New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every other Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.
Chef Louisa Shafia credits her multicultural upbringing -- her Persian father came from a large Muslim family in Iran, and her Ashkenazi Jewish mother was raised in Philadelphia - with her ability to cultivate recipes welcome at any family gathering, whether it be Passover or Eid Ul-Fitr. Bagels and lox were as likely to be found in her childhood home as tomato bademjan; pork, of course, never even entered the picture. That being said, she writes that "the allure of my Iranian ancestry has grown stronger, and my passion for produce-centered cooking has been increasingly colored by childhood memories of burbling Persian stews and steaming pyramids of rice."
In The New Persian Kitchen, Shafia melds tradition and innovation. She employs whole grains, gluten-free flours, tofu, and tempeh as often as she does pomegranate, sumac, and saffron. There's meat, to be sure, but suggestions for vegetarian adaptations are as plentiful as advice for kosher cooking.
When cooking across various cultures, two main concerns emerge: the ability to easily procure ingredients, and the level of difficulty involved in executing a recipe. Most of Shafia's recipes, while tasting exotic, do not require that a home cook scour the city in search of the obscure. When sumac, rose water, or molasses syrup are called for, a quick trip to Whole Foods satisfies all requirements. The difficulty level demanded by each dish varies, and thankfully have flexibility. While most recipes are quite easy and certainly worthwhile, others require more time, but almost always for marinating. Tahdig (tah-DEEG), the pan-fried layer of crust at the bottom of the rice pot also known as "Persian soul food," gets six pages worth of variations, each more enticing and complicated that the last.
For a dinner on Monday, a dish of turmeric chicken with sumac and lime suggested I had spent far more time in the kitchen than a weeknight allowed. In reality, by the time the skillet reached medium-high heat, four cloves of garlic had been minced and two limes squeezed. A quick sprinkling of simple spice mix was all that was left before leaving the chicken to braise for twenty-five minutes. My rice cooker was already hard at work, freeing me up to throw together a salad shirazi, a simple offering of cucumbers, tomatoes, lime, onion, and mint.
The whole meal felt effortless, and inhaling the smells as the dishes formed felt simultaneously comforting and reinvigorating not only by the cook, but by the diners, who were tempted by the aroma before the dishes even hit the table. Approbations were plentiful, and felt only somewhat unwarranted, given the effort.
On other nights, the Garlicky Eggplant, Persian Shepherd's Pie, Jeweled Brown Basmati Rice and Quinoa, and Olive Oil Poached Fish were just as easy, and each impressive in its own way. Shafia also offers recipe groupings for dinner parties and special events, from a Persian Gulf-Inspired to Shabbat, which would likely produce the illusive impressive, yet stress-free, entertaining. This week, I'm looking forward to saffron corn soup and stuffed artichokes with mint oil.
Shafia's The New Persian Kitchen is the kind of book home cooks dream of, livening up weekday meals and a dinner party on Saturday night (no matter what the dietary restrictions prove to be), earning it a place in every San Francisco kitchen.