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Category: Soups, Appetisers & Fingerfood

Meatball Soup with Pasta & Herbs (Cheat’s Gushbara) – updated

This meatballs and pasta soup recipe is probably very different from any you’ve ever tried so get yourself prepared for a whole new flavour combination! There is a lot of coriander, garlic and mint in the broth for this soup that give it it’s fabulous aroma and set it apart from other meatball and pasta soups.

This is my cheat’s version of a moreish soup called by a myriad of names all over Iran, Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Each one of these soups is a bit different from the others but they are all made with pasta shaped like tortellini or ravioli. My version is close to one made in northwest Iran and the neighbouring Azerbaijan.

meatballs-and-pasta-soup-recipe
Same soup with different type of pasta

I learnt to make the original version of gushbara from my mother-in-law who is a fabulous cook. Her skill in making pasta dough, rolling the dough and filling small dumplings for the soup has always fascinated me. Hers is finger-licking delicious but takes a lot of time to prepare. But I loved this soup and had to find a way to make something that tasted similar but was easier to make so I came up with this recipe.

Herby soups are part and parcel of Persian cooking. No wonder the word for cook in Persian (ashpaz) is derived from the word for soup (ash, a is pronounced as in art). So a cook is one who makes soups! There are literally hundreds of types of soups with all kinds of flavours, from savoury to sweet and sour, completely vegetarian or with different kinds of meat. Some are thickened with flour, others with noodles, rice, whole grains like wheat and barley or bulgur.

Persian-tomato-soup
A sample of herby Persian soups made with loads of fresh tomatoes.

There are also some soups that are made with pieces of pasta dough like the one from which I’ve taken the inspiration for my cheat’s gushbara. Gushbara translates to “earring” or “like ear lobes” in Persian, because of the shape of the tiny dumplings in the original version.

You may call my gushbara a “deconstructed” version of the real thing. I make it with shop-bought Italian pasta shapes like orecchiette, creste di gallo, farfalle or cappelletti but any kind of pasta shape or even little squares of homemade pasta dough can be used instead. Using dry pasta cuts the preparation time but flavour-wise the end result is quite similar to the original. Critic No 1 (my lovely son and my best food critic) approves of my cheat’s version and is always begging me to make it for him. He is quite a soup expert!

Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth

This curious pasta soup has a long and interesting history too. There are many versions known as gushbarajushpara, jushbaratushbera, dushbara and chuchvara in some regions of Iran, former soviet republics of Central Asia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Afghanistan. A friend from Jordan told me her grandmother made jushbara too but had no idea where it came from.

I’m not going to debate the origins of the dish. My best guess is that it was brought to Iran and all adjacent countries by nomadic Turkic tribes centuries ago and they may have adopted that from an earlier Chinese version. I found a recipe in a 16th century Persian cookbook but the book doesn’t say where the soup originated. It’s fascinating how the dish evolved over the centuries in all these places and how each nation now has claims to its origins.

Today many versions are enjoyed in various parts of Iran where the fillings and flavourings can vary hugely. In some places the pasta parcels are filled with lamb, in others with lentils. Some are made with broth, others with sauce, much like ravioli. I made one recently from eastern regions of Iran with spinach and walnut dumplings. If there could be a cheat’s version of that I’d make it all the time.

In our family gushbara is served with torshi (chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar and spices). When there isn’t any torshi we use lime/lemon juice or good wine vinegar flavoured with garlic paste.

To serve four persons you will need the following ingredients:

  • 250g lean beef mince
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tbsp dried mint
  • 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper or mild chilli flakes
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or grated
  • 20g butter (or 4 tbsp of olive oil)
  • 1 1/2 litre boiling water or stock (beef, lamb or chicken)
  • 150g pasta (creste di gallo, farfalle, cappelletti, orecchiette or other pasta shape)
  • 50g coriander, roughly chopped (or more if you love coriander like I do)

Method: 

  1. Squeeze the grated onion with the back of a spoon to extract most of the juices. Discard the onion juice.
  2. Put the mince, spices, salt, mint, grated onion and grated garlic in a bowl. Mix and knead for a couple of minutes. Take small pieces of the mixture and shape into small meatballs.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan over medium high heat and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs until lightly browned.
  4. Transfer the meatballs to a medium-sized saucepan. Deglaze the frying pan with some of the boiling water (or stock) and add the juices to the meatballs. Top up with the rest of the water or stock. Bring to the boil. Taste and add salt if required.
  5. Add all the pasta and stir. Cook for at least 15 minutes. Forget about al dente, the pasta should become very soft and thicken the broth a little. Taste and adjust the seasoning again. If there is too little broth to your liking dilute the soup with a little more boiling water or stock.
  6. Add the chopped coriander and cook for a couple of minutes until the coriander is a little wilted. Serve immediately with lime/lemon wedges or vinegar and more chopped coriander if you wish. Enjoy!

Potato, Spring Onion & Leek Persian Frittata (Kookoo Sibzamini ba Piazcheh)

This recipe for potato, leek and spring onion frittata is a good way to use up those spring onion greens and the odd leek sitting in the fridge. What a delicious way to use up the veggies that would have ended up in the bin if I hadn’t remembered this easy recipe I hadn’t made in a very long time!

 

spring-onions-and-leek
A few spring onions and a leek I had no other use for became the main ingredients in my spring onion and leek kookoo.

We had it with salad for dinner and the leftovers went into yummy flatbread wraps with parsley and radishes for lunch two days later when I was too busy to cook.

I’ve called this dish a frittata in the title to give an idea of what the dish is like to readers who are not too familiar with Persian cuisine. In Persian cuisine this will be a kookoo.

kookoo-piazcheh-ingredients
Ingredients ready to be mixed. It’s best to shred the potatoes but grated will work fine too.

Persian kookoo (also spelled as kuku) is a omelette with loads of vegetables or herbs. There are some with meat or nuts too but most are vegetarian. The best thing about a kookoo  is that it can be served both warm and cold. I actually like the leftovers more than the freshly made dish so I often make it ahead for brunch, picnics or as part of a mezze spread.

kookoo-bademjan-ba-morgh
Aubergine (eggplant) and chicken kookoo with barberries just out of the oven.

A kookoo is usually cooked in a small round frying pan and cut into wedges to serve but sometimes people make them in the shape of small pancakes. I prefer the traditional cake-like shape. In recent years using muffin tins for making kookoo has gained popularity too. Have you seen my Kale & Potato Egg Muffins recipe? Those delicious egg muffins were inspired by Persian kookoo sabzi (herby green kookoo). Baking them in muffin tins made it very easy to pack them into my lunch boxes for work.

kookoo-sabzi
Kale and potato egg muffins inspired by kookoo sabzi.

The traditional way of making kookoo is on stove-top like most Persian dishes but baking in the oven is a good option too and much easier. If you are using the oven a temperature of 180-200C generally works perfectly. Duration of cooking, however, depends on the size of the dish the batter is baked in. The thicker the batter, the longer it will take to cook through.

Now a reminder: Non-stick utensils are a Persian cook’s best friend. It’s best to use a non-stick coated frying pan or cake tin to make kookoos. 

To make a large kookoo to serve four (eight as starter) you will need the following ingredients:

 

Ingredients: 

  • 3 large potatoes (about 700g total), shredded or grated
  • 1 or 2 bunches of spring onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium leek, cut in half lengthways and thinly sliced
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper or mild chilli flakes (optional)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 5 large eggs
  • 4 tbsp rapeseed oil (preferably extra virgin)

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 190C (375F).
  2. Put 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 25cm non-stick coated ovenproof frying pan or cake tin. Oil the sides of the dish and place in the oven to heat for three minutes or until the oil is very hot and a drop of the batter dropped in the oil starts sizzling.
  3. While you are waiting for the oil to heat put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix very well with a large spoon. I put on a disposable glove and get my hand into the batter. Whichever suits you best.
  4. Pour the batter in the oil. Shake the pan or tin. Cover with kitchen foil and poke a few holes in the foil with the tip of a knife. Put the tin in the centre of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or until the top is set. Brush with the rest of the oil and bake for 20 more minutes or until the top is golden brown. If the top is browning too quickly use a piece of kitchen foil to prevent a burnt top.
  5. Let cool in the tin for ten minutes and invert on a board like a cake. Cut into wedges with a sharp knife.
  6. Serve warm or cold. Bon appétit!

Persian Plum Soup with Fried Mint Topping (ash-e aloocheh)

Hello there my lovely friends! How about a vegetarian Persian plum soup recipe today? Did I hear yes? I think I did hear a few of you who had “liked” the picture on the social media but I hope you will give it a try even if you hadn’t. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Most classic Persian soups are satisfying meals on their own. Like minestrone they are usually chock full of vegetables, herbs and green leaves, legumes and grains. Cooking ash (a is pronounced as in art) is so important in Persian cuisine that a professional cook is actually called ashpaz “one who cooks soups” and the general word for cooking is ashpazi.

Our most popular thick soup is probably ash reshteh (noodle and beans soup), pictured below.  It’s cooked both for everyday meals and for special occasions. It can be on the menu of restaurants or sold in roadside huts in snowy mountain roads.

Ash-reshteh-Persian-noodle-soup
Ash reshteh (noodle soup) is made with beans, chickpeas, lentils, loads of herbs and hand-pulled wheat noodles.

Egg-drop soups (eshkaneh/eshkeneh) are of a different category. They are quick to make and usually require very few ingredients. My favourite is the one made with onions, dried mint, turmeric and eggs of course. It’s my go to on a cold day when I need something quick, filling and warming. I love to soak torn flatbread in the soup and have it with vinegary vegetable pickles.

eshkaneh-Persian-egg-drop-soup
Eshkaneh/eshkeneh is a delicious rustic quick egg drop soup usually eaten with flatbread “croutons”.

Most Persian soups are vegetarian or even vegan. Adding meat, chicken or stock is usually a choice, not a requirement. My plum soup is also completely vegetable-based but one can make it with stock too. Plum soup is thickened with rice and takes its flavour from caramelised onions, turmeric and herbs.

plum-soup
Plums of all colours and sorts can be used in ash-e aloocheh

I make this soup with whatever kind of fresh plums I happen to have. In early summer I make it with foraged plums (the tiny sour ones), damsons or greengages. Sweet and sour, more on the sour side, is the characteristic flavour of many Persian dishes. I may balance the flavour of the soup with a little sugar if the plums I’m using are too sour. If they aren’t sour enough I add a tablespoon or two of fresh lemon juice.

plums-for-persian-plum-soup-ash
Stoned plums before turning into pulp in a food processor.

You don’t need to completely puree the plums. Some bits will add texture to the soup. And the herbs don’t need to be chopped too finely either. It’s nicer when the soup is a bit chunky. You can see what you should be looking for in the pictures below.

Stoned plums mashed in a food processor.
Stoned plums mashed in a food processor.
Persian-ash-chopped-herbs
Chop the herbs and spinach roughly before adding to the soup base.

One last thing: Fried mint topping is very often used to garnish soups but it’s much more than a garnish. Fried dried mint adds a lot of flavour to soups and helps with digestion. Combining ingredients in certain ways to help maintain good health is one of basic skills a Persian cook needs to have.

According to principles handed down for generations Persian cooks divide ingredients into two major categories, those that are “hot” and others that are “cold”. Plums like most other stone fruit are considered as “cold”. They can cause indigestion and wind. Mint, on the other hand, is a rather “hot” ingredient. So the topping of this soup balances the “coldness” of the plums.

You can read more about “hot and cold” in Persian cooking and ancient medical lore in The Hot and Cold Secrets of the Persian Kitchen by Tori Egherman in Global Voices to which I made a little contribution.

Ingredients to serve four to six persons:

  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp oil (rapeseed, olive or vegetable oil)
  • 11/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 litres boiling water
  • 120g Persian, pudding or arborio rice, rinsed in a sieve
  • 120g yellow lentils (split peas), parboiled and rinsed
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • Pinch of ground black pepper
  • 500g fresh plums or greengages
  • 250g fresh spinach leaves, roughly chopped
  • 80g coriander, roughly chopped
  • 80g parsley, roughly chopped
  • Sugar, lemon juice (to adjust the flavour if necessary)

For the topping:

  • 2 tbsp dried mint
  • 4 tbsp oil (rapeseed, olive or vegetable oil)

Method:

  1. Put the chopped onion in a saucepan and add the oil. Sauté on medium-low heat until it’s golden brown. This may take as long as fifteen minutes but the slower you cook the onion, the better it will be.
  2. Add the turmeric and stir. Cook, stirring, until you can smell the turmeric.
  3. Add the boiling water and all the rest of the ingredients (except the topping ingredients) to the saucepan. Simmer for 45 minutes or until the rice is completely cooked and thickened the soup and the lentils are soft. Stir from time to time so it doesn’t catch in the bottom.
  4. This soup should be medium thick. If necessary, add a little boiling water to dilute or simmer the soup longer to make it thicker. Adjust the seasoning and if the soup is too sour for your liking, add a pinch of sugar. Let the soup simmer while you are preparing the topping.
  5. Heat the oil in the smallest saucepan that you have over medium low heat. Throw in the dried mint and stir. Cook for a few seconds or until the mint becomes fragrant. Dried mint burns very quickly so remove from the heat as soon as it’s fragrant.
  6. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and add a little fried mint to each serving. Enjoy!