe. That seemed a little odd, but it turned out to be a "variation," a recipe-alternative described in a paragraph after the primary preparation. The main recipe is "Rice Meatballs," kufteh berenji, with an alternative of kufteh baqali, meatballs with lima or fava beans. The main recipe is herb-heavy (tarragon, chives, savory, etc); the variation replaces these with the fava beans. (The other two variations, for the record, were "sumac" and "curry." Curry you should know; sumac is a sour berry I first encountered in Turkish food, in powdered form. That one I'll have to come back and try later.) I've had meatballs with legumes before (lentils, mostly), as well as many varieties of meat loaf with all manner of goofy stuff cooked in, so this sounded nice.

(Short digression for an interesting language note: kufteh is meatball in Farsi, the language of Iran. Now, if you've had any Greek food, then you probably recognize the word, since they have an equivalent, kefte. And you'll sometimes see meatballs called kofta in Indian food. According to this page, there are many other cousins, from kofte in Turkey to kufta in Bangladesh. Obviously this can't be a coincidence; there has to be a common source, right? Well, there is: Persia. All of these countries and their kay-vowel-eff-tee-vowel meatballs are copying from Iran. More details at the link.)

(And in the next entry, the Princess will explain how Japan got their word "kimono" from Persia.)

(Okay, back to the recipe.)

Where was I? Oh right, the big pile of fresh fava beans on my cutting board. Time to get to work. I turned on the radio, opened a beverage, and started peeling.

The thing about fava beans is, they have to be peeled twice. First, you have to get the beans out of their pods, as shown in the picture above. Depending on their freshness, you might be able to pinch off an end of the pod, and then pull a "string" down the pod's seam, opening it like a zipper, allowing a simple slide of the thumb to pop out the row of beans. Or if that doesn't work, you may need to claw them free, digging inelegantly at the pods with your fingernails, tearing apart their green protective sheath, dragging the beans from the safety of their vegetal embrace into the cold, unfeeling chaos of the world. If you're like me, you laugh maniacally while you do it. Probably you're not like me. Probably this is a good thing.

But then you're not done. You can see a tough, milky jacket on each bean. This has to come off, too. It's edible, but sort of unpleasant to gnaw on. Removal is relatively quick: a tearing pinch at the tip, and a squeeze, and the bean pops right out. But with three to five beans per pod, and a big pile of pods, it does take a while. This is the obstacle for many people, though obviously I think it's worth the effort.

Anyway, forty-odd minutes later, you have this.

And with the beans prepped, I can assemble my ingredients.

A couple of comments here:

First, that's a big package of dill sitting in the back. I have every good intention of setting up a small greenhouse and an herb garden one of these days, but the task continues to elude us, so it's grocery-store herbage for now.

The unlabeled plastic container in the middle is tomato water. I made it as part of a dinner-party feast, and chose to substitute it here for the tomato juice indicated in the recipe. It has all the flavor of tomato, but none of the body. So I knew I'd have to keep an eye on texture as I worked.

Regarding the container of beef broth, I know I should be making this myself, but I don't really enjoy making stocks with beef; considering the ratio of raw material and work to the result, not to mention the flexibility in using the end product, when I go to the trouble of making stocks, I prefer veal and chicken. Looking through New Food of Life, though, and thinking ahead, there's enough call for beef broth that I should probably just, y'know, get over myself.

Speaking of meat, the recipe requests ground red meat, beef or lamb or veal. I love lamb, with its rich, moist fattiness. Since I'd be doing a slow braise, though, I was concerned that the very thing that makes lamb so yummy would also cause the meatballs to fall apart during cooking. So, instead, I chose to use a mix of equal parts beef and lamb.

The recipe also includes cooked rice in the meatball mix. This isn't surprising; I've seen rice in meatballs (and meat loaf) before. Besides, it seems like every cuisine does something similar, adding a starch when forming things out of ground meat: Americans use bread crumbs, in French and Italian cooking you frequently see a panade, the Spanish often throw in toasted bread cubes, and so on. Heck, my mom likes to add grated potato to her meat loaf, to great effect.

The Persian approach, however, will depart enormously from other methods, as we'll see in a moment.

For now, though, I'm cooking the rice. And one of the things you do when you cook rice in Iran is rinse it thoroughly. This gets the surface starch off, and is what makes the final cooked rice nice and fluffy, with individual grains. Sometimes you don't want to do that, as with Asian-style sticky rice, or risotto; there, the starch is integral.

But for Iranian rice, well-rinsed is the way to go. So before cooking, the grains get a few minutes in a fine chinois, until the water runs clear:

While that's going, I cut up my onions, as usual.

Based on the few recipes so far, and looking ahead to others, it looks like I'm going to be doing this a lot. Time to buy stock in the onion department down at the warehouse store.

Of course, that also offers an excuse to show off my knife again:

Behold! Excalibur! Forged when the world was young, and bird and beast and flower were one with man, and... never mind.

How about we cook some onions. All righty then.

You might notice here, I'm sauteeing the onions in a larger pot than usual. This is me planning ahead: Eventually the meatballs will be braised here, and I don't want to mess up any more dishes than necessary. So the onions get sauteed right in the final pot, and then the liquids are added (beef stock and tomato juice) to make the braising broth.

Meanwhile, the rice, having been rinsed clean, is cooking:

It gets cooked with the yellow split peas from the ingredient photo above, plus the fresh fava beans.

And now, here's something smart: Often, when cooking rice, the ratio of water to grain is fairly specific, so the water gets absorbed into the rice, leaving only steamy, fluffy goodness. Here, though, there's a little extra liquid, which gets drained off, so it can go into the meatballs.

One of the great secrets of Italian cooking is the use of the pasta water. If your pasta is at least halfway decent, the water in which it's boiled will take on a wonderful, salty-wheaty-eggy quality. Then you have the accompanying red sauce (for example), which is cooked slowly, getting thicker and thicker as the water steams out. You can thin the sauce to the correct consistency with ordinary water, but if, instead, you add some reserved pasta water, you unify everything, bringing together the flavors in a marvelous way.

This is one of the gratifying things about this project: recognizing how the traditions of good cooking are not limited by geographic borders. The Italians know the cooking-water trick, and the Iranians, it seems, do too.

There's flavor in that there water.

But now, though, after the familiar, we get to something a little bit unusual. A lot unusual, actually.

First, check out the proportions of the meatball components. That's a heck of a lot of rice, a comparable amount next to the meat, along with all the other stuff (herbs and such).

In the American equivalent, using bread crumbs instead of rice, there's be a quarter, at most, of the starch shown in that picture. Ditto for the European approach, which would have one or maybe two slices of bread. Here? The mix is half meat, half rice.

And that's not all. The recipe calls for the ingredients to be mixed thoroughly, kneaded basically, for ten whole minutes, or until completely smooth.

In Western cooking, this would be insane. You don't want to overwork ground meat, mixing it too hard with your hands; you want to touch it as little as possible, not squeezing, not homogenizing the fat and muscle tissue. The longer you knead the meat, the more your body heat melts the fat and opens up all the fibers, with the result being a meatball or a burger patty that's tough to bite into and then chews into mush. Instead, you handle it very lightly, leaving the fat unmelted, the muscle fibers tightly coiled, basically keeping the ground-meat texture and holding it together very loosely; that's what gives you the perfect moist-yet-crumbly bite of an American-style meat loaf, or hamburger. Kneading the meat mixture for ten solid minutes would result in disaster, beef hockey pucks at best.

But that's why I made the rule for myself: Don't question the recipe.

And it turns out, what happens here is that, as you work the mixture, the rice grains basically disintegrate, turning into a paste. The meat breaks down, yes, to what would be an undesirable state if this were a Western recipe; but then the rice paste coats everything, isolating little bits of the meat (and the herbs and everything else) and embedding them in a sort of a rice glue. The split peas also turn into mash; the favas fall apart a bit, but not completely, living on as bright green nuggets.

After ten minutes, I found myself with a bowl of a fairly loose mixture, about halfway between dough (as you expect when you're making meatballs) and batter, a mix that just barely holds itself together in a meatball, and only when you hold it gently cupped in your hand. Fascinating.

According to the recipe, these meatballs should be large, like oranges; the book suggests that the mixture will produce six of them. I actually wound up with seven, and they were more like the size of grapefruit.

Working carefully, I formed the meatballs, and added them to the braising broth in the large pot.

Those get to cook for almost an hour (with occasional dips of a ladle to moisten the tops of the meatballs with broth), which gives me time to work up the second dish.

That, as previously mentioned, is a kuku. I knew I wanted to make one, because like I said, repeating things is, for me, helpful in learning them. It also dovetailed nicely with the meatballs; after I got those to braising for an hour or so, I could spent twenty or thirty minutes prepping the kuku, and throw it into the oven to bake for another half hour.

A little bit of recipe browsing later, I had my choice: kuku-ye nokhod sabz, i.e. green pea. (Whenever you see "sabz," think "green.") It's another legume dish, it's very vegetable-heavy to contrast the meatballs, and it's got a ton of dill, the same herb as was used in the meatballs. In other words, it's complementary on multiple levels. Plus we had a huge bag of peas in the freezer that needed to get used up. As usual, that's going to tip the decision balance.

Here's the ingredient lineup:

Like in the meatball ingredient picture above, the plastic boxes in the rear contain dill. A lot of dill. More on this in a moment.

Also, another brief word on equipment: my garlic press. Most garlic presses are kind of crappy, mashing the garlic instead of simulating a fine mince. But based on the recommendations of the smart people at Cook's Illustrated, I picked up this Kuhn Rikon model a while back:

It's expensive, but it's worth it. Best garlic press I've ever used. And I use this one a lot. Plus, when you turn it over, it looks a little like a toucan, so you can have a little puppet show with yourself when you get tired and punchy. Highly recommended.

Okay, so, first, we precook a couple of the ingredients. The peas get a quick blanch, and the onions... can you guess what happens to the onions? No fair peeking!

That's right, the onions get browned. Ten points and a gold star for you!

The recipe didn't specify this, but after I blanched the peas, I shocked them in cold water:

This stops the cooking, preserving the bright green color and preventing the peas from getting mushy. Since they were going to be spending upwards of half an hour in a hot oven, I figured it wouldn't hurt.

Then I chopped up all the dill. If you've never seen a whole cup of chopped dill in one place (I hadn't), here's what it looks like:

Like a said, it's a truckload of dill. Smells amazing, let me tell you.

So I mixed everything up, in the proportions indicated in the recipe, and wound up with something that didn't look or feel like the kuku I made before. Remember, it's basically a lot of filling with a little bit of egg to hold it together. But this time, the egg was barely distinguishable in the mix:

I looked at it, and gave it a few squelchy little pokes, trying to decide if it was right or not. Should I have let the peas get mushy, maybe? Would that have been better? Maybe the eggs were too small? Or perhaps this is how it's supposed to be?

Ah well. Time to shout for the Princess again.

"Ah, just throw in a couple more eggs," she said after a glance. "It'll be fine."

Well, there we go. My speculation was right. Eggs enough to make a noticeable binder, that's the premise here. It's not a hard rule, just a building block. I can work with that.

Two more eggs it is:

Also, as with the previous kuku, I was instructed by the recipe to put some oil into the cooking dish, and to heat the oil and the dish together in the oven, before adding the kuku mix. When I did it the first time, I wound up with way too much oil, probably (I'm guessing) because I was trying to halve the recipe. This time, I followed the directions as written. And wouldn't you know, the proportion of oil looks correct now:

Amazing, when one simply does what one is told, yes?

So the kuku goes in the oven, and I check out the meatballs. I'm not going to try to turn them over; they're too delicate for that. A little of the cooking broth spooned over the top is all they need.

And then, a little while later, the meatballs come out of the broth to rest, while the broth gets reduced a bit further, making it into more of a sauce:

A little while after that, the kuku comes out of the oven, and looks like it's supposed to look:

Cutting into it, the peas are firm and bright green, and the dill is wonderfully aromatic:

And a few minutes later, the meatball broth is reduced, the meatballs and the kuku are served, and the sauce is spooned over the meatballs. And here's dinner:

Apologies for the blurry picture, but the Princess insisted on tickling me while I was trying to hold the frame. I took three shots, each one less focused than the last. I'm hardly better than an amateur photographer, but even Ansel Adams would have trouble keeping his images sharp if he was dealing with a hot chick gettin' all grabby.

So how'd it taste? It was nice. The meatballs were subtle, with a soft, almost buttery texture; they'd be especially great for somebody transitioning back into solid food. Interestingly, the kuku had more bite to it than the meatballs did, since the peas were barely blanched, and still had some chew. Both the meatballs and the kuku were even better the next day, after the flavors had matured and mellowed. I'd definitely make these again.

Next up: Give me some tongue, baby.

1 comment:

  1. So glad to have found your site! Great commentary as well as pictures. I know I will run across many great recipes.