For today's mofo, I'm going to write about my grandma and give you one of my favorite recipes of hers. This article was originally written for Herbivore magazine.
Give It Up For Grandma!
My grandmother’s name is Houra, and she is a wonderful human being and nurturer. In my whole life, she is the one person who has never raised her voice at me or spoken in anger. Even more importantly, she is the foundation of the vast majority of my memories about food and cooking. To this day, getting a whiff of fresh dill or cilantro conjures up the warm feeling of nestling my face in her apron and standing at her feet as she cooked.
Houra was born in northern Iran in the 1920’s. She recounts happy early childhood tales of playing with her siblings and cousins, but also the sadness of being taken out of school while still a young teenager. Grandma tells stories of wistfully watching other kids going off to school, and these stories have ensured that all of her children and grandchildren have placed great value on education. Grandma has also instilled a love of traveling in our entire family, setting an example by visiting far-away lands starting in her 50s and 60s. She has been to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage, to Sweden, to Dubai, to England, to Romania, to the former Yugoslavia. She was with me when I visited Turkey for the first time as a young girl.
I became vegan over five years ago, and my grandma has always been the most supportive member of my family. Due to health concerns, she herself is not a big consumer of meat or dairy. She comes from a culinary background that places great emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, and her table is always full of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and herbs. It is only now, as I learn more and more about food that I see how rich her food world really is. For her, sun-dried tomatoes are not a gourmet ingredient on a high-priced restaurant menu, but what you make in late summer to make sure you have tomatoes in the winter. Fruit leathers are not a silly childrens snack, but a way to capture the bounty of whatever fruit you happen to have in abundance. Herbs are not merely decorations on a finished dish, but an integral flavor and nutritional component of that dish, meant to be savored rather than discarded. I credit grandma with the fact that I have such a taste for fruits and vegetables today, without which being a vegan would be pretty damn difficult!
For these reasons, eating vegan at grandma’s house has always been easy. Most of her recipes are easily veganized, and she takes great joy into observing me replace the eggs or meat in her dishes, just as I took great joy watching her cook for all the years of my life. Here, I have veganized fesenjan, a delicious, nutritious, and iconic Iranian khoresh, or stew. The recipe is very flexible, and you should approach it in terms of flavor instead of exact measurements. You will be surprised at the lip-smacking flavor that such a seemingly unexpected combination of ingredients yields. The rich taste of fesenjan and its deep brown color make it perfect for the fall and winter.
- 2 cups fresh raw walnuts
- 1 medium white onion, grated
- ¼ cup pomegranate paste*
- 3 TB tomato paste
- 2 – 3 cups water
- 1 tsp turmeric
- ½ - 1 tsp cinnamon
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup of your favorite vegan chicken (I used baked tofu, but seitan, tempeh, packaged faux chicken, or even legumes such as lima beans also work well)
- Using a food processor, grind the walnuts until they form a paste with a smooth nut-butter consistency
- Crumble the walnut paste, along with the grated onion, the pomegranate and tomato pastes, and spices into a stock pot over medium-high heat, and stir in enough water until smooth. You want a thin consistency, like tomato juice, this will thicken up substantially. Make sure to get rid of any lumps in the sauce.
- Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. As the mixture thickens, the color will darken to a deep brown.
- Add your baked tofu (or whatever chicken substitute you are using) at this point, and allow it to simmer for another 30 minutes. Towards the end, you can add 1 or 2 tablespoons of ice water to the mixture once or twice, to get the beautiful reddish walnut oil to rise to the top for presentation purposes. This step is totally optional.
- Serve warm over rice. White basmati rice is traditional (click here for the recipe for Iranian-style steamed rice pilaf -scroll down), but I also love fesenjan with my favorite brown rice.
Optional: eggplants also taste good in this dish. You can drop chopped eggplants, raw or cooked, into the stew for the last 30 minutes or so of cooking, in addition to or as a replacement for the chicken.
* Pomegranate paste is a thick, intensely sour paste that gives many Iranian dishes a distinctive flavor. You can find pomegranate paste at Iranian supermarkets, or hit up your closest Iranian friend! If you can’t, however, you can replace it in this recipe with pomegranate molasses or juice, changing the amount of water accordingly. The juice and the molasses are not as tangy as the paste, however, and you should probably add some lemon or lime juice to make up for this fact.