Today is Nowruz, the celebration of spring and renewal that marks the beginning of the Persian new year. The celebrations usually start weeks beforehand, though, with what you might call a spring clean and laying down a haft-sin, which is a display of seven items that start with the letter “s”. In recent years, people have personalised their displays in what is probably my favourite part of the whole celebration, because each item on display symbolises a wish for the coming year.
Celebrations traditionally continue for two weeks that are full of family, friends and amazing food – and lots of it, too. There’ll be fresh herbs in abundance, symbolising renewal, fish for life, eggs for fertility and, of course, plenty of sugary treats to start your year on a sweet note. Unfortunately, the lockdown took its toll on last year’s celebration, and will do so again this year as well, but we will still put out a haft-sin, cook a celebratory meal for two and video call our loved ones to wish them sal-e nu mobarak!
Baqleh gatog (broad bean and garlic chive dip) with spiced almonds and pomegranate
Prep 10 min
Cook 25 min
250g podded broad beans, or frozen and defrosted
1 small white onion, peeled and finely chopped (50g net weight)
Olive oil, for frying
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
Salt and black pepper
1¼ tsp turmeric powder
20g sliced almonds
1 tsp (2g) cumin seeds
3¼ tbsp (10g) finely chopped garlic chives (widely available in Asian food stores, larger supermarkets and online), or 1 extra garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 heaped tbsp (5g) finely chopped dill
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
15ml pomegranate molasses
1 handful pomegranate seeds
A few dill sprigs
1 poached egg (optional)
Fill a medium bowl with water and ice. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, blanch the beans for three to five minutes, until soft (the timing will depend on their size of the beans), then drain and drop into the iced water – this will help preserve their vibrant green colour. Once the beans have chilled, drain and peel off the outer skins.
Saute the onion in a tablespoon of oil for five or so minutes, until soft and translucent, then add the garlic and saute for a minute more. Season with salt, pepper and a quarter-teaspoon of turmeric.
In a dry pan, toast the sliced almonds until golden all over, stir in the cumin seeds and remaining turmeric, cook for a minute more, until fragrant, then take off the heat and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, put the beans, onion mix, chopped herbs, lemon juice and zest in a food processor, and blitz smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (If you prefer a more rustic dip, simply crush the beans, then fold in the onion mix and the chopped herbs).
Spread the dip over a platter and drizzle the molasses over the top (if the molasses are very sour, mix with some date molasses or honey to make it sweet-sour). Garnish with the spiced almonds, pomegranate seeds and a few dill sprigs, and serve. If you want the full Nowruz experience, top with a poached egg, for fertility.
Mahi shekam por (stuffed trout with saffron and bitter orange and an almond, dill, dried fruit and pomegranate stuffing)
Prep 15 min
1 medium white onion, peeled and chopped
Olive oil, for frying and greasing
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
½ tsp turmeric powder
30g finely chopped whole or flaked almonds
30g dried apricots, chopped
½ large bunch dill (or parsley), picked and finely chopped (5g)
Zest of 1 lemon
20ml pomegranate molasses
Salt and black pepper
1 small pinch saffron threads
20g bitter orange marmalade (when in season, use the zest and juice of 1 Seville orange instead)
2 medium rainbow trout (about 350-400g each), cleaned and butterflied (or 1 250-300g trout fillet, pinboned)
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Saute the onion in a tablespoon of olive oil for five minutes, until soft, then add the garlic and turmeric, and cook for two minutes more. Take the pan off the heat and, while the onions are still warm, stir in the almonds, barberries, apricots, dill, lemon zest and pomegranate molasses, then season to taste.
Crush the saffron threads with your fingers, then put in a small cup, add a tablespoon of boiling water and leave to brew for five minutes. Mix in the marmalade and set aside.
Season the trout inside and out with salt and pepper, brush the cavities with the saffron mix, then stuff with the almond and barberry mix. Lay the fish on an oiled baking tray and roast for 20 minutes, until the flesh is just starting to flake. (If you’re using a large fillet instead, line a tray with a large sheet of oiled foil, lay the fish skin side down on top, brush the flesh all over with the saffron mix, spread the stuffing on top and season generously. Wrap up in the foil and roast for 12 minutes. Open the parcel to check the flesh is flaky; if not, wrap it back up and cook for another three minutes.)
Transfer the fish to a platter and serve with the following rice dish and maybe a simple shaved fennel salad.
Sabzi polo (herbed rice with confit saffron fennel and dill)
Prep 10 min
Cook 1 hr 20+
30g unsalted butter
½ tsp sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 pinch saffron threads
1 medium fennel bulb, about 250g
100g basmati rice, washed and soaked for at least 15 minutes
1 large bunch dill, picked and finely chopped (30g net weight), or a mixture of dill, parsley and coriander
2 tbsp barberries, to finish (optional)
Put half a litre of water in a medium pan with the butter, sugar, a teaspoon of salt and the saffron, and bring to a simmer.
Cut the fennel in half lengthways, add to the pan and cook uncovered for 30-45 minutes, flipping it every 15 minutes so it cooks evenly, until a knife goes through it with no resistance. Lift out the fennel, then reduce the sauce until only a saffrony butter is left at the bottom of the pan.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the rice and par-boil until all the grains are white and can be mushed between your fingers with just a little resistance – start checking on it after five minutes. Drain, then rinse under cold running water to cool down fast.
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the chopped herbs into the cooled rice. Lay the fennel cut side down in a nonstick ovenproof pot, pour over half the saffron butter, then top with the herbed rice and press down to compact it. Level out the top of the rice, then cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and, if the edges are not crisped, bake uncovered for 10 minutes more.
In a small pan, mix the remaining butter with the barberries and a sprinkle of sugar, and saute for two minutes, until the barberries swell.
Run a knife all around the edge of the rice, put a plate on top and flip the whole thing over to invert the rice on to the plate. Garnish with the buttery barberries and serve hot.
Marwa Alkhalaf is chef and co-owner of Nutshell, London WC2.