16 September 2009

Esfanaj-o-porteqal — or, orange you hungry?

As you might expect, after the preceding adventure into the land of "bonus meats" (an old term describing the nonstandard bits of the animal; look down the left side of this 1943 newspaper page), I was in the mood for something a little less, let's say, intense. I love to eat those unusual dishes, but the preparation can be a bit of a burden. And when I think about making comfort food, it's as much about the cooking as the eating.

Few things say "comfort food" to me the way stew does. Thick, chunky, steaming with aroma: I start eating with a fork, and then I lift the bowl to drink the luscious gravy. And making a stew is hardly any effort; cut up a bunch of stuff, gently precook it in the right order, throw everything into a pot, add some liquid, and leave it for an hour or four. No sweat.

In Persian food, stew is called khoresh. There are lots of different kinds, just as in the West. And the process for making them? Browsing through the Khoresh chapter, they all look easy peasy, same as their American cousins. There's a couple of small Iranian twists, of course, but overall, the khoresh seems like a straightforward adaptation of a very familiar approach. Cut, prep, dump, stew. Eat.

Comfort food, here we come.

I chose the particular khoresh sort of at random. Poking around in the chapter, I see a lot of promising-looking flavors. I'll get to all of them in time, but for now I want something middle-of-the-road; I want it to be interesting, but I also don't want to use all the really good ones too soon.

The recipe for orange-spinach stew catches my eye. At first, it seems like an odd flavor match, but then I remember all the California-style salads I've had where a bed of baby spinach is dressed with supremes of mandarin or whatever. Add a little meat, and you've essentially translated a familiar salad into stew form.

By the way, a note on the name: In New Food of Life, the recipe is listed as "Esfanaj-o-porteqal (Saak)." Esfanaj is spinach, and porteqal is orange (which is also narenj, depending on context; see here). "Saak," I don't know what that is. I can't find a translation online; however, based on a lot of searching, I'm speculating that it's a corruption of "saag," which in India refers to a dish of stewed and/or pureed spinach (more info). The more I learn about the region's cuisine, the more I'm struck by how fluid the culinary borders really are; these folks have been traveling and trading for thousands of years, and it's not surprising to see a lot of blurry lines everywhere, both in recipes and in terminology. (Similarly, it's not an accident that the word "narenj," meaning orange, has an echo in the Spanish word "naranja.") Again, I'm speculating, so if someone with better knowledge wants to offer clarification in the comments, I'd be appreciative. And since I don't know for sure what it refers to, I've left it out of the post title, above.

That having been established, let's proceed to the kitchen.

These are my ingredients:

Pretty much what you'd expect. The spice jars are saffron (of course) and turmeric, and the chicken quarters are dark meat, which I think stands up better to stewing. (The recipe gives the option of either chicken or red meat.) The rice flour is an interesting item; it'll be used to thicken the broth, but I'm not used to seeing rice flour outside of Asian food. Checking with the Princess's mother, it's actually a fairly common ingredient, but Iranian cooks will typically make it themselves. Everybody has lots of rice in the pantry, so throwing a couple of handfuls into the grinder is easy. I wanted a finer texture, so I got a package.

Also, the recipe calls for a large quantity of spinach, as you can see. No, that's an understatement; I need a buttload. Which meant, per the picture, filling my shopping cart with those sealed bags of salad. I always feel guilty buying them, especially this time, since I wound up with several wads of plastic to throw away. I would have preferred to visit the farmer's market, but it just didn't work out in the schedule. Next time.

To begin prepping, first, grab my knife...

So... pretty... Wait, where was I?

One of the onions gets sliced thinly, as usual, and the other is grated.

I cut up the chicken, and throw it in a pan for a quick sear, along with the grated onion.

This is pretty standard cookery, no matter what country you're in. Before stewing the meat, you want to give it a nice golden-brown crust. You're not cooking it through; that'll happen during the stewing phase. At this point, you just want some color on the meat. Some people will say you're "sealing in juices," but that of course is nonsense. It's a particularly goofy assertion in this kind of situation, where the meat will be submerged in hot liquid for the bulk of the cooking time. No, all you're doing is developing flavor; browned meat simply tastes better. Hardly surprising that this very common technique would be found in Iranian cooking.

While that's working, I also have to steam the several pounds of spinach greens. This, as it turns out, is a bit of a challenge. Raw spinach is fairly loose, in the bag, and doesn't really want to pack tightly under the best of conditions; the weight required by the recipe, therefore, represents a surprisingly large volume. The average home cook, using, say, a bamboo steamer in a wok, or a steamer basket in a pot of water, will probably have to separate the spinach into several batches.

I'm lucky to have a somewhat specialized piece of equipment, which allows me to steam all the spinach in just two passes:

As that finishes up, I see my chicken is about ready:

So let's get the sliced onion browning:

As that's underway, I pull the spinach out of the steamer. This is just the first half; amazing how much it shrinks down:

Behind the spinach, on the left, is the orange juice that'll be going into the stew; on the right is the freshly squeezed lime juice.

As the onions brown, the chopped parsley is added:

Followed by the spinach:

This is cooked for a little bit, and then the rest of the ingredients go in:

And stewing commences.

Note, incidentally, that there isn't any chicken stock or other broth here. The only liquid added is the juice (orange and a little lime). The rest of it is being given up by the spinach, the water absorbed and held during steaming. Pretty cool technique.

An hour and a half later, along with a little bit of tinkering indicated by the recipe, and dinner is ready:

This wasn't the most delicious stew I've ever made, but given what I was looking for, it hit the spot dead center. It smelled great; the chicken was tender, the spinach was on the verge of melting, and the tangy orange tied both together.

If I were to do this again, I'd make a couple of tweaks, as follows:

To begin with, it was a little undersalted. The recipe says to "adjust seasoning" late in the process, but I've been a little cautious there, for two reasons. First, I prefer to salt earlier during cooking than later; salt added early is incorporated into the food and makes it taste seasoned, whereas salt added later just tastes, well, salty. As I learn the proportions and techniques behind Iranian food, I'll be figuring out the balance of saltiness, so I can add the correct amount as early as possible. And, second, I know I have a heavier hand with the salt than some people, so when I'm cooking for others I have to hold back a bit. Between these two facts, I'm finding that my Iranian cooking, in general, is coming out underseasoned. That, obviously, will be fixed with experience.

The other thing I'd do is try to fix the watery texture of the stew. Even though no broth was added, there's still a ton of moisture in the spinach. Some of it gets released when the spinach is added to the saute, and then it gets sucked back up again during stewing. The result, when plated, is a bit like squeezing a sponge. A few possible tricks come to mind (removing part of the spinach, pressing out the liquid, adding more rice flour to thicken, and stirring back in, for example).

Oh, and the last thing I'd change? Serve chelow, saffron-steamed white rice, instead of the wild brown rice I chose. When I told the Princess what I was doing, she stared at me in disbelief. "Brown rice?" she said, blinking in confusion. "Not white rice?" Nope, I said, I'd like to try this. "But... that's not right!" she said. "Please, can I make white rice?" No, I said, I'm making dinner. "But it's not right!" This went on for half an hour, escalating in intensity, until she sounded like she was pleading for mercy from an executioner. I was firm, though; she's repeatedly told me she wants to eat brown rice instead of white, because it's healthier, and has insisted on my making the substitution wherever possible. And, with that in mind, I had something I wanted to try. So I resolutely stayed the course, despite the fact that her wounded expression made me feel like I was asking her to shave her head and dump all of her purses and jewelry in the landfill.

The punchline: It would have been way better with white rice.

Next up: A stuffed vegetable, and some highly inappropriate comedy.

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