Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & beyond, written by Sabrina Ghayour, highlights some of the best flavors of the area surrounding the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea in over 100 recipes. There is a mixture of traditional dishes and adaptations from cuisines throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Some of the traditional Persian dishes include the more popular Joojeh Kabab (Saffron and Lemon Chicken), Naan Barbari (Persian Flatbread), Maast O Khiar (Yogurt, Cucumber and Mint), and Khoresh-e-Fesenjan (Chicken, Walnut, and Pomegranate Stew) along with the lesser known Mahi Shekampor (Belly Stuffed Rainbow Trout) and Ash-e Anar (Pomegranate Soup with Meatballs). You will also find heavy influences from Turkey and the Levant.
Sabrina Ghayour was born in Iran and raised in England. She didn’t grow up in a family of cooks. Instead, she started to teach herself at the age of six, first focusing on Persian cuisine before branching out to food throughout the Middle East. She went on to host supper clubs and create recipes that have been featured in many publications, plus hold cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, and other events. She put together Persiana to share “no mess, no fuss, just simple and delicious food” and is also working on her second book, Sirocco: Fabulous Flavours from the East- set to be released in May 2016.
Chapters are divided based on course: Mezze and Sharing Plates; Breads and Grains; Soups, Stews and Tangines; Roasts and Grills; Salads and Vegetables; and Desserts and Sweet Treats.
Every recipe includes a headnote with background information, why it is special to Ghayour, and tips. Measurements are provided in US Customary and Metric. The names in the original language are provided when available.
Nearly every recipe has a beautiful, full page photograph of the finished dish provided by Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton. There are no step-by-step photos, but I didn’t really feel that they were needed. A few illustrations by Susan Brinkhurst of various ingredients such as shrimp and scallions add an artistic touch alongside some of the recipes.
This book is best for both new and well-versed cooks interested in Middle Eastern flavors. Many of the recipes have been simplified to make them more easily accessible to the home cook. The difficulty ranges from incredibly easy and perfect for weeknight meals to slightly more advanced. Some of the meats and other dishes require overnight rest times, but none of the steps I came across were overly time consuming. Most of the ingredients are available in larger grocery stores, but a few will require a trip to a market specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients or online such as sumac, pomegranate molasses, Aleppo pepper flakes, rosewater, and orange blossom water. The assortment of dishes is well-balanced with appetizers, breads, rice, soups, stews, grilled items, roasts, fish, shellfish, salads, vegetables, and a variety of desserts. There are quite a few meat and seafood dishes, but a nice mixture of vegetarian recipes as well. Sorry drink lovers, there is not a single beverage recipe.
The first recipe I tried was Eastern-Style Focaccia. This originally Italian bread has a Middle Eastern twist with the addition of cumin, coriander, dried mint, red chili flakes, thyme, nigella seeds, and sumac. We all loved the Focaccia. Even Claire snuck in a bite while Chad was trying his piece.
Ghayour recommends pairing the bread with soups, salty cheeses/dips, or using it as the base for a feta and roasted pepper sandwich. As with many fresh breads, this is best the day it is made.
Sumac is a spice made from the berries of the sumac bush and is common in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. It is available in berry or ground form. Sumac has a lightly bitter, lemony taste and a deep brownish red hue. There are no good substitutes for the flavor. I have been able to find it in the specialty section of some ethnic grocery stores, the spice section of Williams-Sonoma, and recently at Whole Foods. Watch the ingredient list and color of sumac. It should be a deep red. Bright red spices may have added coloring and some have added salt. It is also available of Amazon: Sumac 4.0 oz by Zamouri Spices.
Nigella seeds (black cumin, kalonji, black onion seeds, çörek otu (bun’s herb) in Turkish) come from the fruit of the Nigella sativa, a pale blue or white flower originating from southern Asia and northern Africa. These black, triangular seeds are used to top many breads throughout the Middle East to India and northern Africa. They don’t have much flavor when raw, but become more peppery with a smokey flavor when cooked. They are available in markets specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients, larger spice stores, and on Amazon: Nigella 2.0 oz – Zamouri Spices and Jiva USDA Organic Kalonji Whole (Black Seed, Nigella Sativa, Black Cumin) 7oz – Packaged in Resealable Bag.
I also made Joojeh Kabab (Saffron and Lemon Chicken) with Chelo (Persian Basmati Rice), Pistachio and Feta Dip, Cinnamon and Citrus Almond Pastry Cigars, and Pomegranate Tabbouleh Cups.
Joojeh Kabab is an Iranian poultry dish made by grilling chicken (traditionally poussin) pieces that have been marinated in seasoned yogurt and lemon juice. The chicken is arranged on a baking sheet with sliced onions and baked or grilled until cooked through and slightly charred on the edges. I love that Ghayour simplified the dish and adapted it to the oven in case you can’t use the grill/don’t have one available. I paired the Joojeh Kabab with Chelo, a Persian Basmati Rice. This was such an interesting rice and cooked in a way I had never tried before. The rice is first parboiled, then drained and rinsed. Instead of continuing to cook the rice in water, the rice is steamed in the saucepan set over the lowest setting until softened and light. The bottom of the saucepan is lined with parchment and drizzled with olive oil, butter, and salt before adding the rice. This creates a crisp, salty crust (tahdig) on the bottom of the finished rice dish.
I made the Pistachio and Feta Dip to pair with the Eastern-Style Focaccia. This was incredibly simple to prepare and packed with flavor. Just a quick whirl in the food processor and I had salty-nutty dip with a smooth, creamy texture. The addition of a red chili adds a little bit of heat without becoming overwhelming. The longest part was shelling all the pistachios, though you could use pre-shelled to save time. Ghayour found the influence for this dip in Istanbul.
There were so many great looking desserts to choose from, but I settled on the Cinnamon and Citrus Almond Pastry Cigars. Ghayour adapted this recipe from the traditional M’hencha (Moroccan Berber coiled pastry). She created single serving rolls that are easier to assemble. Crisp phyllo rolls are filled with ground almonds seasoned with cinnamon, rosewater, orange, and lime. The almond filling can even be made in advance for those short on time the day they need to be served. I need to work on my rolling technique a bit since a few had the filling burst out while baking, but they were otherwise quite delicious.
I have heard of Tabbouleh, but hadn’t actually made or tried it until I came across Ghayour’s recipe for Pomegranate Tabbouleh Cups. Pomegranates are starting to show up in grocery stores again and they were put to great use in this colorful and flavorful salad. The salad is a combination of bulgar, parsley, tomatoes, scallions, cinnamon, and pomegranate seeds. It is lightly seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper before serving with lettuce leaves.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Interlink Publishing in exchange for my review. All comments and opinions are my own.
Adapted from Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & beyond
1/2 cup (125 grams) cold sour cream
2/3 cup (150 mL) cold water
Scant 1/2 cup (100 mL) boiling water
3 teaspoons sea salt flakes, crushed, plus extra for topping (use less if fine)
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1/2 ounce (14 grams) active dry yeast
3 1/2 cups (1 pound 4 ounces/550 grams) white bread flour
3 tablespoons cumin seeds, divided
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
Generous 3/4 cup (200 mL) extra virgin olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked and stems discarded
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
1 teaspoon sumac
In a large bowl, combine the sour cream, cold water, and boiling water. The mixture should be lukewarm. Mix in the salt, sugar, and yeast. Mix in the flour, 2 tablespoons of the cumin seeds, ground coriander, dried mint, and the chili flakes until dough comes together. Cover and allow to rest in a warm place for 10 minutes.
Line a large baking sheet (9×13″) with parchment or grease. Add the ball of dough and gently push and stretch until it covers the whole baking sheet. Be careful not to tear the dough. Use your fingers to make indentations all over the top. Cover the top of the pan with plastic or kitchen towels and allow to rest in a warm place for 1-2 hours, until puffy.
Place oven rack in top third of oven. Preheat to 400 degrees F. Remove the plastic wrap or towels. Drizzle the olive oil over the top of the bread, making sure all the indentations are filled. Use a pastry brush if needed to make sure everything is covered. Sprinkle with crushed sea salt flakes, fresh thyme leaves, nigella seeds, remaining cumin seeds, and sumac. Bake in preheated oven until golden brown, 25-30 minutes.