Book Review: Taste of Persia by Naomi Duguid
October 23, 2016
Naomi Duguid is no stranger to the cooking of far-away lands, having previously written Burma and co-written Flatbreads & Flavors and Hot Sour Salty Sweet , among others. With a taste for adventure as well as for what's delicious in this world, she combines meticulous research with gorgeous photography and a talent for making friends wherever she goes. The result, in the current instance, is a stunning book of authentic recipes from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, buttressed by a wealth of historical, geographical, and political information as well as the personal stories of families and individuals who shared their meals and their recipes.
The dishes are exotic yet totally do-able in a North American kitchen. The recipe I include here, for Spinach Borani, is dead simple. If you are in the mood to expand your horizons beyond the everyday--and to enter into the friendly and open life of this intrepid traveller at the same time--then I wholeheartedly recommend Taste of Persia, by Naomi Duguid.
The recipe below is given just as it appears in the book, but the two bracketed-asterisk endnotes are from me.
Borani ye esfenaj
The Persian dishes called borani are a genius combination of cooked vegetable and thick drained yogurt. They are generally topped with fried onions, and often with a scattering of lightly toasted walnuts. People rave whenever I serve them, especially this spinach version.
Serves 4 to 6
About 1/1/2 cups plain full-fat yogurt
2 pounds spinach[*]
About 2 tablespoons sunflower or extra-virgin olive oil
1 miedum onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon water
About 1 tablespoon Saffron Water [**]
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped lightly toasted walnuts
Drain the yogurt to thicken it. Line a sieve or colander with cheesecloth or a cotton cloth. Moisten the cloth with water. Set the sieve or colander over a bowl and add the yogurt. Set aside, loosely covered, to drain for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, trim the tough stems from the spinach. Wash the spinach thoroughly in several changes of water and drain well. Coarsely chop and set aside.
Heat the oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion, lower the heat to medium, and fry the onion until translucent and touched with color, about 5 minutes. Transfer the onion to a plate and set aside.
Raise the heat under the skillet to medium-high and add the spinach, turning it to expose it to the hot surface. Add about 1/2 cup water and cook, pressing and turning the spinach, until it is well wilted and deep green, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a bowl to cool slightly.
Once the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze it thoroughly, a handful at a time, to press out excess water.
Transfer the spinach to a bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon salt, and mix well.
Turn the thickened yogurt out into a bowl; you'll have about 1 cup. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the water to loosen the yogurt slightly and stir. (Save the whey for another purpose or discard.) Add the yogurt to the spinach and stir gently to mix them a little, but not into a smooth blend, leaving the mixture with patches of white and dark green. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Strew on the fried onions, sprinkle with the saffron water and toasted walnuts if you wish, and serve.
[*] Full-sized spinach leaves seem to work best here, as opposed to the baby spinach. But that's my opinion, not Naomi's.
[**]To make Saffron Water, Naomi pours 1/4 cup hot water over a "generous pinch (1/4 teaspoon)" of saffron threads. She lets this steep for at least 10 minutes, covered, before addition it to a dish. Leftover saffron water will keep, refrigerated, for a week, though it loses some flavour over time.