Spicy Persian Pickles (Torshi Bandari)

It’s that time of year again when I can’t stop myself from pickling whatever I find.  Last week I spent two days pickling which reminded me I had often been asked for an easy torshi (Persian pickles) recipe and a post dedicated to torshi was long overdue.

Torshi is an indispensable part of Persian meals, except breakfast of course because it’s vinegary, sharp and often spicy. Iranians believe it aids in digestion of heavy foods so one or even several types are often served with big meals. Torshi bandari is a delicious spicy one that goes very well with most polo khorsh (rice and stew) dishes, kotlet (meat and potato patties) and lamb hotpot (abgoosht).

Persian-pickles-torshi
Stone fruit such as peaches, apples and pears are often used to make torshi.

Bandari in the names of Iranian dishes means they hail from the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Bushehr or Bandar Abbas where the influence of Indian and Arabic cuisines is quite pronounced and the food is quite spicy. This sour and spicy torshi is very easy to make and can be enjoyed right away but it will also keep in the fridge at least for a couple of months.

torshi-and-shoor
Autumn is the best time of the year to make pickles.

There are literally hundreds of types of torshi. Most common vegetables used for making torshi are aubergine (eggplants), garlic, peppers, chillies, Jerusalem artichokes, cucumbers, celery, cauliflowers, white and red cabbages, Persian shallots (moosir) and tomatoes. Plums, apples, pears and peaches are often used in pickles too. Most torshi are flavoured with herbs and spices. Vinegar, tomato juice, verjuice and tamarind are used as souring (and preserving) agents.

Each region of Iran and Iranian family has its own favourite torshi recipes according to local produce and preferences. One of the most popular throughout the country is garlic pickles (sir torshi). According to Persian medicinal lore the older it gets, the more health benefits it acquires. I had a jar of twenty year old sir torshi I had made when I started my own family. There’s a five year old one now I made soon after I arrived in my new home.

sir-torshi
Whole heads of garlic are pickled in wine vinegar. The older, the better.

Making torshi must be an ancient method of preserving vegetables and fruit. The Persian word torshi means “sour” and was borrowed in many languages including Albanian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Egyptian Arabic and Greek most probably in Ottoman times through Turkish tursu (pronounced turshu).

baked-aubergines
Bake aubergines in hot oven to soften the flesh and reduce moisture.

The most important point in making torshi is to make sure all the ingredients are of the highest quality, washed well and air dried for at least half a day so there’s no moisture when they are mixed with vinegar. Any moisture will result in dilution of the vinegar and the torshi will go off quickly. To avoid that drain the chopped vegetables and spread them on clean tea towels and allow to dry before using.

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium aubergines
  • 1 large carrot
  • 4 florets of cauliflower
  • ½ red pepper
  • ½ green or yellow pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 medium hot chillies (or more if you wish)
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander seeds
  • ½ tbsp celery seeds
  • 1 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • ½ tbsp turmeric
  • 2 tbsp dry mint
  • 2 tbsp dry parsley
  • 2 tbsp dry tarragon
  • 100ml tomato juice or passata
  • 3 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 300ml white wine vinegar
  • pinch of sugar (optional)

Method:

  1. Wash the carrots, cauliflower and peppers. Spread on a clean tea towel to dry for a couple of hours.
  2. Wash the aubergines, prick in several places with a fork and wrap in foil. Bake in a hot oven (200 degrees) for 30 minutes or until very very soft. Let cool.
  3. Cut the aubergines in half and scoop out the flesh. Mash well and let drain in a sieve over a bowl.
  4. Finely chop the vegetables, garlic and chillies and allow to air dry for a few hours again.
  5. Mix the aubergine pulp, chopped vegetables, dry herbs, salt and spices in a bowl. Mix the tamarind paste, passata and vinegar and combine with the aubergine mix. Taste and add a little sugar if it’s too sharp. Fill in clean sterilised jars. This torshi can be enjoyed right away but it’s usually better after developing for a couple of weeks. It will keep for months in the fridge or about two months in a cool, dark place.

Earl Grey Tea, Walnut and Carrot Cake

Have you ever had a cake flavoured with tea? I had only had tea with my cake before I made this one! This lovely luscious cake tastes like tea and cake in one and is so delicious I will make it over and over again!

I came up with the idea of baking a cake flavoured with Earl Grey tea when I had to write a recipe for something that called for tea as a main ingredient. I love the scent of Earl Grey so I decided right away that would be my choice of tea to use in the cake.

Earl Grey is black tea flavoured with the citrusy flavoured leaves of the bergamot orange. Most tea-flavoured recipes call for using only the liquid from steeping the tea leaves in boiling water or using teabags. I wanted quite strong Earl Grey flavour and scent so decided to experiment with adding the soaked leaves as well. I was worried this may make the cake bitter but to my surprise it didn’t at all and I even got black speckles in the cake that looked really lovely.

Grind the tea leaves with a mortar and pestle if they are too large.
Grind the tea leaves with a mortar and pestle if they are too large but don’t pulverise the tea. You want something coarser than the tea coming from teabags.

Use the best loose Earl Grey tea you can find so you can really smell the tea in the cake and grind the leaves only if they are too big. Tea from teabags is too fine.

I usually add vegetables such as carrots, courgettes, squash or beets to cakes for more fibre, flavour and moisture. Carrots worked really well in this one and made it really soft and moist. For more texture and flavour I also replaced some of the flour with finely ground walnuts which also worked very nicely instead of using bits like in regular carrot cakes.

Lots of grated carrots in this cake!
Lots of grated carrots in this cake!

This is one of those cakes that get better after a couple of days. Using olive oil instead of butter makes it very moist and helps the tea flavour to come through beautifully. Decorate your cake with a little icing sugar instead of icing if you want to cut calories. If you prefer to ice the cake I recommend butter cream flavoured with real vanilla seeds or vanilla paste if that’s available. The flavour of vanilla icing nicely complements the flavour of this cake.

Earl-grey-carrot-cake-decoration
Decorating cakes with icing sugar using a paper doily (or other template) is really easy and creates quite a dramatic effect. Lift the template to reveal the pattern.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp Earl Gray Tea
  • 5 tbsp boiling water
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 250ml olive oil
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 180g flour
  • 100g walnuts, finely ground
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 300g carrots, grated
  • Icing sugar to decorate
  • Walnut halves to decorate

Paper doily for decoration

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 190C/375F and line the bottom of a 23 cm (9 inch) cake tin with baking paper. Use a little oil or butter to grease the sides of the tin.
  2. Grind the tea leaves with a mortar and pestle to make a coarse powder (not too fine like tea from teabags). Put in a small cup and add the boiling water. Cover and leave to infuse.
  3. Mix the flour, ground walnuts, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
  4. Beat the sugar and oil on medium speed for two minutes or until sugar is dissolved, then add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition so each egg is well incorporated into the mix. Add the soaked tea (with liquid) and the vanilla extract and mix well.
  5. Add 1/3 of the flour mix to the egg mixture and stir to dissolve, then beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the rest of the flour mixture in two batches and beat for 1 minutes after each addition.
  6. Fold the grated carrots in the batter and stir well.
  7. Pour the batter in the prepared cake tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 45-50 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin for ten minutes. Release the cake from the tin onto a cooling rack, peel off the baking paper and let cool completely.
  8. To decorate the cake put a paper doily on top of the cake and sift a little icing sugar on it. Gently lift the doily to reveal the pattern and decorate with walnut halves. Enjoy with tea or coffee.

Meatball Stuffed Aubergine Bundles in Verjuice Sauce

This recipe for meatball stuffed aubergine bundles in verjuice sauce combines two of my favourite ingredients, the humble aubergine (eggplant) and the very special verjuice. I know this second ingredient sounds unfamiliar to many but bear with me. I’ll tell you all about it soon. You may wonder where this quaint ingredient had been all your life when you taste this dish. But not to worry if you can’t find or make it. There are substitutes you can use.

The idea for making these tasty bundles comes from Turkish cuisine where a similar dish is called islim kebab. The Turkish and Persian cuisines have been borrowing from each other for centuries so our cuisines have a lot in common. The least is names. So you get Persian dishes with Turkish names such as dolmeh from dolma (stuffed leaves or veg) and Turkish dishes with Persian names such as pilaw from polo (cooked rice), kebab from kabab (cooked or grilled meat) and kofte from koofteh (pounded meat).

Making aubergine bundles has become quite popular with Persian cooks in the past two decades. The dish has all the flavours and flair that Persians adore in food. In most Persian versions the use of verjuice to flavour the sauce gives the dish Persian character, that sour flavour we so love. Islim kebab already has a Persian name, boghcheh-ye bademjoon “aubergine bundles”, and seems to be a dish that has, or will, naturalise in the cuisine of Iran.

aubergine-bundles-islim-kebab
I had made too many meatballs for my aubergine slices so a few had to dip into the sauce naked.

People who have grapevines around them can make verjuice very easily at home. There, I let the bird out! Verjuice comes from grapes, unripe tart green grapes. Perhaps getting to know this fabulous ingredient will let you use the grapes from that lovely vine you planted a few years ago, the vine that bears lots of lovely bunches of grapes refusing to ripen in that not so sunny spot of the garden.

Verjuice is extensively used in Persian and Syrian cuisines to flavour stews, sauces, salads and even soups. But it’s not only a Middle Eastern ingredient. A Roman recipe from 71 AD refers to verjuice and it used to be a common ingredient in medieval English kitchens too. Surprising, right?

verjuice-abghooreh
Bottled Persian verjuice (ab ghooreh) and unripe grape preserved in brine (ghooreh ghooreh).

In Iran verjuice is made by two methods: Pressing the grapes and letting the juice develop its distinctive acidic flavour in bottles with a little help from the warmth and light of the sun, or by cooking the juice briefly before bottling it. Either way the juice develops a lovely brownish-red colour and mellower flavour.

But what if you don’t have or can’t find verjuice for your verjuice sauce? I find that gooseberries (fresh or frozen) do the job quite decently. Blend a few handfuls of chopped gooseberries with a pinch of salt and put the pulp in a sieve over a bowl. Let the juices drain. Bring the juice to a boil and let cool. Use with some caution. Gooseberries can be very tart so it’s best to add the juice to a dish gradually and taste for sourness. Any remaining juice can be frozen in ice-cube trays for future use.

aubergines
Longish aubergines are best for making this dish.

Now a few words about aubergines or eggplants as they are called in America and the meat for the meatballs. Aubergines come in many shapes and sizes, even colours. To make these bundles you need long and rather slim aubergines. For the meatballs you can use beef, lamb, a mixture of the two or even minced chicken or turkey. I used beef.

meatballs
The size of meatballs for these bundles depends on the length of aubergine slices. I made walnut-sized meatballs because my aubergines were about 20 cm long. For shorter slices make smaller meatballs so the aubergine slices completely cover the meatballs.

The key to best flavour in this dish is slow-cooking as it helps blend flavours and mellow the verjuice sauce. Arrange your aubergine bundles in a shallow pan and simmer very gently on the smallest burner for best results.

Ingredients: 

For the bundles:

  • 3 long aubergines, sliced lengthways (3-4 mm thick)
  • Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying aubergines and meatballs
  • 200g minced lean beef or lamb
  • 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • Pinch of chilli powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder

 

For the sauce:

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 3-4 tbsp tomato puree
  • 50ml verjuice
  • 300ml boiling water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • A handful of cherry tomatoes

 

Method: 

  1. Brush the bottom of a large nonstick lidded frying pan with oil and put on medium heat. Arrange the aubergine slices in the frying pan in single layer. Sprinkle with salt and add two tablespoons of water. Cover the pan and cook until the water is absorbed and the slices are golden brown on the underside. Gently turn and cook, uncovered, for a few minutes until lightly browned on the other side. Repeat with the rest of the slices. Set aside.
  2. Mix the mince with the spices, salt and the grated onion and shape into walnut-sized meatballs. Use a tablespoon of oil to fry the meatballs until browned.
  3. Lay two slices of aubergine on a board in the shape of a cross. Put a meatball in the centre of each cross and bring the flaps over the meatball to form a bundle. Secure with a wooden toothpick. Repeat until all the slices are used up.
  4. Heat the oil for the sauce in a lidded frying pan big enough to hold all the bundles rather snuggly. Cook the chopped onions on medium-low until golden brown. Add the turmeric and tomato puree and continue cooking for a minute or two. Add the water, verjuice, salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Arrange the bundles and any extra meatballs you may have in the sauce with the tomatoes. Lower the heat and gently simmer for about 45 minutes until the sauce has thickened a little and the meatballs are cooked through. Adjust the seasoning and add a pinch of sugar to the sauce if it’s too sour. Enjoy with rice for a main course or on its own as an appetiser.

Apple Cinnamon Muffins with Crunchy Sugar Topping

I should have shared this apple cinnamon muffin recipe much earlier because these are one of my best and so easy to make anyone equipped with a bowl, large spoon and an oven can make them. But things got in the way and this post had to wait. Until today.

I make many different kinds of muffins. The apple cinnamon muffin is a family favourite. My family and friends also love my Rosewater & Cardamom Muffins (keyk yazdi). That recipe is one of readers’ favourites too and often appears in the list of their top ten favourites.

cake-yazdi-recipe
These muffins were inspired by a Persian cardamom and rosewater cake called keyk yazdi (Yazdi cakes).

Persians love cinnamon and use a lot of cinnamon in cooking and baking. My mum’s rice layered with a mixture of cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, cumin, rose petals and chicken is fabulous. Our saffron rice pudding is always topped with cinnamon. Many of our pastries are filled with a mixture of nuts, cinnamon and other spices too. So the scent of cinnamon wafting from the oven through the house always evokes lots of lovely memories.

Apple-cinnamon-muffins-with-crunchy-sugar-topping
A basket filled with easy to make apple cinnamon muffins that take no time to make is great for treating friends.

I took a basketful of my apple cinnamon muffins to work yesterday. They were wolfed down pretty quickly. My son was annoyed he could only have two yesterday so this morning I made him another batch. This time I added some walnut bits to the topping which made the muffins even better.

apple-and-cinnamon-muffins
Never overmix muffin batter to avoid a rubbery texture. A little flour is still showing in my batter.

 

Apple-cinnamon-muffins-with-crunchy-sugar-topping
These muffins are ready for the oven. This batch had no walnuts. The coarse sugar will form a crunchy top when baked.

The key to making moist muffins is not to mix the batter too much. Just mix enough with a spoon to moisten the dry ingredients. These muffins are good as soon as they cool enough to handle but I love them even more the next day. They get moister and tastier as flavours meld. So set your bowl, spoon and ingredients out and let’s get baking!

Ingredients: 

(Makes 12 regular muffins)

  • 280g flour (two cups)
  • 150g caster sugar (3/4 cup)
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 120ml Greek yoghurt or any thick yoghurt (1/2 cup)
  • 60ml oil (1/4 cup) – I always use olive oil)
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • 2 cups chopped apples (about three small apples)
  • 12 small slices of apple to decorate
  • Coarse sugar for the topping (muscavado is best)
  • A handful of walnut bits (optional)
  • Icing sugar to dust (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases.
  2. Put flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and the spices in a large bowl and mix well with a spoon or whisk.
  3. Mix the eggs, oil and yoghurt in another bowl or in a small jug and mix well with a spoon.
  4. Make a hole in the middle of the flour mix and add all the wet ingredients. Mix with a spoon until the flour is almost moistened. Don’t overmix. The batter should be lumpy or muffins will have a rubbery texture. Add the chopped apples and stir again very gently.
  5. Use two oiled spoons or an ice cream scoop (self-release type) to divide the batter in the paper cases. Top each muffin with a small slice of apple. Sprinkle some walnut bits, about half a teaspoon of sugar and a little more cinnamon on top of each muffin if you wish. Bake for 24 minutes or until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
  6. Cool the muffins on a rack. Dust with icing sugar if desired. Enjoy!