Read Your Cookbooks – Notes on Persian Week

We’re going to start far away from Persia at the Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks from food52.com. I love the Piglet. Esteemed chefs & food writers compose thoughtful reviews of top cookbooks and they treat cookbooks as wonderful books not just collections of recipes. I have a soapbox about this. If you read the Piglet reviews, I won’t be forced to jump up on it. You might want to start with the opening essay on “Seven Spoons” vs. “My Kitchen Year” by Brooks Headley, and I loved the essay on his cookbook “Fancy Desserts” when it won last year. 

The Piglet is relevant to the Persia menu because of its winner (crowned last week) The Hot Bread Kitchen. The Nan-E Barbari and the Nan-E Qandi recipes came from that book. Notable about this book is that it introduces breads from around the world in the context of how they create the foundation for meals (think tortillas plus dishes that go inside them). Andrew Zimmern, the final round reviewer, noted that it was a perfect introduction to bread – non-fussy recipes that exist as part of a “baking ecosystem”. An excellent point. The bakery that produced the book has a social justice mission, also a good thing.

If it had been me making the cookbook decisions . . . .well, I would have been thrilled, so why quibble? But if it had been me, I don’t think I would have chosen Hot Bread Kitchen. I’ve not been in love with the actual breads I’ve baked from the book. There’s nothing wrong with them, I just have other versions of these breads that I prefer. I wonder if something got lost in translation from home kitchen to commercial bakery back to home kitchen again . . . or if I just have something in my mind that doesn’t correlate with how they’re meant to taste (that happens a lot, ask me about the kouign amann incident of 2014 sometime). The second reservation I had is that this book doesn’t captures my imagination as much as Seductions of Rice – an earlier cookbook with a similar premise, except rice is the unifying element instead of bread. I feel like you can introduce a new perspective imperfectly and deserve a blue ribbon, or you can mirror an existing perspective but do it better and deserve a blue ribbon. One or the other. 

My reservations about first place awards don’t change the fact that if you want an introduction to baking or an introduction to global cuisines, or both, you should buy Hot Bread Kitchen. Quibbling over whether whether this lovely book should win a tournament or place second doesn’t change the fact that you ought to own it. But now don’t you wish you followed the Piglet so that you could quibble too? That’s the real takeaway here. 

Let’s move on to Seductions of Rice, also a foundational cookbook for last week’s menu. Zimmern starts his review of Hot Bread Kitchen with great trepidation about bread baking, all the ways it can go wrong, and how much he kind of hates the guy who has perfected it at home on the weekends. I feel that way about rice. 

Cooking rice is very intimidating. There are so many cultures that I know are picky about their rice – heck, even here. I can think of half a dozen places where I’ve recently read intense discussions of Carolina Gold Rice (by Sean Brock, Dan Barber, Glenn Roberts, David Sax. . . okay that’s four, but some were interviewed more than once). I’m scared to touch the stuff. And that’s just one breed. There are so many different ways these deceptively simple grains are supposed to turn out – from sticky glutinous rice, to perfectly non-sticky basmati, to the crunchy tahdig. There’s washing the rice, soaking the rice, steaming or boiling or just putting in a rice cooker. If you want an overview, I recommend this episode of Spilled Milk. Intimidation aside, I really do love rice, so I went ahead and bought myself “Seductions of Rice”. If you love food that’s Persian, Chinese, Thai, Senegalese, Indian, Spanish, Italian, Southern U.S. – all cuisines that use rice as the base for many meals and signature dishes – I recommend you get this book, too. 

The most useful recipe for this week was for chelo – basmati rice cooked to have a crispy crust on bottom, called Tahdig. Yes, making a rice crust on the bottom is intentional. It’s like the rice equivalent of deglazing a pan after browning onions. As luck would have it, the Food Network reprinted the recipe and it’s online here. 

I can’t wait to cook more from Seductions.

Okay that was a lot of reading material – so here are some quick links to relevant Persian recipes that may be of interest:

  • Sumac Lamb – You’ll see here that it’s Lebanese, but I think that since I served it with Tahdig instead of hummus it should count as Persian. I did not put as much sumac on as this recipe calls for – it tasted too strong to me (also I put on a mixture of sweet onions, pomegranat molasses, and sumac for a relish so it got sumac’d twice).
  • Eggplant Kuku from Yotam Ottolenghi
  • Persian Love Cake – Called True Love Cake in The New Sugar and Spice. There are other recipes out there, I tried them, this one (for my money) blows them away. 
  • Advieh Spice Blend – I used this, with an extra half teaspoon of cardamom and salt, to spice my potatoes

I’m still searching for more Persian recipes that really knock my socks off. The True Love Cake certainly did and with all the great ingredients from that part of the world, I’m sure my collection of favorite recipes will grow quickly. 

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