Persian Recipes That Deliver Classic Christmas Flavors

By Louisa Shafia for The Wall Street Journal

MERRY AND BRIGHT Left to right: lamb and pumpkin stew; rice with almonds, pistachios, carrots, orange and cardamom; sambuseh with lentils and potatoes MERRY AND BRIGHT Left to right: lamb and pumpkin stew; rice with almonds, pistachios, carrots, orange and cardamom; sambuseh with lentils and potatoes PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, FOOD STYLING BY HEATHER MELDROM, PROP STYLING BY RYAN REINECK

IN MY CHILDHOOD home, we did holidays our own way. On the same table you might encounter a pan of potato latkes sizzling in fat, a bowl of fluffy Persian rice and a tin of butter cookies topped with winking crystals of red and green sugar. Between my Ashkenazi Jewish mother, Iranian Muslim father and German Catholic babysitter (who was more like a grandmother), we drew on a lively mix of cooking traditions.

Now, with a family of my own, I’m mixing up a new blend of holiday rituals. On Christmas morning, we’ll toast and butter panettone, the sweet, yeasty bread dotted with candied fruit that is my Italian-American husband’s seasonal favorite. And for dinner I’ll cook a Persian feast. To start, there will be sambuseh, flaky pastry filled with lentils, potatoes and rose petals, and scattered with nigella seeds. For the main course we’ll have khoresh-e kadu, a rich, cinnamon-scented stew of seared lamb and tender chunks of pumpkin in a lemony tomato sauce. Where there is Persian stew there must be Persian rice, and we’ll have shirin polo—“sweet” rice—a celebratory dish resplendent with almonds, pistachios, carrots, orange zest, cardamom and saffron.

While these Middle Eastern dishes might seem like a surprising choice for Christmas, they taste comfortingly familiar at this time of year. After all, many of the spices, fruits and nuts that give warmth and color to festive foods came into Europe from the Middle East.

Sambuseh with lentils and potatoes Sambuseh with lentils and potatoes PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, FOOD STYLING BY HEATHER MELDROM, PROP STYLING BY RYAN REINECK

Think of the quintessential British holiday meal: a roast goose with plum pudding, the dinner eaten by Bob Cratchit and his family in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” The goose, stuffed with apples and prunes and served with currant jelly, owes a clear debt to an age-old hallmark of Persian cuisine: slow-cooking fatty meat with fruit. The plum pudding—filled with raisins, dates, candied orange and nuts; spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—is a cornucopia of Silk Road ingredients. In medieval Europe, Christmas was an occasion to splurge on such luxuries from faraway lands, and many now-classic holiday dishes came into rotation during that period. Hopping south to Italy, even the panettone, with its constellation of dried fruits, has origins in the east, where Arabs developed the technique of candying citrus.

One could keep digging through layers of history, but what’s clear is that the world is small, and the mingling of culinary traditionscertainly did not begin with my family.

Still, I did have the benefit of growing up with a father who coddled and cooed over his buttery, saffron-scented Persian rice in preparation for any celebratory meal, and I took away a few tips. For this shirin polo, the ideal texture is fluffy and light. I soak the rice in cold water and rinse off the extra starch before cooking, and I place a towel under the lid of the rice pot to catch condensation—keys to achieving a delicate, tender texture. When working with saffron, I make the most of the flavor and color by grinding it with a little salt or sugar until it forms a powder; you can use your fingertips or the end of a wooden spoon against the inside of a glass. Then add a tablespoon of warm water, swirl gently and let it steep in a warm place until it’s time to add it to the rice.

The khoresh-e kadu is thick, meant to be eaten with a fork over a dish of the rice. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a stew made the day of the meal won’t have nearly the same depth as one given more time for its flavors to develop. I’ll make mine the day before and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight, then slowly warm it up over the course of a few hours before serving. The cinnamon and pumpkin will fill up the house with their aromas, and then I’ll know Christmas has really arrived.

Sambuseh With Lentils and Potatoes
Total time: 2 hours Makes: 20 sambuseh

The sambuseh can be assembled a day ahead, refrigerated or frozen, and baked later. This version is vegetarian, but you can replace the lentils with ground lamb.

For the filling:

  • 2 cups peeled, diced potato
  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon ground dried rose petals
  • 2 cups cooked lentils
  • 1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sambuseh:
  • 1 (1-pound) package phyllo dough
  • 1 stick of butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons toasted nigella seeds
  • Whole dried rose petals, to garnish
  • Chili sauce such as Sriracha, for dipping
1. Place potatoes in a small pot and cover with water. Add a dash of salt, bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Strain and set aside.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until soft and starting to brown, 10-15 minutes. Add potatoes, ground rose petals, lentils and cilantro, and cook until heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Let cool to room temperature.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

4. Assemble sambuseh: Brush a sheet of phyllo with butter, keeping remaining phyllo covered with a damp towel. Fold top third of dough into center, brush with butter again, fold again to make a single, three-layered rectangle, and brush with butter once more. Place 2 tablespoons filling in one corner of rectangle and fold dough over in a triangle formation to enclose filling. Continue folding over to form a triangle-shaped packet. Brush with butter and place, seam-side down, on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining phyllo and filling.

5. Brush tops of sambuseh with butter and carefully sprinkle with nigella seeds so that seeds stay fixed. Bake until crisp and golden, 25 minutes.

6. Arrange sambuseh on a platter and crush rose petals over top. Serve hot with chili sauce on the side.

Sweet Rice with Carrots and Nuts (Shirin Polo)
Active time: 45 minutes Total time: 2 hours (includes soaking rice) Serves: 6-8
  • 2 cups white basmati rice
  • 3 cups water
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter, for rice
  • 3 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil, for onions
  • 1 yellow onion, finely diced
  • 2 cups grated carrots (about 2 large carrots)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ½ cup slivered or coarsely chopped toasted almonds
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped pistachios
  • Grated zest of 1 large orange
  • ¼ cup honey
  • Large pinch of saffron, ground with a pinch of sugar or salt and steeped in 1 tablespoon hot water
1. Place rice in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak 1 hour. Drain rice and rinse under cold water until water runs clear.

2. In a lidded stockpot, bring water with a dash of salt to a boil. Add rice, return to a boil, then decrease heat to lowest setting. Place a paper towel or small cloth over pot, then cover snugly with lid. Cook until water has evaporated, 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let rice rest 10 minutes, then add butter and fluff with a fork. Rice should be dry and fluffy.

3. Meanwhile, heat coconut oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add carrots, cinnamon and cardamom, and cook, stirring often, until carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add almonds, ½ cup pistachios, orange zest and honey. Cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.

4. Transfer rice and carrot mixture to a large bowl. Pour saffron water on top and gently mix. Season with salt. Garnish with remaining pistachios.

Pumpkin Stew with Lamb (Khoresh-e Kadu)
Total time: 2½ hours Serves: 4-6
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 pound lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1½ pounds pumpkin, kabocha or other winter squash, peeled and cut into large dice
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • Salt
  • 2 cups stock or water
  • 3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1. Heat oil in a large, deep lidded skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté onions, stirring often, until soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Leave stove on while you transfer onions to a bowl.

2. Add lamb meat to hot skillet and sear on all sides until well browned. Decrease heat to medium. Return onions to skillet, along with pumpkin, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric and tomato paste. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Cook until heated through, 2 minutes. Add stock to pan. Bring to a boil, then decrease heat to low, cover and let simmer until pumpkin and lamb are very tender, 1 hour.

3. Give stew a gentle stir so pumpkin pieces stay intact. Let stew continue to gently simmer until sauce has thickened, about 45 minutes. Gently stir in 3-4 tablespoons lemon juice, to taste. Season with salt.

4. Serve stew warm. For best results, let cool to room temperature, store in refrigerator overnight and reheat slowly over low heat the next day.


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