Persian Jewelled Rice with Lamb (Gheymeh Nesar)
It’s amazing how the Persian cuisine has been catching on in the western world in the past few years. There are now tens or maybe even more lovely Persian jewelled rice recipes in English out there. I was surprised though when I checked for the recipe of gheymeh nesar, a gorgeous jewelled rice with tiny succulent pieces of lamb. There were less than a handful in English. So I decided to bring that to you this time, my tested and tried gheymeh nesar recipe.
Like many other Persian dishes making gheymeh nesar sounds quite faffy, I admit, but once you know the basic techniques (especially the technique of cooking of Persian rice) you can make not only this but several other amazing dishes. I think this pretty number is one of the easiest to make for a special occasion if you prepare your “jewels”, your rice and the lamb in advance (even a day or two before) and put everything together just before serving.
Gheymeh nesar is basically plain rice garnished with meat (usually lamb but beef or chicken may also be used) barberries, slivered nuts and most important of all, very lightly sweetened orange peel that gives the dish its unique flavour. My friends often tell me they can’t find some of these ingredients, like a twitter friend who asked where on earth she could find barberries in the depths of Yorkshire. Luckily there are substitutes so bear with me!
When I can’t find barberries I use chopped unsweetened or lightly sweetened dried cranberries or red currants. Pistachio and almond slivers are also hard to come by sometimes. I use chopped pistachios and almond flakes instead. I like using new ingredients in Persian dishes as long as I can keep the Persian essence of the dish. I’m guilty of speckling my white rice with wild rice (not a Persian ingredient) when I make jewelled rice as in my Jewelled Butternut Squash Rice and I must say wild rice works beautifully in Persian rice dishes.
Now you don’t have to go to long lengths to garnish you rice too elaborately but beautiful presentation will definitely add to the pleasure of eating and there will be a lot of ahs and ohs. We usually create some sort of pattern with the “jewel” ingredients and some golden-coloured saffron rice but it will be perfectly fine to simply scatter the jewels on top of the rice. It will still look beautiful!
Qazvin, where this fabulous dish hails from, is one of the most beautiful cities in central Iran. The city served as a capital of the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century and is famous for its sophisticated cuisine and fabulous sweets including gorgeous baklava and a delicious cardamom-scented tea cake (noon-e chayi ghazvin).
If you have Iranian family or friends you’ve probably been wondering how they can manage to cook so many dishes for even a small family get-together. You’ve probably wondered about the wastefulness, too. So much food for only a handful of people? Rest assured, not even a grain of rice ever goes to waste! Leftovers will be reheated and served at other meals and are often even better than the freshly prepared. In true Iranian style the following recipe makes quite a lot, enough to feed six people, but can easily be adapted for a smaller number.
For the lamb chunks (gheymeh):
- 300g lamb lean lamb leg, shoulder or neck fillet, cut into 3cm cubes
- 2 tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil or any other vegetable oil
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 large cinnamon stick
- 3-4 tbsp tomato puree
- 3/4 tsp salt
For the rice and tahdig:
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 3 heaping tablespoons table salt
- 1cm thick slices of baking potatoes (about two medium)
- 2 tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil or any other vegetable oil
- 20g butter
For the garnish:
- 1/4 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 1 tbsp of hot water
- 2 tbsp dried barberries
- 2 tbsp almond slivers
- 2 tbsp pistachio slivers
- 1-2 tbsp rosewater
- One large orange (or a handful of dried slivered sour orange peel)
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 30g butter
Cook the meat:
- Heat the oil in a medium pot and lightly brown the lamb chunks and chopped onion on medium heat. Add the spices and cook for a few minutes, stirring often so it doesn’t catch. Spoon the tomato puree over the meat, add the salt and cook for a couple of minutes. Add enough boiling water to cover the meat. Turn down the heat, cover and braise the meat until it’s very soft and almost all of the water has evaporated. This will take about 1 hour depending on the size of the chunks and the cut of meat.
Cook the rice:
- Put the rice in a bowl. Fill the bowl with water and gently rub the rice between the palms. Drain. Repeat 2 or 3 times until the water runs clear. Cover the rice with water. There must be about 4 cm of water on top of the rice. Add the salt and gently stir. Let soak. The longer the rice soaks, the better it will be. So give it at least two hours or even let it soak overnight.
- Fill a medium-sized lidded saucepan (preferably non-stick coated) with water and bring to the boil. Drain the rice and add it to the boiling water. Gently stir and cook until the rice grains are al dente (soft with a bite in the centre). Drain in a sieve and rinse with lukewarm water.
- Heat the oil in the saucepan over medium heat until very hot. Sprinkle some salt on the oil and arrange one layer of sliced potatoes in the bottom of the saucepan. Use a large spoon or skimmer to gently transfer the rice from the sieve to the pot, slightly heaping it in the middle. Wrap the lid in a clean tea towel and cover the pot tightly.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan or in the microwave oven.
- Increase the heat and cook the rice for a couple of minutes on high heat or until the side of the pot is very hot to the touch. Lift the lid, pour the butter evenly over the rice and cover with the lid again. Lower the heat as much as you can (using a heat diffuser is helpful) and let the rice steam for approximately 45 minutes. The rice is ready when you see a lot of steam and there is some caramelisation around the bottom (you can see that if you have shaped the rice into a mound).
Prepare the garnishes:
- While the rice is steaming scrub the orange well. I scrub the orange with a very fine cheese grater to help remove the bitterness of the peel. Remove the peel in wide strips and remove almost all of the white pith, then shred finely. Cook the peel in plenty of water to remove the bitterness. Drain in a sieve and taste for bitterness. Repeat the boiling if it’s still too bitter and drain again. Rinse with cold water and return the peel to the saucepan. Add the sugar and stir. Only the water clinging to the peel will be enough to dissolve the sugar. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. (If using dried slivered orange peel soak in cold water until the peel is reconstituted and use as fresh).
- Prepare the saffron according to the instructions in How to Use Saffron, the King of Spices. Set aside.
- Melt 1/3 of the butter in a small saucepan and cook the almond slivers for a couple of minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Prepare the pistachio slivers in the same way and set aside.
- Melt the remaining butter and briefly cook the barberries until they are shiny and puffed up. Be careful not to burn them. Set aside.
Put the dish together when you are ready to serve:
- Put a few tablespoons of the rice in a bowl and mix with the prepared saffron.
- Put half of the remaining rice on a large plate. Spoon half of the cooked meat on the rice. Cover with the rest of the rice and shape into a mound. Put the potato slices (tahdig) from the bottom of the pot in another plate to serve separately.
- Garnish the top of the rice mound with the rest of the meat, saffron rice, slivered almonds, slivered pistachios, sweetened orange peel and barberries. Alternatively, mix the nuts, barberries and orange peel with saffron rice and scatter over the rice. Spoon the rest of the meat on the dish. Serve immediately.