“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett
Whoever thought about starting the new year on January 1st (we all know who, of course, but did you know why) missed out on one important thing — starting the calendar on the first day of the Spring or Vernal Equinox instead of on January 1st. All the more so because the Gregorian calendar was considered an improvement over the Julian calendar in realigning the dates of equinoxes and solstices (to which important religious events, e.g., Easter with the Spring/Vernal Equinox, were tied).
While I grant that a standardized, near universal calendar such as the Western Calendar has helped keep us all on time and in our places for ages, I have a soft spot for calendars such as the Persian and Bengali calendars that start with the advent of Spring (in the case of the Persian Calendar, on the first observed day of the Spring/Vernal Equinox).
Since we just entered that time of year (at least in the Persian Calendar) — Happy Nowruz (New Day)!
The roots of Nowruz are ancient dating back to Mitraism when our connection to nature, including the cycles of the astronomical world, were stronger. In my short version, Nowruz celebrates the rebirth and resilience of nature, and by extension or projection (as you like), of all of us — an annual second chance if you will.
While the January 1st New Year’s resolutions that we all love to make and break are also about second chances, the fact that we rarely end up honoring these somewhat artificial resolutions should signify something about the inherent futility of tying resolutions to a relatively recent man-made date, however useful such date (and the calendar) may be to international trade and commerce. For those of us who need our second chances often and anon and would like more than a faint-hearted attempt to keep them, we need a more visceral start.
I can’t think of a better start than Spring, especially in places (such as the one I live in), where things playing dead over the long Winter are just dormant, simply biding their time for inevitable Spring. Isn’t this a much more satisfying imagery to help shake off the winter cobwebs and start over? To take a page out of Mark Rylance’s playbook, thinking of one’s personal new year in this way, helps inject some mystery back into a life that, for many of us, has become an unending grid of places, dates, and time, ticking down, ever so practically.
Before I get to the two Persian new year dishes to start your Spring New Year off just right, a word about failure and struggle. Why such pessimism after all this talk of second chances and new beginnings? Because, that’s how I started my Nowruz — going fly fishing on the first (as yet still cold) day of Spring for the first time in my life. It was a humbling and overwhelming experience made manageable by a patient and loving spouse who knows the sport well. The old me would have been frustrated at the number of things one has to keep straight (not to mention, untangled) in tackling fly fishing. But, as Toni Morrison says about failure in writing – failure is simply information, information about what doesn’t work. Do. Reset. Do It Over. Repeat. That’s Life. The sooner we realize it, whether with the help of Nowruz (as in my case) or not, the happier people will be around us, and we, if not happy, will at least be content.
The Nowruz dishes I picked both contain tons of greens and one contains fish — tried and true signifiers of rejuvenation and fertility — and thus, appropriate for Spring. Both are my own adaptations (with help from the patient and loving spouse alluded to above) from Mohammad R. Ghanoonparvar’s Persian Cuisine, Book One: Traditional Foods. This simple, modest book (sans illustrations) by an Iranian-American author from the ’80s provided me with the backbones for both recipes, for which I am grateful.
Below are my modifications of Qormeh or Gormeh Sabzi (Vegetable Stew) and Sabzi Polo va Mahi (Vegetable Rice with Fish). For the first dish, the fenugreek or methi leaves and dried lemon or dried limes are key ingredients and I would not recommend any substitutes for this rather sublime dish. While both dishes are somewhat labor intensive, the rewards are well worth it!
The way I see it, preparing these two dishes should give you the much needed hours out of your hectic lives to listen to your favorite music or radio programs (if you’re retro like me, and podcasts, if you don’t own a radio), talk to your loved one(s) while cutting/chopping, or just enjoy blissful silence – whatever floats your boat. Remember, unless you have to cook something you wouldn’t chose to make for yourself to feed a family on a budget everyday (which is an important but unromantic chore for primary caregivers the world over), any time spent cooking as a creative or cathartic or entertaining or distracting activity is time that you make for yourself in a world that is all too happy to rob you of the little time we all have left on this pale blue dot floating among the stars. So, please enjoy it while you can.
Cooking Time: ~2 hours (~1/2 hour for prep; ~1-1/2 hours for cooking)
- 2 large shallots or 1 large onion (chopped)
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 lb. stew meat cut into 1/2-inch cubes (I used beef sirloin; if you wish to make a vegetarian/vegan version, you’d simply leave out this ingredient)
- 2 large leeks (washed and chopped)
- 1 large bunch parsley leaves (washed and chopped)
- 1 large bunch coriander leaves (washed and chopped)
- 1-1/2 large bunches of methi or fenugreek leaves (washed and chopped) [available at your local South Asian grocery store]
- 1 Tablespoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
- 1 can (or cup) cooked/softened red kidney beans
- 1-1/2 cup or so warm water (always add hot or warm liquid to the pot to maintain a consistent temperature during cooking)
- 1 whole dried lemon or 2 whole dried limes ground to a powder [available at your local South Asian and/or Middle Easter grocery store]
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium to large saucepan/pot (preferably nonstick), saute shallots/onion in olive oil until translucent.
2. Add meat and lightly brown on all sides.
3. Add leeks and saute until softened.
4. Stir in parsley, coriander and fenugreek/methi leaves and saute for 1 minute.
5. Add warm water, kidney beans, salt, pepper, turmeric and cayenne. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour on low heat.
6. Cut the dried limes or lemon into small pieces and ground to a powder (I use an old coffee grinder so I can always grind my spices from whole as needed), add to the pot and simmer for 15 minutes or so.
7. Keep on low heat until ready to serve.
Serve with plain boiled rice and a side salad of mint, scallions and sliced cucumbers.
Sabzi Polo ve Mahi
Cooking Time: ~1-1/2 hours (~1/2 hour for prep; ~1 hour for cooking)
- 1/3 cup butter/ghee and olive oil mixture and more, as needed
- Basmati or other long-grain white rice (3 cups) [I used the aged variety]
- 2 bunches scallions (washed and chopped)
- 1 bunch parsley (washed and chopped)
- 1 bunch coriander (washed and chopped)
- 2 bunches dill (washed and chopped)
- 4 salmon fillets
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 3 Tablespoons plain yogurt
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Lemon wedges
1. Rinse the rice several times in warm water to remove the starch. Drain and set aside.
2. Marinate the fish in a mixture of yogurt, turmeric, cayenne, salt and pepper for 30 minutes or so.
3. Saute the scallions, parsley, coriander and dill with a little salt in half of the oil/ghee or butter mixture until softened.
4. Bring a pot of salty water to boil using a thick-bottomed Dutch oven or large pot. Add the rice, bring back to a rolling boil and cook (parboil) the rice for 5 minutes.
5. Drain in a colander. Carefully fold in the sauteed greens so that they’re mixed in evenly with the parboiled rice.
6. Cover the bottom of the pot with the remaining oil/ghee or butter mixture, adding more if needed. Add the rice and greens mixture. Cover the pot with a tight lid sealing it with a dish towel to absorb all excess moisture released. Cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, and then on low heat for 25 minutes.
7. After sealing the rice pot, fry the fish in some olive oil in a separate saucepan, searing both sides for 2 minutes to a side.
8. In the last 15 minutes of steaming the rice, open the sealed pot, arrange the fish on top (skin side up). Drizzle the oil from the fried fish into the steamed rice. Seal the pot back tightly again.
9. When the rice is done (a total of 35 minutes of steaming, including with the fish), carefully remove the fish (so it remains intact), and the rice. To release the burnt, crispy rice at the bottom of the pot (which is a delicacy called tahdig among Iranians), set the pot in a cold water bath and carefully scrape the crispy rice loose from the bottom of the pot.
10. Arrange the rice in a platter with the fish on top and sprinkle with the crispy tahdig.
Serve with a squeeze of lemon on the fried fish and Raita — a yogurt sauce with mint, a clove of crushed garlic, long peeled slices of cucumber and a hint of olive oil.