06 August 2009

Serkeh khiar, kuku-ye jujeh — or, starting simple

For the first couple of recipes, I decided to keep things fairly straightforward.

See, I figured it'd be smart to begin with something that would be easy to plan, and that would come together quickly. That doesn't mean I'm saving the really hard stuff until the end; putting off the really challenging dishes would create an increasingly looming burden, probably leading to procrastination, which is why I'm going to be knocking off some of the tough recipes sooner rather than later. But there's no sense trying to climb a mountain right out of the gate, either.

A kuku, therefore, fits the bill.

Kukus are egg-based concoctions (alternate English spellings: kookoo, koo-koo, and sometimes ku-ku), commonly likened to quiches, omelettes, or souffles, or maybe
frittate. Less commonly, they might be compared to clafoutis, or sformati. The kuku is indeed related to all of these, in that you have an egg matrix holding together a filling of some sort. However, none of these comparisons is exact; the kuku is definitely its own thing.

Quiches, for example, have a crust, while kukus don't; omelettes are cooked egg folded around a filling, whereas the kuku's ingredients are mixed evenly throughout; if souffles are light and airy, kukus are more dense; kukus aren't soft and custardy like clafoutis; and so on. In general, what sets the kuku apart from all the rest is, basically, that egg is not the forward flavor, or even a minor player. Instead, the egg is simply used as binder, as the delivery structure for whatever filling you're using. That filling is what you taste when you eat it; the egg is far in the background. In this, they're probably closest to the
Spanish tortilla (not the same as the Mexican variety), which traditionally starts with cooked onion and potato, the egg being added at a later stage simply to hold everything together.

I've made all of these things over the years, so this seemed like a good place to start — familiar ground, so to speak. It should be like picking up a closely related dialect of a language I already know, rather than learning a whole new tongue. That, I thought, would be a good launching point for the project.

Plus we had some leftover roast chicken in the fridge that needed to get used up. I hate throwing away food, so that right there was the pragmatically compelling argument. And thus did I settle on kuku-ye jujeh, or chicken kuku.

Thing is, though — the book calls for twice the amount of chicken we had available. The recipe indicates an option, right at the beginning; you can cook your own chicken (with directions provided), or you can start with already-cooked chicken. Check, got that. But, again, only half of what we should have. All right, so I'll adjust the recipe to make two servings instead of four.

If you've read the first couple of posts, you might be aware that I'm already violating my rules about making the recipes exactly as written, with no questioning or tinkering. But, hell, it's just adjusting proportions; I do it all the time, so this should be no problem. At least, I thought it wasn't going to a problem, but ... well, you'll see.

So let's get started. Here's the collection of ingredients.

Eggs, onion, lime, chicken, baking powder, saffron, oil. Not shown, salt and pepper, which are assumed. (The beer isn't an ingredient in the kuku; it's on the workspace because I usually enjoy a tasty beverage while I cook. This is a product of a local brewery, which makes tasty beverages indeed.)

First task is to prep everything. That means chopping the chicken and cutting the veg. And for that, I'm grabbing my favorite knife.

A word about knives: I'm regularly amazed by what I find in people's kitchens when I visit. Your knife doesn't have to be fancy, and you don't have to spend a ton of money on it, but it does have to be sharp. A dull knife, as many have said, is a
dangerous knife. And in my experience, a larger, heavier knife is, perhaps counterintuitively, easier to use for most tasks than a smaller one. A heavy knife has significant mass, and thus inertia, and therefore needs only a smooth and steady application of force to work, thereby enhancing control. A small knife, or a dull knife (or, worse yet, a small and dull knife), requires continuous adjustment, a constant back-and-forth yerking of power and direction, to cut, which is exactly what leads to accident and injury. A big knife takes a little getting used to, true, and it isn't appropriate for every task, but it makes a positive difference in most situations.

Okay. Sermon over. Now I have an excuse to show you my favorite knife.

I know, you don't have to say anything. That knife is bad ass.

And hey, it doesn't just look awesome, it cuts things, too.

Chicken is prepped, followed by the onion...

Now let's get the onion cooking.

Pretty standard step: brown the onion in oil (or butter, which I'm choosing not to use here, because the Princess has issues with dairy). So far, so good.

I'm also making a saffron tea to go into the kuku.

Man, I love me some saffron. This being a kitchen well-stocked with Iranian ingredients, we have plenty of it. It's a common luggage-stuffer, apparently, when people return from visiting the old country — a safe gift, something everyone can appreciate. Point being, no more spending thirty dollars at the grocery store for a test tube containing a fraction of an ounce, thankyouverymuch.

So let's check on the onion...

Whoa, best keep an eye on your heat, there, cowboy. Let's get that out of the pan, and stir everything together...

Note here what I was saying before, that there isn't very much egg relative to the rest of the dish. The predominant ingredient here is chicken; if anything, the texture of this is like a really loose meat loaf. A little different, but still recognizable.

Next, though, is something unusual.

The recipe calls for the cooking fat (here, oil) to be placed in the cooking vessel, and for the oil and the dish to be put into the preheated oven for a few minutes. Once they're hot, the kuku mix is dumped in, and then back into the oven it goes. I've never seen this technique before, though I can see how it would work in principle.

So that's what happens. The kuku mix sizzles a bit when it hits the hot oil, and baking commences.

I set the timer, and while the kuku is in the oven, I'm going to work on the side salad.

As above, in the interest in keeping things simple, I've picked a straightforward option, something I can put together quickly while the kuku is cooking. Although it isn't strictly accurate on the Persian table to serve a side salad with a main dish, it does balance the meal in an American fashion, and it also knocks off another recipe out of the book.

Anyway, I'm doing cucumber-and-mint salad, aka serkeh khiar.

The ingredients:

Cucumber, shallot, mint, vinegar.

By the way, while we're on the subject of authenticity, you'll note the above is an English cucumber (semi-seedless), a standard offering in the Western grocery. We did have, and I could have used, these:

That may look like a lot, but actually they're pretty small.

I take it back; they're not small — they're wee! Aren't they cute?

Anyway, I could have used them, but this bad boy was in the fridge, and already cut, no less. So per the above, using up available resources, I made the substitution.

Another change: how I handled the onion. The Princess doesn't much care for the taste of raw onion, so I swapped that for a shallot, which is milder. In addition, I let the chopped shallot and mint macerate in the vinegar for a little while, to take the raw taste off.

Mentally, I'm begging the author's forgiveness as I do this, but these are the compromises we make when we adjust our recipes according to the preferences of those for whom we're cooking. Also, part of me is standing aside a bit, doing some badgering about the rules: okay, you can tinker here, because it's sort of necessary, but the next time you do this, stick to the basics, bucko. Yeah, yeah.

Interesting side note: there's no oil in the salad. There was a fair amount in the kuku dish, with more to come, so it's not like Iranian food doesn't have oil. The salad, though, is vegetables and vinegar only.

At this point, the timer goes off, and I need to attend to the kuku. According to the recipe, I'm supposed to take it out of the oven, add more oil over the top, and return it to the oven to finish cooking. I speculate: is this because the oil will have soaked into the kuku? or is this to fry the top golden and/or crusty? I'm not really sure, because again, I've never seen this method used before, and I'm not clear what it's about. Plus, the amount of oil I originally had in the dish, per the picture above, seemed like quite a bit to me.

But that potentially confusing speculation is why I made the rule: don't question the recipe. Until you understand why you're doing something, just do it.

And then I pull the dish out of the oven, and I find this:

The top of the kuku is drowning in oil. You can see it bubbling around the edge:

Here's a closeup:

I know I told myself I wasn't going to question the recipe, but I really, really don't want to add more oil to this. I suppose it's possible that the technique here is, in fact, to submerge the kuku in the fat, and essentially to poach it, like a confit; but I've eaten kukus, and I don't remember them coming out like that, or being so greasy.

Nervous, I bail out, and call upstairs for advice.

The Princess comes and takes a look. "Oh, that's definitely too much oil," she says. "You can go ahead and pour it out."

Really? I ask.

"Yeah," she says. "Cooks used to fry kuku on the stove, so this sort of makes it fry in the oven. But you don't need that much."

But, I say, slightly defensively, this is what the recipe asks for. I didn't use any more than that.

She shakes her head. "Well, I never use that much."

And then it dawns on me, as it has doubtless dawned on you, that this is likely a result of my having halved the recipe. In order to do that, it was necessary to use a smaller cooking vessel than otherwise. Smaller dish = different volumetric relationship between width and depth = oil spreads differently = the current "oil bath" situation.


Okay, I say, and pour most of it off. I check that it meets the approval of the Princess, and she says, fine, looks good. And back into the oven it goes.

And a little while later:

The aroma, following the comparison above, is of a slightly exotic meat loaf. The tartness of the lime has mostly faded, but the saffron is still definitely perceptible.

So now we're ready to eat. I turn the kuku out onto a plate, stir the cucumbers into the pickled shallot, and this is dinner:

Cutting into it, the kuku is, texturally, fairly similar to meat loaf, lightened with a lot of egg. Because, indeed, that's exactly what it is. I take a couple of bites. Mmm, tasty. Again, very much like an off-kilter meat loaf, in terms of how it tastes and chews. The salad's also pretty good; the mint flavor is pronounced, and adds a note of freshness to the otherwise sort-of-bland cucumber. Makes me wonder how the Persian version would have been.

"Wait," says the Princess, as we settle into dinner. "Let me show you how you're supposed to eat the kuku.

"First, get some lavash." We didn't have any, but a whole-wheat flour tortilla makes a rough equivalent. (Lavash is one of the recipes in the "pastries and bread" chapter of New Food of Life. So sooner or later, I'll be baking that from scratch as well. First, though, I need to get a baking stone. The Princess teased me a little bit: "You're only doing this so you can buy more stuff for the kitchen!" No, I'm not. Well, not entirely. Heh.)

(But back to dinner.)

"So," explains the Princess, "you cut some kuku, and you put it on the lavash, along with fresh tomato, and some torshi." Torshi basically means pickled thing (coming from a root word meaning "sour"), and it's an accompaniment to basically every Persian meal. You can pickle pretty much anything (and based on the relevant chapter in the book, Iranians do). Here we have gherkins, aka miniature cousins of cucumbers, which you probably know as cornichons, a staple feature of well-stocked American salad and sandwich bars.

Assemble, wrap, and nom nom nom. Delicious, and a good opening act for the project.

"One more thing," says the Princess, as we eat. "It's good and all, but next time, it should be thinner. The dish you cooked it in? Too deep. It'd cook better if you use a different dish."

So I have gathered. Another lesson, and another good reason for pursuing this project.

Next up: another kuku, and meatballs.

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