During this time of year I try to plan my vacation trips and my acute sense of travel envy kicks in. I want to go everywhere, I feel like the least traveled person on earth and I wildly resent having to pick travel destinations based solely on a price of an airline ticket. I scan the web for possible itineraries only to experience a shock at how much it would cost for a family of four to go anywhere interesting. So instead of booking tickets and tours I book spice orders from all the faraway places I still hope to see and taste someday. The need for spices has created the world we live in today, pushing the boundaries of exploration. Just to think, if it wasn’t for a grand need of a little cumin in the stew, the Americas would still be enjoing its true identity. And if spices can change the lives of whole continents, can they change my life? I am not sure how life changing is ripping open yet another UPS package to find a jar or a pouch, but it certainly makes for interesting Sunday dinners….
Lately I have been pre-occupied with creating dishes that capture all of our senses. As important as taste is to a meal, it can’t stand alone, sight, smell and touch all have important parts to play if you are to succeed in ultimate food experience. We eat with our eyes first and next with our noses. Food’s texture plays on your sense of touch and as a cook your goal is to engage all of these faculties into a composite adventure. A sense of smell is most fascinating, you can take a whiff of something and immediately be transported to a different time and place, be it your childhood or a faraway place. It is said that aromas have the most powerful effect on our ability to recall memories. I once followed a stranger for two city blocks because her perfume reminded me of my mother’s, which I haven’t smelled in years ( She must have dumped a bottle of that stuff on her head because you could smell it a mile away, otherwise I would have looked freakishly strange and stalky following her close).
So with my new found quest for making “all sensory” meals, combined with my inability to travel to anywhere fascinating and endless supply of spice packages at my front door, I take my family on “virtual” vacations pretty much every Sunday night. Last week a newly bought spice mix of lime zest, cardamom and garlic and a recipe for Persian flat bread send me in the direction of the Middle East.
Here is this pretty simple Persian inspired meal that truly engaged all the senses, it was perfumy, a little salty, a little sweet, a little spice, a great crunch from the flat breads and some very vibrant colors from the sauce…
Persian Spiced Chicken with Sweet Rice and pepper cardamom sauce.
Served with Persian flatbread and Eggplant and fig stew.
For the Cornish Hens
4 Cornish Hens
2 tbs grilled chicken seasoning (any brand will do I use Montreal Grill)
1.5 tbs of Ispahan seasoning mix ( I get this spice blend from La Boite spices at the ingidientfinder.com, but you can make your own by combining cardamom, dried Persian limes and garlic)
Salt and pepper to taste
For the stuffing
This stuffing is meant to be discarded before serving. It is meant to perfume the hens and flavor the meat.
1 lime cut into small pieces
4 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
1 small shallot roughly chopped
2 tbs of dried peaches chopped
½ cup chopped fennel
3 tbs fresh ginger chopped
1 tbs chopped parsley
1 tbs chopped fresh mint
For the Cardamom pepper sauce
½ cup orange juice
½ cup chicken stock
4 large black cardamom pods ( or 6-7 small ones) – crushed with the back of the knife
1 large slice of fresh ginger
½ tbs of harissa
1 tsp of honey
¼ cup roasted red peppers chopped
Combine all of the stuffing ingredients in a bowl and mix to combine. Salt and pepper the inside cavities of the hens generously and stuff with the stuffing mix. Rub a generous amount of olive oil on the outside of each bird. Season with chicken seasoning and Persian spice mix generously. Rub the spice mix into the skin, then add a little more olive oil and salt the outside of the bird one more time. Let the stuffed hens sit outside of the fridge, covered for 40 min to 1 hr.
Make the sauce. Combine the orange juice, stock, cardamom and ginger in a small sauce pan and simmer until reduced by 2/3. Strain the mixture into a blender discarding the cardamom pods and the ginger. Add harissa, roasted peppers, honey and salt and blend until smooth. You may want to adjust the seasoning by adding more salt or a squirt of lime juice.
Preheat the oven to 425F, bake the hens for 45 min to an hour until the skin is nicely browned and crispy and juices run clear from the thigh.
For the sweet rice
2 Cups of Persian stile rice
4 cups of water
1 small shallot finely chopped
1/3 cup of finely diced dried peaches
1/3 cup of golden raisins
3 cup of pignolli nuts
Zest of two limes
2 -3 table spoons of olive oil
In a large deep skillet heat some olive oil. Add the shallot and reduce the heat to medium, cook shallot until softened than add the nuts, raisins and peaches. Sauté on med-low heat until the nuts are lightly toasted. Add the rice and 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Increase the heat to medium, stir well making sure all of the rice is evenly coated in oil, toast the rice for few minutes until it begins to smell nutty. Add the lime zest, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 15 min ( or as per package instructions). Fluff with a fork before serving.
Eggplant and Fig stew.
This is more of an eggplant bruschetta recipe; it would go great as an appetizer with any type of chips and toasts. You can make this chunkier or smoother depending on the size of your chopped vegetables.
½ large red onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic chopped
½ fennel head chopped
1 large eggplant cubed
1 cup of cherry or grape tomatoes chopped
1/3 cup of chopped bell pepper (any color)
1/3 cup of chopped dried figs
1 tbs chopped capers (drained)
¼ cup of chopped basil
¼ cup of chopped fresh mint
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large deep skillet heat some olive oil, add the onion and fennel and cook on medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the eggplant and tomatoes and cook stiring often until the eggplant is soft and browned (you may need to add a little more olive oil along the way). Add bell peppers and capers, cook for a few minutes than add the vinegar. As the vinegar cooks out, add the oregano, fennel seeds, salt and pepper and chopped figs. Reduce the heat to low and cook the vegetables stirring occasionally until very soft 10-15 minutes. Cool sklightly before stiring in basil and mint. Serve at room temperature with toasts or flat breads.
The recipe for Persian flat bread can be found at Food and Wine -- follow the link here.
Any meal that can take you on a little mental trip is worth the hassle. Now fed and happy I can go back to my little virtual hell of scanning the discount airfare sites for the perfect trip…maybe I will get lucky this time.