We’re going to do things a little differently today. I’d like to introduce you to Josh Lewin, Executive Chef of Beacon Hill Bistro. We met earlier this year at a dinner he hosted in honor of Tamar Adler and her book, An Everlasting Meal (I’m a fan!). If you haven’t tried his food yet, I’d suggest heading over to Charles Street and pulling up a chair next to the window in the long and narrow, two-table deep restaurant. Josh wanted to share with you the tradition of celebrating Nowruz, Persian New Year, as one of the many ways he opens his arms to welcome Spring. At his restaurant, he hosts Passover seders and Easter brunch. With friends, he celebrates Nowruz, Persian New Year, and makes the traditional fish dish, Sabzi Polo Mahi. ~ Gayle
We inch toward Spring this year with baited breath as the calendar’s turn last week was sandwiched between an ice storm one day and the threat of a slushy accumulation the next. Images of green and sprouting seeds unfortunately remain strictly in our dreams.
And yet, we inch along and stubbornly prepare to celebrate, weather be damned. This year, Passover falls early and finds itself overlapping with Easter and the likely less familiar celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, which always falls on the first day of Spring and for the thirteen days following. The Nowruz celebration is enjoyed by most Iranians, regardless of their religion.
Like Passover with its seder plate and Easter with its eggs and bunnies, Norwuz is a holiday steeped in symbolic tradition. The word Nowruz means “new day” and the Haft-Seen (seven S’s) table setting is part of its celebration. These seven S’s refer to the Farsi spelling of the required items which in English include garlic, apple, sumac, bean sprouts, oleaster fruit, vinegar, and a sweet pudding made from wheat germ. Some welcome additions to the standard list might include a mirror, a goldfish, rosewater, or even painted eggs. As on the Seder plate, each item has its purpose and is a poignant reminder of the holiday.
The Nowruz festivities start with a thorough Spring cleaning, or khouneh tekouni, which, to those of you preparing for Passover by searching for crumbs in every corner of your house, probably sounds familiar. The goal is to clear the space to make room for the hope of a happy new year. Over the course of nearly two weeks, the old is phased out and hospitality is offered to friends and family. Like the first cuttings of Spring flowers, such as hyacinth and daffodil which traditionally decorate the holiday home, a new year begins.
So, this year, as various calendars converge to celebrate Spring, I offer this love letter to a global approach to the turning season. May we all appreciate the thawing of our previous experiences, leaving us a fertile platform for a fresh start. May we clean our homes and welcome our families. And may we celebrate each other, where we’ve been, where we hope to go.
May we set our tables with the symbols of our chosen tradition. May we see our favorite memories in them. May we create new ones. And as in the Sephardic tradition, may we be sent on our way with a bit of broken bread (afikomen) to carry with us into whatever is next, for luck, remembrance, hope.
Eid eh shomah mobarak. Chag same’ach. Happy Spring, everyone!
Josh explained to me the symbolism of each element on the Haft-Seen table, which, like in his restaurant, take advantage of local produce and are prepared with patience and care.
Sabzeh. Mung bean sprouts. Symbolizes rebirth.
Samanu. A pudding made of wheat germ. Pictured here is simply wheat germ, not pudding’d. Symbolizes affluence
Senjed. A fruit called oleaster. Not thought to be common here. But it actually is a common invasive plant species called the autumn olive (or autumn berry, or russian olive). I use it at the restaurant to make a sorbet, it has a flavor similar to cranberry, but a bit sweeter. It gets the name “autumn olive” from the shape of it’s leaves. One of our farmers in South Dartmouth forages it for us. Pictured here is the pickled fruit. Traditionally it would be dried fruit.
Sir. Garlic. Symbolizing medicine. Pictured is local garlic that we cured in house.
Sib. Apple. Symbolizing beauty and health. Locally grown Cortland apple.
Somaq. Sumac. Symbolizing sunrise. Traditionally the fresh fruit would be featured. But with the slow arrival of Spring, I could not collect any fresh sumac. The dried spice is pictured. I love sumac. A lot.
Serkeh. Vinegar. Symbolizing old age, and patience. Pictured is a chardonnay vinegar in which we preserved tulsi, the holy basil of India. We made this last fall (yay, patience).
There are a number of extras sometimes included at the Haft-Seen table. I include rose water. I carefully distilled this rose water from the petals of beach (wrinkled) roses that I collected over the summer on the beach in Wesport with Eva, of Eva’s Garden in South Dartmouth.
Sabzi Polo Mahi
Herbed rice with fish is a traditional meal eaten early in the Nowruz celebrations. In Persian cooking, the rice would be boiled briefly and then layered and steamed with herbs, aromatic vegetables, and spices. A skilled cook, using this method, ends up with perfectly cooked and flavored rice as well as a layer of crispy cooked rice from the bottom of the pot, called tadeek. Anyone who’s eaten a properly cooked paella will be familiar with the concept.
Without a Persian mentor to teach you the technique, I suggest cooking your rice using the risotto method, which allows you to control the flavor from the beginning, and also finish with a respectable tadeek. Use freshly ground spices if at all possible, you owe yourself that.
Persian Jews are largely Sephardic, so they eat rice over Passover. If you’re Askenazi (from Eastern Europe), you can replace the rice with quinoa. As a seed, quinoa is a great substitution for those who need one, given we are celebrating seeds and new growth anyway. Follow the simple cooking instructions for quinoa, but rather than cooking in plain water or broth, flavor your cooking water to mimic the Sabzi Polo by bringing your cooking liquid to a boil with garlic, cinnamon, and herbs and steeping it for an hour.
I’ve chosen to use a fish called hake for this recipe. It is a close cousin to cod, and usually readily available in a dedicated fish market. Hake is a popular choice among Sephardic Jewish cooks in Spain, wehre they would call it merluza. Traditionally this might be a whole fried fish.
For the rice:
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
- 2 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 1 cup spanish onion, finely diced
- 4 cups arborio rice
- 6 cups warm water, vegetable broth, or other cooking liquid
- 2 cups finely chopped herbs, use your favorites. dill, parsley, cilantro, chives, … as you please.
In a wide, shallow skillet with a heavy bottom, heat the oil and butter over medium high heat. Add the onion, garlic, spices, and about 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook this, gently, until vegetables are soft, but avoid any browning.
Add the rice and stir to coat, cook about 2 minutes.
Add liquid to cover and stir, continuously. As the water reduces, continue to add more until rice is fully cooked. Simple rule for when to add more liquid… when the liquid won’t immediately return to fill the space it has been stirred away from, it is time for more. The rice will let you know when it is cooked, by sight and taste. This will take about 20 minutes.
Just before finishing the cooking. Turn the flame to high. Stir once, then resist the urge to stir again. You will smell rice toasting. Give it two minutes, quickly stir in the fresh herbs and adjust with salt and pepper if needed. Then remove the rice on top and you’ll be left with tadeek below. Reverse them for serving, tadeek over the top!
For the fish:
- 6 5-oz portions of hake fillet
- 2 cups matzoh meal mixed with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- olive oil for cooking
Heat a heavy bottomed pan, large enough to hold the fish without crowding, over medium high heat with the oil.
Coat the fish on both sides with the seasoned matzoh meal and add to the hot pan, cooking for about 3 minutes, then rotate 90 degrees and cook one more minute. Turn the fish and finish cooking on the second side, for 3 to 4 more minutes depending on thickness.