It is the kind of afternoon that hints at spring. Najmieh Batmanglij is in her element - cooking in the large room graced with tones of honeyed oak, smooth stone relics and the sunlight from a wall of windows at the back of her Washington home. She likes the CD of Iranian music turned way up; the aromatics are already at full volume. Wafts of burbling basmati rice and saffron-infused rosewater draw guests close to the long butcher-block counter, where bowls of bitter oranges and round trays of sprouted lentils herald the approach of Nowruz, the Persian new year.
The Iranian native says it's time for her to make some noise - two grown children, more than three decades and several cookbooks after she and her husband, Mohammad, came to America in exile. Naj, as she is affectionately known, wants more Persian food in more home kitchens.
Washington's fooderati and its Iranian community recognize Batmanglij as a premier advocate of Persian food. There are perhaps a dozen other Iranian cookbook authors alive today whose recipes appear in English, she estimates, and hundreds of people in the States have taken her cooking classes. Yet Batmanglij remains a low-key sensation, making what she says is the world's most influential, least understood cuisine. She wishes Iranian culture could be viewed apart from Iranian politics.
"I can tell you the things Westerners don't know" about Persian food, she says. "We do not overpower our food with spices. Its flavors are subtle and delicate. It juxtaposes small, refined elements, like the designs in a Persian carpet or miniature painting. It uses a lot of fruits and flowers; more vegetables than meats. And it is delicious."
Chefs are at the forefront of Batmanglij's fan base. They know what's good, and they are inspired by the ingredients and techniques she brings to the table. It is why she has been asked to teach for the past 10 years at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, Calif., during the weeklong World of Flavors Conference.
Chef-restaurateur Jose Andres first met Batmanglij more than a decade ago. They were introduced by Lidia Bastianich, a fellow member of Les Dames d'Escoffier ("she's so warm; a soul mate," Batmanglij says). When cookbook author Joan Nathan threw a party for the celebrity chefs who volunteered to cook a series of inaugural dinner fundraisers in 2009, she enlisted Batmanglij to make Persian wedding rice studded with fruits, nuts and spices. It was the hit of the night.
Andres has invited Batmanglij to teach dishes to the kitchen staff at Zaytinya, his Mediterranean restaurant in Penn Quarter.
"Is paella not a cousin of pilau?" Andres asks. "Najmieh has been a wonderful guide to the Persian kitchen and has helped so many to understand this rich culture through its cooking. Persian culture has touched so many other peoples over the centuries - influencing, sharing, adopting, changing . . . those links are everywhere."
Rice is the jewel of Persian cookery, Batmanglij says. It is grown in Iran's northern Caspian provinces. She makes some every day, in ways that elevate it. They can be as simple as simmering it with a sachet of crushed cardamom pods and a splash of rose water, or as involved as steaming it with saffron and creating a golden crust (see step-by-step guide at washingtonpost.com/food).
Batmanglij powers through the prep of simultaneous dishes like a seasoned instructor, explaining the steps for terrific pistachio and pomegranate meatballs and an herby, frittata-like kuku. But when she describes the allure of fresh fenugreek or the symbolism of eggs and fish and sweets for the new year, the 62-year-old morphs into her younger self, filled with passion. Like the stunning images of the woman with flowing dark hair, in family photos hung around the room.
When she was a girl, her mother would not allow her in the kitchen: "She said, 'Go to university. You'll have plenty of time to cook.' So I came to the United States. Got a master's in education. Then she allowed me in the kitchen." The daughter, one of five girls, cooked with her for three years. (Her sisters eventually followed her to Washington and are all good cooks, she says.)
Batmanglij learned her mother's dishes well and took notes at the elbow of her aunt, a pastry chef. When the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979, she and her husband fled to Vence, France. She took cooking classes there and began translating her mother's recipes into French. At her neighbors' urging and with their help, she put together a compilation of 50 recipes, her first, called "Ma Cuisine d'Iran" (1984).
During that time she began researching and saving string for what would become "Food of Life" and "New Food of Life," the latter of which was featured in a 1993 Post Food section article.
"In exile," in America, she was quoted, "you become so much more conscious of your culture, and ours is so beautiful." She saw the book as a love letter to her sons, who she figured might never see the Iran she knew.
Last year, Zal the filmmaker, 30, and Rostam the indie rocker, 26, encouraged her to update the book for their generation. So their mother added recipes and series of instructional photos, lots of tips and an expanded glossary of ingredients. She came up with vegetarian alternatives and substitutions, testing the 330 recipes at least three times each.
The result: a handsome 25th anniversary edition supplemented with more stories of tradition, more poetry and Persian illustrations. Batmanglij was able to translate many 16th-century Persian recipes and bring them to life.
"My other books have had my mother's recipes. These are my recipes," she says. "And now I want people to know about it. I am calling in favors I have done for others, something that does not come easily to me."
So in the weeks before this year's Nowruz, her favorite time of year, Batmanglij has even more reason to be happy. The lentils she sprouted will grow by inches; they are ornamental signs of rebirth for the holiday that officially begins with the vernal equinox. She will help plan celebrations for Iranian students at George Washington University and prepare to lead a culinary tour of a D. C. area market and restaurant in April.
Recently, her plan to get wider notice got a big boost. Folks from "The Martha Stewart Show" called to book her for an appearance on March 16. "I'm excited and honored," she says. "To be recognized by Martha! I identify with her. She worked hard for a long time, and it really paid off."
Saffron-Flavored Steamed Rice With Golden Crust
6 to 8 servings
Persian cooking instructor Najmieh Batmanglij makes some kind of rice every day and says it's a big part of Iranian cooking. For this stunning dish, she prefers to use Aahu Barah brand basmati rice.
Among her secrets for the initial stage of cooking the rice: a splash of rose water and a small muslin bag that holds crushed green cardamom pods. The bag stays in through most of the cooking.
Saffron is an expensive ingredient, but grinding the threads and stirring the ground mixture into rosewater ensures maximum impact.
Adapted from Batmanglij's "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, 25th Anniversary Edition" (Mage, 2011).
For the rice
- 4 cups long-grain basmati rice (see headnote)
- 10 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sea salt, for the cooking water
- 4 green cardamom pods, crushed and enclosed in a small muslin bag
- 1 tablespoon rose water
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds or nigella seeds (optional)
For the golden crust
- 1 teaspoon finely ground saffron
- 1/4 cup rose water
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/2 cup low-fat milk
- 1 small daffodil, for garnish (optional)
For the rice: Basmati rice can contain many small solid particles. This grit must be removed by picking over the rice carefully by hand. Wash the rice by placing it in a large container and covering it with lukewarm water. Agitate gently with your hand, then pour off the water. Repeat 5 times until the rice is completely clean. When washed rice is cooked, it gives off a delightful perfume that unwashed rice does not have. If using long-grain American or Texmati rice, it is not necessary to wash or soak the rice.
After you wash the rice, it's desirable but not essential to soak it in 8 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of salt for 2 to 24 hours. Soaking and cooking rice with plenty of salt firms it up to support the long cooking time and prevents the rice from breaking up. The grains swell individually without sticking together. The result is a light and fluffy rice known as "the pearls of Persian cuisine."
Bring the 10 cups of water to a boil in a large nonstick, straight-sided saute pan over high heat. Add the salt, cardamom in the bag and rose water. Pour the washed, drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly (uncovered) for 8 to 10 minutes (depending on the kind of rice you are using), gently stirring twice with a wooden spoon to loosen any grains that might have stuck to the bottom. Bite a few grains. If the rice feels soft and some of rice has risen to the top, it is ready.
Drain in a large, fine-mesh colander. Rinse with 2 or 3 cups of cold water.
For the golden crust: Stir the saffron into the rose water in a small bowl until well combined.
Combine the oil, milk, a few drops of the saffron mixture, about 2 1/2 cups of the cooked, drained rice (described in the book as "3 spatulas") and the cumin seeds or nigella seeds, if desired, in a medium mixing bowl; mix until the rice is evenly coated and golden. Spread the rice over the bottom of the same pan used to cook the rice; give it a shake or use a flat spatula to spread the rice into a single layer, then pack it down. This will help to create a tender, golden crust when the rice is cooked.
Scoop about 3/4 cup of the remaining cooked, drained rice at a time, gently building a pyramid-shaped mound on top of the golden rice in the pan. This shape will leave room for the rice grains to expand and enlarge. Return the cardamom bag to the pan, nestling it in the mound of rice.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid; cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat to form a golden crust.
Drizzle the remaining saffron mixture over the rice pyramid. Wrap the pan lid with a clean dish towel; this will help prevent steam from escaping. Cover the pan tightly and cook for 70 minutes over medium-low heat (this is for a gas flame, so adjust according to your cooktop).
Use cool water to moisten a kitchen towel, then use it to line a rimmed baking sheet.
Transfer the pan (still tightly covered) to the towel-lined baking sheet; adjust the towel to wrap its edges around the bottom of the pan. Let sit for 5 minutes; this will help to free the crust from the bottom of the pot. Uncover; use a wooden spatula to loosen the edges of the rice in the pan. Discard the cardamom bag.
To unmold the rice, hold the serving platter tightly over the uncovered pot and invert the two together, unmolding the rice onto the platter. Garnish with a daffodil, if desired (do not eat the flower).
Serve in wedges.
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 8): 430 calories, 7 g protein, 67 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
Pistachio and Pomegranate Meatballs
Makes 30 to 45 meatballs
Easy to make, with a beautiful color combination of the pistachios and pomegranate seeds. Ground dark-meat chicken thighs or fish fillets can be substituted for the ground lamb.
Serve with rice or noodles.
MAKE AHEAD: The meatball mixture needs to be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day. From "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, 25th Anniversary Edition," by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage, 2011).
For the meatballs
- 1 small onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 1 1/2 cups shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish (may substitute shelled hazelnuts)
- 1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs
- Leaves from 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (1 1/2 cups packed)
- Leaves from 1 small bunch tarragon (1/2 cup loosely packed)
- Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lime (1 tablespoon)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 pounds lean ground lamb (may substitute boneless, skinless chicken thighs or fish fillets)
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil, melted unsalted butter or ghee
- 1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds, for garnish (available in containers at Whole Foods Market and Harris Teeter locations)
- Basil or mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
For the glaze
- 3/4 cup pomegranate molasses, such as Sadaf brand
- 1/4 cup honey (may substitute grape molasses)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
For the meatballs: Combine the onion, pistachios, bread crumbs, parsley, tarragon, lime juice, crushed red pepper flakes, black pepper, cumin and sea salt in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to form a grainy paste. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
Add the ground lamb and egg; use clean, damp hands to knead the mixture for a few minutes, being careful not to overmix. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day.
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Use the oil or butter or ghee to grease a wide, nonreactive baking dish.
Shape the meatball mixture into 30 to 45 bite-size balls (about 1 1/2 teaspoons each). Place the meatballs in the baking dish and turn them to coat with the oil, leaving space in between. Bake for 10 minutes; the meatballs might look a little pink.
For the glaze: Meanwhile, whisk together the pomegranate molasses, honey, salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes in a mixing bowl. Taste the glaze and be sure that it has a good balance between sweet and sour; add honey if the pomegranate molasses you have used is too sour.
Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Pour the glaze evenly over the meatballs; bake for 5 minutes to infuse them with the flavor of the pomegranate. Taste the glaze again; add honey or pomegranate molasses as needed to balance the flavors. The meatballs should be cooked through. Reduce the oven to 250 degrees to keep the meatballs warm until ready to serve.
Transfer the glazed meatballs and their pan juices to a deep serving dish; garnish with the chopped pistachios, pomegranate seeds and sprigs of basil or mint, if desired.
NUTRITION Per meatball (based on 45, using vegetable oil): 130 calories, 5 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Fish With Fresh Herb and Barberry Stuffing
Fish represents life, so fish dishes figure prominently at meals during Nowruz, the two-week Persian new year celebration that begins with spring's vernal equinox.
Tart red barberries are sold fresh in Iran and are most commonly used for juice made by street vendors. But you'll find only dried ones in the States, in Mediterranean markets. Look for dried berries that are a vivid red; darker berries might be old. Dried barberries need to be purged of sand; discard their stems and place the berries in a colander, then lower the colander into a saucepan of cool water and let them soak for 15 minutes. Rinse the berries in the colander under cold running water, then spread on a baking sheet to drain. Pat dry with paper towels before using.
From Batmanglij's "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, 25th Anniversary Edition" (Mage, 2011).
For the fish
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- One 4- or 5-pound whole striped bass or rockfish, scaled, butterflied and skin scored (may substitute 2 thick, skin-on fillets of bass or rockfish, about 2 pounds total)
For the filling
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil (may substitute melted unsalted butter or ghee)
- 4 medium cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
- Leaves from 1/3 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped (1/2 cup)
- Leaves from 2 stems tarragon, chopped (2 tablespoons)
- 4 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup chopped mint leaves (may substitute 2 tablespoons dried mint)
- 1 cup finely ground walnuts
- 1/2 cup dried barberries (see headnote)
- 1/2 cup golden or dark seedless raisins
- Freshly squeezed juice from 2 or 3 limes (1/4 cup)
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water (optional)
- 2 bitter/Seville oranges
Combine the salt, pepper and turmeric in a small bowl.
Rinse the fish with cold water. Use paper towels to pat it dry. Rub the fish inside and out with the spice mixture.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the parsley, tarragon, scallions, cilantro, mint, walnuts, soaked barberries, raisins, lime juice, salt and pepper to form a stuffing; cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then remove from heat and let cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to grease a baking dish large enough to hold the fish flat, or line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Fill the inside of the fish with all of the cooled stuffing, then use kitchen twine to tie the fish closed near the front and tail ends. Drizzle with the remaining oil and saffron water, if using, over the fish; this will form a sauce. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes (depending on the size of the fish), until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Remove from the oven and baste with the pan juices.
Just before the fish is done, peel a wide center swath around each orange; this will keep the bitter peel separate from the juice. Cut the oranges in half; squeeze their juice over the fish, being careful not to introduce any pits.
Carefully transfer the fish to a platter. Discard the kitchen twine and any exposed fish bones.
NUTRITION Per serving: 680 calories, 60 g protein, 33 g carbohydrates, 35 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 240 mg cholesterol, 890 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar