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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paper doily for decoration
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
For the bundles:
For the sauce:
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.
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.
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.
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!
(Makes 12 regular muffins)