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Category: Soups, Appetisers & Fingerfood

Persian-Inspired Caramelised Fennel Salad with Yoghurt & Garlic

This morning as I was puttering around the kitchen I had a sudden craving for a salad of tender shoots of wild tumble thistle and yoghurt (kangar mast). We’ve just returned from a holiday and have not done our vegetable shopping yet. Even if we had, wild tumble thistle shoots would obviously not be available anywhere here.

I opened the fridge and stared at the quite empty vegetable drawers.There were a few fennel bulbs in the bottom drawer. It occurred to me to use the fennel to make something similar to what I was craving for and this caramelised fennel salad recipe which will definitely be a keeper with me was born. Necessity is the mother of invention as the saying goes…

Fennel-recipe
Fennel (or Florence fennel to be more precise) has a mild anise flavour that softens with cooking.

Fennel is not a vegetable commonly grown in Iran. Once in a while if I were lucky I would find a few small bulbs at the exotic fruit and veg stalls of my favourite market in Tehran. Living in the UK now I often have some in the fridge for making my Tomato & Fennel Salad with Vegan Pistachio Pesto or my favourite fennel, orange and olive salad with balsamic vinegar dressing.

Tumble thistle (kangar in Persian, akkoub in Arabic, kenger in Turkish, kereng in Kurdish) grows all over the place in the Middle East and is widely used in Persian, Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and Levantine cuisines. This plant is related to artichoke and cardoon. While the edible part of the artichoke plant is its flower bud, cardoons are grown for the celery-like leaf stalks. Kangar, however, is the young shoot of the plant that has barely reached the ground level. The grown plant is very thorny and inedible.

kangar
Young wild thistle shoots are very thorny at the top and need a lot of cleaning. They are available for a short time during spring. Young thistle shoots (top) and grown plant (bottom).

This amazing seasonal wild vegetable is quite neutral in flavour but becomes very tasty with cooking. It’s also believed to have lots of health benefits. I must admit that the flavour of cooked fennel wasn’t the same as kangar but I’m so happy I trusted my instincts because the combination of caramelised fennel and yoghurt turned out really delicious. It’s the kind of flavour Iranians like very much. A dish of cooked vegetables with yoghurt, often with garlic too, is called

A dish of cooked vegetables with yoghurt, often with garlic but very lightly spiced, is called borani or burani in Persian. The most common are spinach (borani esfenaj) and aubergine/eggplant borani (borani bademjan). My 16th-century cookbook also mentions truffle borani and wild asparagus borani. More on borani in future posts hopefully.

purple-artichoke
Artichoke is the flower of a cultivated thistle. Artichoke hearts can be made into borani too, I reckon. 

This salad keeps well in the fridge for several days and gets even better as flavours mix. Now it’s time for the recipe:

 

Ingredients:

  • 2-3 fennel bulbs, thickly sliced
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 big cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground white or black pepper
  • 250ml thick yoghurt
  • A pinch of dried rose petals to garnish

Method:

  1. Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a frying pan on medium heat and sauté the sliced fennel until lightly caramelised. Remove and set aside.
  2. Add the rest of the oil to the pan and fry the chopped onions until lightly caramelised. Add the garlic, salt and pepper and cook for a minute. Return the fennel to the pan. Add 1/4 cup of water, cover and gently braise for about ten minutes or until all the water has evaporated and the fennel is soft.
  3. Mix or layer the cooked fennel in a dish with yoghurt. Garnish with fennel fronds and rose petals.

 

Iranian-Style Chicken & Potato Salad (Olivier Salad)

Happy Nowrouz and Spring Equinox! May this new cycle of life bring Peace to the world and happiness, health and prosperity to you all! I know I’ve been missing in action since February but here I am again with a delicious olovieh salad recipe which I hope you will make and enjoy this spring. 

Salad olovieh is our version of the Russian salad also known as Olivier salad. Many countries have a version of this salad created in 1860s by Belgian Lucien Olivier, the chef of the Hermitage, one of Moscow’s grandest restaurants, and so does Iran. The Iranian version, like all of the other versions of Olivier’s grand creation, isn’t even remotely similar to the original. The salad served as the Hermitage included smoked duck, crayfish, veal tongue, grouse and even caviar.

olivier-salad-recipe
Ingredients for the Iranian version of Olivier salad.

The first time I had this delicious salad was at a birthday party when I was about ten years old. For some reason it has become a standard children’s birthday party dish but it’s very popular with grown-ups too. You are likely to find olovieh salad on almost every buffet table and very often on picnic spreads. One can almost say it has been naturalised on Iranian soil but the history of olovieh salad in Iran is probably just a little over sixty or seventy years long.  

olivier-salad-recipe
This recipe for the Iranian version of the Russian salad (aka Olivier salad) includes chicken.

Sālād olovieh sounds like a very old-fashioned dish, and it is, but it’s really moreish and versatile. You can serve it at brunch or for a BBQ party or as sandwich filling. I think using herby, slightly tart fermented cucumber pickles is what makes the salad taste much fresher than a regular mayonnaise-based potato salad. Use shop-bought Iranian khiyar shoor or any Middle-Eastern, Turkish or Polish whole cucumber/gherkin pickles made without sugar. Polish cucumber pickles are the best. And do shred the chicken breast instead of chopping it because shredded chicken gives a very nice texture to the salad. 

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1 rotisserie chicken breast, skinned and shredded
  • 2 medium baking potatoes
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 150g pickled cucumbers, preferably Iranian
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 100g cooked peas
  • 5 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice or ½ tbsp white wine vinegar
  • White pepper
  1. Boil the potatoes (in their jackets) and the carrot in salted water. Allow to cool completely.
  2. Peel and dice or grate the potatoes. Dice the carrot, pickles and eggs. Mix well with the shredded chicken and peas.
  3. Mix the mayonnaise with the lemon juice or vinegar and white pepper and pour over the chopped ingredients. Mix well. Add more mayonnaise or some olive oil if the salad looks too dry.
  4. Chill in the fridge for at least two hours. Serve piled in a bowl or on a lettuce-lined plate and decorate with more mayonnaise, peas or pickles if you wish. Enjoy!

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!