Persian cuisine has a rich tradition of using herbs, not just for flavoring, but as main ingredients in a dish. The choices range from ghormeh sabzi – an herb, lamb and bean stew – to sabzi khordan, a plate of mint, basil, scallions, cheese, walnuts and tarragon, served with bread as an appetizer. Herb cooking is at its finest during Persian New Year, when Iranians prepare the traditional meal of sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice and fish) and sabzi kuku (herb frittata).
My mother-in-law is a true artist when it comes to cooking with herbs. She uses no recipes, but eyeballs everything, and knows from decades of experience just how much parsley, dill or cilantro to toss into the mix. So whenever I ask her how to make a certain dish, her answer is always: “come, let me show you.”
She taught me how to prepare the following dishes, and I’ve tried to turn her demonstration into recipes. But like the best of Iranian cuisine, the trick is to learn the technique, then make the dish your own:
Sabzi Polo ba Mahi
1 bunch fresh parsley
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh dill
1 bunch garlic chives (sold as tareh in Middle Eastern markets)
2-3 fresh green garlic sprouts (looks like scallions)
3 sprigs fenugreek (tarragon can be substituted)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large piece lavash bread (2 pita breads can be substituted, split in half lengthways)
3 tablespoons melted butter or a mild-flavored oil
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron
2 cups Basmati rice
Remove the herb leaves from the stems and chop finely. Mix together in a large bowl. It’s best to do the chopping by hand, as a food processor will make the result too watery. There should be approximately 12 cups of chopped herbs. Set aside two cups of the mixture for the sabzi kuku (recipe follows).
Rinse the rice in several changes of water until the water is no longer cloudy. Bring a large pot of water (about 8 cups) and 1 tablespoon salt to boil. Add the drained rice and cook until soft. Drain.
Heat vegetable oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, and arrange the lavash or pita bread in a single layer. Place a quarter of the rice on top, then a third of the herbs. Continue alternating layers of rice, herbs and garlic, mounding them in a pyramid shape. Poke a few holes in the mound to allow steam to escape. Cover the pot and cook at medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes or until steam starts rising from the rice. Pour the melted butter or oil over the rice, reduce the heat to low, and cover, first wrapping the pot lid in a clean kitchen towel. Cook for another 20 minutes.
Just before serving, dissolve the saffron in 2 tablespoons of hot water and remove some of the rice to a small bowl. Mix in the saffron water until the rice is yellow.
Carefully mix the rest of the rice in the pot to distribute the herbs and saffron throughout and remove to a serving dish. Arrange the saffron rice on top. Finally, take out the crispy bread and arrange around the rice or on a separate plate.
Serve with fish and wedges of Seville orange or lemon.
Mix two cups of the herb mixture with ½ cup chopped walnut pieces and ¼ cup dried barberries (sold in Middle Eastern markets as zereshk). Season with salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of turmeric. Mix in 4 beaten eggs. Fry in 2-3 tablespoons oil at medium-high heat in a 12-inch pan. When the bottom starts to brown, lower the temperature and cover the pan. Cook until the egg starts to set. Then flip the kuku over and brown on the other side, about ten minutes. The easiest way to do this is to cut the kuku into wedges and flip each over, or slide the whole thing onto a plate, uncooked side down, then slide it all back into the pan.
Both dishes serve 4-6 people.
Noosh-e jaan. Bon appetit. Enjoy!