Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ancient Fruit

Quince, Apples, and Pears  1886 Paul Cezanne

My friend Julia and I met a thousand years ago. Just days before I opened my restaurant L’Amie Donia, I ran an ad in the Palo Alto Weekly looking for line cooks and dishwashers. My office was a desk my sister had hauled out of her garage and tucked into a corner of the cozy storage room where I wrote menus and listened to NPR nestled between one hundred pound bags of flour, five gallon bins of cornmeal, gunny sacks of lentils, rice, and cannellini beans. Slowly, slowly, I had been stocking our pantry and preparing for our opening, scared out of my mind, running on coffee and adrenaline. Julia came by one morning holding out an application she’d only half filled. A tall, skinny, tanned blond, with strong ropey arms who sat on the floor even though I offered her my chair (there wasn’t room for two chairs), wearing a white T-shirt that smelled of laundry soap with faded jeans and Tevas. Who is this girl? I thought. She had just arrived home from a long cycling trip through Washington State, when her mother had shown her the ad and here she was, sitting cross legged against a case of wine, sizing me up with pursed lips (they didn’t stay that way for long). I could only offer seven dollars an hour. Okay. What time shall I be here? When I arrived the next morning at seven, she was already there, sitting by the front door on the ground in another clean white T-shirt, her hair in a loose bun. I unlocked the door, we walked in, and for the next two years, she never left my side.

To say those first few months were hard is like saying war is hard. Ask a soldier to describe the front lines, and if she’s come home unscathed, perhaps you’ll hear how poorly reality compares with what she remembers as the swell of daunting tasks intensified and swallowed her whole and that she would not exchange any of it for the easy industry of an air conditioned office with a coffee maker and a microwave in a break room. Even on grim days when incident and no-show dishwashers collided, we summoned grace in the kitchen, and I’d go home only to return just a few hours later, playing with the keys in my pocket, ready to do it all over again. I’m here because you’re here, you go, I go, put the coffee on, crank up the ovens, roast the veal bones, blanch the fries, freeze the dough, cook the apples, strain the stock, check the walk in, mise-en-place, mise-en-place, mise-en-place, whatever we can do, we will do, and no one leaves until it gets done. Yes chef.

Within this orbit, rich with friendship and work, cooks come to know each other all too well, and it wasn’t long before Julia showed her mettle. This shy, freckled girl swore like a sailor and cooked like a couple of grandmothers, reaching back to essential ingredients before they were gussied up. Ask her to make pot roast and she’d sigh, intoxicated from the beefy aroma, as if it was already on her fork. And she provided the soundtrack to those long hours we spent prepping before the doors opened. Annie Lenox, The Pretenders, Sinead, so loud, the lady next door complained. Goodbye NPR. Alchemy and curiosity made Julia a wonderful chef—like her freckles, she was born into her talent. So when she was certain that I had a very capable brigade, she went off to take the helm of another kitchen in San Francisco and we remained war buddies with plenty of scars and mangled joints for souvenirs.

The other day, I came home to find a humungous bag of lumpy, yellow quince on my porch. No note. No sorry I missed you. I reached and put one right up to my nose to sniff its lemon rose scent through a gray fuzzy coat. It didn’t take me two seconds to know who they were from. Like I said, we know each other all too well. A different fellow might have forgotten how crazy I am for this ancient fruit. Julia remembered.

I’m making this Quince Cranberry sauce to take to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister-in-law’s house. That is, if I don’t eat it all before then with yogurt and granola.

Quince Cranberry Sauce

8 medium size quinces, peeled, seeded, and cut into eighths
1 ½ cups sugar
2 Tablespoons honey
2 cups water
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
4-5 cardamom pods cracked
2 cups fresh cranberries

Peel and core the quince very carefully, removing any fibrous pieces. Save a tablespoon of seeds. They’re packed with pectin and will give your sauce a lovely honey consistency.
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, water, citrus juice and zest and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Wrap the crushed cardamom pods and a tablespoon of quince seeds in a piece of cheesecloth and place in the warm liquid.
Add the quince and place a piece of parchment paper with a 2 inch hole cut in the center on top to keep the fruit immersed and allow steam to escape. Simmer for an hour until the quince are tender and have begun to turn rosy.
Gently fold the cranberries with the poached quince and simmer on low heat another 45 minutes until thickened and glossy. Remove the spice pouch. Pour into jelly jars, seal, and keep refrigerated.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lessons in Anatomy

Picasso Bullfighters

You have to wonder sometimes if we’re really in the twenty first century. We may have devices in our palms that can instantly connect and inform us, but judging from our political discourse, particularly in the realm of women’s health, we have become so prudish, obtuse, and uninformed, it may well be the sixteenth century when women donned chastity belts and men decided their fate. My mother was a midwife who had seen her share of happy and tragic childbirth, and she urged an open dialogue about sex that today would be labeled as “TMI”. In this era of contentious debate over our reproductive rights, I’m reminded of a rainy afternoon she spent giving me, what you may call, too much information.

I came home from school to find my mother waiting for me on the couch. The coffee table was set with cups and saucers, a teapot, and a plate of currant cake. If I were six, I would have thought we were having a tea party like we used to, when she sat in a circle with my dolls and teddy bears waiting for me to hand her a dollsize cup. At eleven, this request to come to the living room seemed too formal and I worried she had received a call from school forcing her to leave work early.

 My mother sat on the edge of the couch in her cream colored wool skirt and a silk blouse with a pattern of pink buds on a green vine. She couldn’t be prettier, my mother, with her slim ankles and sheer hose, a notebook open to a blank page on her lap. Without fidgeting, she dove right in. “Now darling, I want to explain to you how human beings reproduce. You may have some ideas, you may have heard things from your sisters, but I’d like to tell you the facts.” Well, she needn’t have worried, because my sisters were as forthcoming about the secrets of the human reproductive system as the Shah’s intelligence ministry, speaking in code and stopping mid-sentence if I wandered into their rooms. My mother was a nurse and a midwife schooled in England. “Right, you see this?” She took a pencil to draw a diagram, stretching her vowels as her pencil curved around the uterus. “These here you see, are the fallopian tubes – a bit like a bull’s head, hmm? And these here are the ovaries.” I sat close to her, my eyes glued to the drawing. Bull’s head? She erased the right ovary to match the left one. “See these sacs? They hold all your eggs. And it all starts here. When you get your period…” Period, I had heard of it in the bathroom from some of my advanced classmates, but until that afternoon, I had no idea what nature had in store for me. I didn’t know I carried so many eggs around (my entire allocation) in those tiny pouches. “You, me, your teachers, the kittens next door, everything came out of an egg.” Hunh.

My mother poured tea and stirred milk and a teaspoon of sugar in each cup. Then she sliced two pieces of cake, one larger than the other, knowing how I loved that yellow cake studded with currants. I had come in from a cold rain to this room with a lush Persian rug of reds, rose, and turquoise vines, where a radiator sputtered, and my mother waited to share a remarkable secret. For the next hour or so she filled blank sheets with impressive drawings of male organs, female genitalia, and what happens when they meet. Hard to believe, really, that I had made it to eleven not knowing this secret. Suddenly all those games of Doctor I’d played with my cousins seemed suspect. Had they known? Was I the simple one in our gang? Or were we all innocent when we played House or Teacher?

That my mother was extraordinary was not clear to me then. Iran in 1973, six years before the revolution, may have boasted modernity, but the subject of sex was barred, mired in ancient taboos. In a country where sex and shame are synonyms, where a woman carries the weight of her virginity like an iron curtain, there is little chance for a girl to know anything about her sexuality except for its implications of submission, surrender, and shame. The saying goes: “Better to bear a snake than a daughter.” Girls are corralled and cloaked in the guise of protecting the family honor. My mother did not want her daughters to grow up under a veil, refusing to surrender to a skewed natural order dictated by men to suppress women, turning the curse of being a woman into a blessing, opening my eyes before I could fall prey to ignorance, so I could stride through life unencumbered. With a unique approach to sex education, she intercepted the cultural taboos inflicted on women. My mother made her own rules, abiding by a personal code of conduct. On her nightstand was a worn copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. For years I had stared at the cover, leafed through its pages, disappointed to find no pictures. The summer I turned fifteen, she suggested I read it while on holiday. What, until then, I thought was some sort of sex manual, turned out to be a handbook on how a woman can become a sovereign self in a patriarchal society.

 “Come,” she said “I’ll show you the cabinet where we keep the Kotex. You should know how to use them in case I’m at work when you get it.” We returned to the sofa for another slice of cake. She chuckled to herself before reminding me of an earlier anatomy lesson. There had been a long stretch in kindergarten when I refused to wear pants, convinced that if I did, I would turn into a boy. I attended a coed international school with teachers and students from all over the world. Every day I insisted on wearing a white cotton summer dress my mother had sewn for me with a pineapple pattern. By late autumn, my mother had had enough. One afternoon, she staged a viewing while I was busy lining up dolls for a round of my favorite game, “Mrs. Harkins” (my kindergarten teacher’s name). I enjoyed playing the role of the teacher immensely, tapping my dolls with a ruler, asking them to copy what I drew on a chalkboard easel, scolding them for slouching or coming to school with unruly hair. Knowing I’d become so absorbed in role-playing that I would forget to pee, my mother said she poked her head in to remind me to go to the bathroom. Indeed I stood agitated with my legs twisted, all the while yelling at my dolls to keep quiet. Turning to leave, I warned, “Mrs. Harkins has to pee! Stay still!” When I opened the door to the bathroom I shared with my parents I saw my father in the shower with the curtain open. “Hello there!” he waved cheerfully as if we had just run into each other at the park. But for the frothy soapsuds that sat on his chest, he stood naked in the steam rising from the scalding water in the tub. Stunned, I forgot I had to pee. “What’s that?” I cried. My father was a doctor and completely casual about his private parts. Like lifting the hood of a car to show his daughter the engine and the battery, he continued to explain how all boys had a penis and two testicles, some bigger, some smaller, how you should never kick or punch a boy there unless he’s bothering you, and never allow one to touch you, elaborating on mammals, hair, breasts, egg sacs, you name it. I’m not sure how long I stayed listening to my father’s lecture, but Mrs. Harkins left the bathroom somewhat bewildered. The pineapple dress was washed, ironed, and folded into a bag of hand-me-downs, and my mother celebrated by buying me a pair of itchy wool pants.

The subject of sex did not come up again until the fall of seventh grade. Our new science teacher, Mr. Prewitt, had driven his motorcycle through Turkey to Iran. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and dark brown corduroy pants with suede ankle boots and walked the length of our classroom in long, measured strides, stopping to push back long hair behind his ears to make a point. I adored him. So forthcoming was he with his knowledge that he made our other teachers look stingy, sticking to their carefully composed curriculums. In Mr. Prewitt’s class the bell always seemed to ring just minutes after we’d begun, and each day I left wondering what he had in store for tomorrow. In November, he announced that we would finish the semester learning about the human reproductive system, reminding us to bring fresh notebooks and be prepared to do some drawings while ignoring our stifled gasps and snickers. Having had an extensive introduction to the subject over tea and cake, I felt confident. Little did I know of the turmoil brewing behind the scenes in the principal’s office. Not having sanctioned preemptive sex education, parents were in an uproar. The principal had asked my mother to intervene knowing she was well liked, respected, and as a nurse, could persuade the parents that their kids would only benefit from knowing the facts. What followed was more tea and cake – only this time she hosted forty anxious parents, and her diplomacy paid off. How comforting it was over the next few weeks to sit in Mr. Prewitt’s class, to follow the path of his yellow chalk as he drew the now familiar shapes, and copy them in my brand new spiral notebook. I owe that A+ to my mother.

This fall with the election looming and the on-going archaic discussion over contraception, abortion, and Planned Parenthood, I am reminded again of my mother’s eloquent anatomy lesson and her insistence on a sovereign self. I daresay that midwives are better equipped than politicians to insist on a woman’s right to make decisions about her body, but I can’t help wonder which candidate would speak to his children with ease and candor about these issues and ensure the rights of our daughters and grand daughters. The fact is my parents taught me about sex the same way they taught me how to swim, drive, fold laundry, sew a button, and boil an egg. It was sensible, matter-of-fact, and always with a touch of humor. And thanks to Mr. Prewitt, who traveled across the world to another continent to teach a bunch of awkward, pubescent seventh graders about sex, a few of us managed to grow up informed and unencumbered by ancient dogma. Their pragmatism is sorely missed.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Morning Cake

The first book I bought for my son was In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. He wasn’t born yet and he didn’t have a name, but the ultrasound gave us a clear picture and the very next day, I was off to Kepler’s bookstore. I even inscribed it right there at the register: For my son and his good appetite. It hardly mattered that I had discovered this book in my twenties—it’s supple and squishy illustrations of the bakers who bake till dawn so we can have cake in the morn, spoke to me. At the time I was working ungodly bakers’ hours, sleepwalking the streets of downtown San Francisco to my job in a basement kitchen where I made enormous tubs of muffin batter.

So while my husband went to the paint store for cans of sky blue, my mother bought spools of yarn, and my sister brought over her daughter’s rocking horse, I started my son’s library. Soon his bookshelf held an impressive collection, from The Polar Express, The Giving Tree and Stone Soup, to Rascal, The Phantom Tollbooth, and To Kill a Mocking Bird. But the very first, and the books we read most often, were Sendak’s, such that Max, Mickey and Pierre were part of our family. We read them once, we read them twice, and we always made our chicken soup with rice.

Last year, I listened to Maurice Sendak’s last interview on Fresh Air while driving home. It sounded like Terry Gross was choking back tears, too, when Sendak said, “Almost certainly I will go before you so I won’t have to miss you. I will cry my way all the way to the grave. Live your life, live your life, live your life.” Remembering his earlier interviews, when he said the monsters in The Wild Things Are were modeled after the adults in his life (he had found grown-ups grotesque and never wanted to grow up to look like them with their yellow teeth, big ears and hideous hairs coming out of their noses) I wondered who looked back, when, as an old man, he’d catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Defying the world of adults, I bet he saw a ten year old boy.

Lately, my son has been spending a lot of time at the stove on Sunday mornings— inventing pancakes with sautéed bananas and chocolate, berries and yogurt, and last week, with a potato he dug out of the backyard (a compost gift). I stay out of his way, resisting the urge to butt in and flip the bananas, busying myself with the coffee press and taking photos of his creations to send to friends who inevitably reply “The apple doesn’t fall…,” and all that and I say, “Nah, he just has a good appetite.” I predicted it. More than a few have asked for his deep dish pancake recipe. So on Sunday, we poured milk in the batter and remembered Maurice Sendak, reading In The Night Kitchen out loud for what may have been the thousandth time. It was Mother’s Day, so I sat on a stool with a cup of coffee watching the careful preparation of morning cake with the season’s first cherries.
Thank you Maurice.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Writing Workshop

                                                       Pierre Bonnard,  The Letter  1906

At eleven, I was an awkward sixth grader at the Tehran International School where we were taught in English and Farsi. But on the slow bus ride home, sheets of rain falling against the windshield, you heard Norwegian, Hindi, or French in high-pitched voices rising above Radio Tehran’s tinny broadcast from the driver’s transistor radio.

Ever since my mother had started her new job, I had been letting myself in with a key she had duplicated for me on a Mickey Mouse keychain. I fretted over the key – turning it in my palm like worry beads from the moment I shut the door in the morning until I pushed it into the lock every afternoon. When the bus dropped me off, I took the stairs two at a time to get inside. I missed our afternoons. With my father at work until ten and my sisters away at college, I wasn’t crazy about coming home to an empty apartment. It took me a while to get used to sitting down alone and pulling pieces of braided bread to spread with jam she had left on the kitchen table next to a tin of cocoa and a note she had written that morning before leaving for work. She wrote—sometimes in English, sometimes in Farsi, on flowery stationery I had given for her birthday—detailed descriptions of our dinner, a recipe for salad dressing, a funny reminder about boxer shorts drying on the balcony, and her thoughts about my science project or a book she was reading. That my mother would sit down and write a letter to her daughter while she ate her toast every morning seems Victorian, but she wrote without a trace of prudishness, filling sheets of violet paper with ideas and humor and warmth. Until then, I had filled my composition books with dull paragraphs that read like lists, but her writing read like a conversation you felt privileged to be a part of. I read them again and again, filling the hours until she came home, then paced near the window overlooking the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her car before she turned into our driveway. I chopped cucumbers and tomatoes for our salad, stirred a dressing with lemon juice and olive oil, and counted to one hundred before checking the street again.

In my case the term latchkey kid is unjust. It implies neglect or the stretching of a family’s fabric. The intimacy of those letters proved that I was my mother’s confidante and when I read them, I felt cared for. Cherished. I began writing letters back. In fact, I became obsessed with paper—spending hours at the corner sundry shop in front of their small display of stationery and school supplies, taking an eternity to decide on a tablet of lined or blank sheets. I held the new notebook in my hands like a prayer book, hoping to fill its pages with words that I would later fold and leave on my mother’s pillow. Often, they were apologies—like I’m sorry I used the wrong sponge to wash the dishes, or I didn’t mean to ignore your friend’s daughter who is a year younger than me, and so on.

This letter exchange continued in my adulthood. While dating my husband, I was working grueling hours and he was often traveling for work. It was the era before email and we wrote to each other every day. Coming home dead tired I’d find an envelope in my mailbox with a seductive red and blue airmail trim, my name and address in his boyish handwriting. There was no way I was going to wait until morning to write back. Still enamored with paper, I chose the sheets lovingly and slowly we learned about each other. Now that’s Victorian! Even now, if one of us is leaving early or coming home later than usual, tender reminders are left on the kitchen counter. When our son learned to read, we tucked notes into his lunch box written in big block letters—I HOPE THIS IS THE BEST BURRITO YOU HAVE EVER EATEN!, or under his pillow from the tooth fairy, that gradually grew lengthier with illustrations and jokes. So far his replies to us have been brief, sometimes apologetic—Sorry, I left the light on. But apart from the words, we are knowing each other through our handwriting—the small close print, the big loopy cursive, tell us we are cared for. Cherished.

I don’t have my mother’s letters. They were left behind along with every glass and every spoon in our home in Tehran when we were forced into exile, but the writing lessons, even the recipes and reminders, are embedded in me like a constant companion.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Celebration of Mother’s Day with Donia Bijan, Author of Maman's Homesick Pie

Menlo Park author and renowned chef Donia Bijan will discuss her book, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A PERSIAN HEART IN AN AMERICAN KITCHEN on Sunday, May 6th from 3-5 pm at the Menlo Park Council Chambers, 701 Laurel Street.  Part memoir/part cookbook, Ms. Bijan uses the language of food to tell her story, and to honor her mother from whom she learned to cook and to follow her dreams.
Ms. Bijan and her book have received praise from numerous national publications such as Family Circle and Publishers Weekly:
“Treat yourself to this delectable debut …ultimately this memoir is a loving tribute to her mother, her heritage—and food. Pour yourself a cup of cardamom tea (recipe included), and indulge in this savory slice of life.” —Family Circle
A “wonderfully written memoir … so well rendered … Bijan writes movingly of her parents’ accomplishments, their difficulty adjusting to their new home, and her own burgeoning love of food and cooking … Like the perfect dessert, each chapter ends with recipes.”—Publishers Weekly
For more information about the author and her book visit:
For event details, call Roberta Roth at 650-330-2512 or e-mail Roberta at

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thorny with a Big Heart

Who can resist the allure of an artichoke – the bud of a thistle flower? I was a freshman in college during my first spring in California, when a girl in my dorm came back from a trip downtown with a bag of artichokes. She got permission to use the roach infested kitchen – reserved for upperclassmen – to boil them and invited a few us to join her at the picnic tables outside the cafeteria, where we plucked and dipped the thorny leaves in Miracle Whip. The days were longer and I remember we stayed out there until dusk, leisurely stacking the damp discarded leaves like a deck of cards and fanning them out until the sun went down. Those days, it seemed we had all the time in the world.

Although I enjoyed my share of doughy Domino’s pizza, I often sought the nutty taste of artichokes. From March through May you could buy four for a dollar at the grocery store, and for twenty five cents I had dinner that lasted longer than a bowl of ramen. Soon, lemon juice and olive oil replaced the cloying mayonnaise, and of course, nothing was more rewarding than scooping out the fuzzy choke and biting into that warm meaty heart.

I didn’t know then that artichokes are a California commodity. The first farms were planted on a few acres near Half Moon Bay by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. The cool foggy summers, mild winters and proximity to the ocean were the perfect growing climate, producing a heavy spring crop and a lighter fall crop that today provides nearly one hundred percent of the nation’s supply. It’s a labor-intensive plant requiring hand harvesting with a knife and tossing the buds into a sack that workers carry on their backs as they walk in between the rows. Attempts at developing thorn-free varieties that can be harvested year round have not been able to surpass the taste of the perennial Green Globe. So from now until May, we feast on artichokes – steamed, grilled, braised, fried, raw, buried under ashes or stuffed – nothing spells spring quite like it.

It wasn’t until I went to France that my whole-steamed method seemed archaic. I was given crates of artichokes to prep and watched wide-eyed as my fellow cooks stripped the silvery green suit of armor going straight for the heart, whacking away at great speed and amassing mountains of leaves. The shelves in the walk-in refrigerator held buckets of artichoke hearts with long trimmed stems like old fashioned champagne glasses floating in acidulated water. I learned to shred through cases but never stopped lamenting the waste of all those teaspoons of flesh at the base of each leaf. Later, working for a frugal chef, I boiled the leaves and scraped their ends to make a luscious puree with lemon, shallots and butter for an exquisitely simple rack of lamb.

Back in California, I waited for March and the first sign of my prickly crop to launch the spring menu. We paraded them in a butter lettuce salad with chunks of seared foie gras, in lemony broths poached with fish and saffron, on savory tarts with hazelnut butter and ricotta, and yes, we scrimped and scraped the leaves to fill ravioli. And when the first case of baby artichokes arrived, we braised them with carrots and pearl onions, dry white wine and bay leaves, to eat warm in a shallow bowl with good crusty bread – unhurried, like we had all the time in the world.

L’Amie Donia’s Braised Artichokes
Serves 4-6
2 carrots
½ pound pearl onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
2 pounds baby artichokes or 6-8 medium artichokes
2 lemons and zest of one
¼ teaspoon saffron
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
Vegetable broth or water
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
-Peel the carrots and cut into ¼ inch slices. Peel the pearl onions and leave whole.
-Cut the stems of the artichokes and cut about ¾ inch off the tops, then break off 2 rows of leaves from the base and trim the bottoms. Gently spread the leaves of each artichoke and use a small spoon to remove the choke. Place in a bowl of cold water with the juice of one lemon.
-In a heavy saucepan, warm 4 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. Slowly cook the carrots and onions until they begin to turn golden. Arrange the artichokes in the pan in a single layer. Add the bay leaf, fresh thyme, crushed garlic, the juice and zest of one lemon, saffron, and salt and pepper to taste.
-Pour the wine over the artichokes and add vegetable broth or water until they are just immersed. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, then remove the lid, add capers, and reduce the cooking liquid over medium high heat. Use the tip of a paring knife to test the artichokes and remove from heat when they are tender.
-Sprinkle with parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve warm in a bowl with good bread to mop up the juices, or as a side dish with roast lamb, rabbit, or fish.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Taste For Small Things

There is a quirky Persian market a half hour away, beloved by my family not only for its delicious grilled kebabs, but for the dry humor of the cranky old-timers who run the register and the take-out counter. I don’t have to drive twelve miles to buy parsley, leeks, and dill, but my list is filled with longing and the herbs are just an excuse. The Rose Market gives me a taste of home; to sniff packets of sumac and cardamom, even cakes of soap; to eavesdrop on the easy banter between the clerks—how I love to hear their voices over the static of a loudspeaker calling the kebab orders like life sentences to guys who man the grill—Two chicken, two koobideh. For here! I linger in the tea isle and study the script on each tin, I fondle jars of fig and sour cherry jam, filling my basket with lavashak - pomegranate fruit leather, pistachio halva, and noghl - sugar coated almonds. If I need saffron, I know the mister keeps it under the cash register like hundred dollar bills. When I tease him about his secret stash, he hands me a tiny cellophane envelope filled with delicate threads, like crimson hay. Here, good things come in small packages.

When I first met my husband, he was a regular at The Rose Market. Every Saturday morning, after a pick-up soccer game, he joined two Iranian teammates for lunch, and there he was introduced to Persian cuisine. Ah, the things we do for love. Eager to please my family, he asked his friends to teach him Farsi and they obliged. Later, while boasting to my mother that they had ordered koobideh, a ground beef kebab, gojeh, a grilled tomato, and dool - penis, for lunch, she howled knowing his friends had set a trap. “You mean doogh, honey. Not dool!” she corrected. “Yes, the fizzy yogurt drink. It’s delicious!” he replied. No doubt.

Passing years have not diminished my enthusiasm for the charms of Rose Market. I anticipate the long drive like a dog wags its tail before leaving for a walk. It begins in the morning as I’m staring out the window at the first blossom on the crabapple tree. By the time the breakfast dishes are done, I’ve composed a list: dried mulberries, sugar cubes, feta, cucumbers, but I’ll come home with much more. I don’t want to leave looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have forgotten something. Each ingredient yields a twin I would not want to leave behind, tea for sugar cubes, yogurt for cucumbers, lavash for feta. But these trips are quotidian compared to our Norouz pilgrimage. That’s when I make up for all the wish lists I never wrote to Santa.

Norouz, the Persian New Year, coincides with the first day of spring and in my efforts to get it right, to follow tradition and uphold a cherished holiday, I look to my grumpy grocer. The shelves at The Rose are stocked with everything from hyacinth to delicate chickpea cookies scented with rosewater, the owners going so far as bringing in a fish tank and scooping out goldfish for your haftsin, the symbolic table you will likely find in every Iranian household days before March 20th. I sense the old-timers are on my side. They will send me home with everything I need to celebrate like a pro.

When I’ve marinated my fish with lemon peel and salt, and washed the fresh herbs for sabzi polo, a rice dish as quintessential as turkey on Thanksgiving, I am once again an apprentice to the alchemist, a student of Persian cuisine. No matter how many times I’ve made this dish, after chopping dill, parsley, and cilantro, spooning layers of rice with herbs, cinnamon, leeks, and green garlic, then wrapping the lid of my rice pot with a dishtowel to trap the steam, I still feel the eyes of generations before me with raised eyebrows and their discontent. Humph! Look how coarsely she chopped the herbs. My God that rice is begging for butter! Where is the fenugreek? Did you see how stingy she was with the cinnamon? I drizzle more butter and say grace because an apprentice is never sure if she got it right, always getting by on a song and a prayer with a little help from the fellas.

NPR's Tell Me More is doing a wonderful broadcast all about Norouz on Tuesday March 20th.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vernal Equinox

Daylight savings precedes the first day of spring, but that moment when the sun crosses the earth’s celestial equator, making night and day of equal length all over the earth will be on March 19th, at 10:14 pm PST. Perhaps after such a mild winter it isn’t worth noting the actual date. After all, trees are already blossoming, and the other day, my husband opened the trunk to display a dazzling selection of perennials in pinks, oranges, and whites to plant in the backyard. But the spring equinox marks the Persian New Year, a holiday we have not forsaken in exile. Norooz ceremonies are symbolic of the reawakening of nature, its rituals dating back three thousand years. In the weeks prior to the new year, homes are swept clean, new clothes are sewn or purchased, seeds are germinated for sprouts, and a ceremonial table is set with the seven dishes that herald spring and rebirth. As part of a generation that straddles two cultures, we are the sons and daughters who sweep what remains of our parents’ dreams for peace and a new beginning.

My earliest memories of Norooz carry the scent of hyacinth and toasted almonds, slivered and caramelized with saffron and honey. My grandmother served them with tea when we paid our first day of spring visit, noticing at last, my new suede shoes. I had insisted on them, even though they were too tight and my heels were scraped. I couldn’t resist the soft two-tone tassels, one mauve, one rose. Every year, in early March, my mother shepherded us through the shops that lined the avenues of Tehran to buy new clothes for the holiday, calling on a seamstress to make our dresses. I pictured bright patterns, sashes and satin collars, but after standing still for too long to be pinned and measured, I inevitably ended up in a modest shift with cap sleeves—like ordering chicken after you’ve considered chateaubriand. The trees along the wide boulevards were in full bloom, shopkeepers kept longer hours, serenading us with saz o avaz, our holiday “carols”, if you will, filling those early evenings with music and promise. To me, the world smelled like flowers.

The other day, I sat next to my son on the floor surrounded by Legos, watching him maneuver gently like Gulliver between Lilliputian rooftop gardens, garages, fountains with statues surrounded by park benches, and a car wash. Even in Lego City there were signs of spring and I was compelled to ask what Norooz meant to him. Year after year, he’s watched me fumble through preparations for a holiday that falls somewhere between Valentine’s Day and Easter, a cherished tradition that we, as Iranian Americans, hold dear lest we lose this hallmark of our homeland, too. I was curious to know if it mattered to him whether we set the haftsin, the symbolic table with seven elements of life, namely sabzeh, wheat sprouts representing rebirth; sib, apple, a symbol of health; sumac, which mirrors the color of sunrise; sekeh, coins for prosperity; serkeh, vinegar, representing the wisdom of age; seer, garlic, a tribute to health;senjed, the dried fruit of a lotus tree, symbolic of love, and other components such as a flowering hyacinth, candles lit for every child in the family, painted eggs, goldfish, a volume of poems by Hafez, and a mirror to reflect everything we hope for in the new year, to be mindful and present. I wondered if he would miss buying goldfish and giving them silly Farsi names, coloring eggs, going to the bank for crisp dollar bills (the only gift exchange being new money for children), spring cleaning, or buying new shoes. Would he look in the pantry cupboard for the clover shaped chickpea cookies he adored? His answer came slowly but clearly, that mostly he liked celebrating something unique, different from the other holidays: “It’s not commercial…you don’t see the junk at Target.” If a nightingale lit on my shoulder at that moment and sang, it would not have sounded sweeter.

Yes, it mattered. That I am still learning how to tend wheat sprouts for the haftsin isn’t important. For too long, I had relied on my mother to carry the tradition, not paying close enough attention to how it all came together—like a terrific Thanksgiving meal you show up for with a napkin tucked in your collar. I’m no longer a visiting grandchild to a scene where smoke from my grandfather’s pipe floats above my face when he reaches to put a gold coin in my pocket. An immigrant’s career continues as long as there are children walking between us, mapping the space between their parents and grandparents. It’s not enough to sit them down and tell them stories about the ancient land of Persia and its empire. Singing them a version of Glory Days won’t suffice, for they are over. We have to plant real gardens, in real earth, in front of our new homes, and when the hyacinth blooms, to bring the scent inside and tell them: “This, this is what Norooz smells like.”

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Robert Motherwell, 1973 "Blue Painting"

Heidi swam an elegant backstroke. Extending her arms in long powerful arches like a painter gone mad with his brush—coloring crescent moons blue with sweeping motions across his canvas. So when I picture her now, it is always in the pool, on her back, her eyes looking up at the clouds and migrating birds, swinging her arms in that carefree look-at-me-I’m-a-bird way.

Eight years ago, I was a rookie masters swimmer and she welcomed me warmly in the pre-dawn hours. Heidi made sure she knew who she was swimming with—no anonymity allowed, waiting for us at the wall to make sure we all knew the warm-up, but more importantly, to say hello, and always, always, greeting us with: “It’s so nice to see you.” And an hour later, when we heard Coach Tim call: “That’s a wrap.”, she’d look in your eyes and say: “Thank you for swimming with me.” Really.

Our friendship was limited to time spent at the pool and in the showers, but what struck me was that Heidi didn’t waste time on small talk, delving into conversations about travel, marriage, your new baby, movies, and being an avid reader, books. She talked to everyone indiscriminately and earnestly like the child who waves hello from his car seat to people in adjacent cars. And sometimes, you would almost be annoyed with this goodwill ambassador, but not for long, for she disarmed you with her open smile.  Because it wasn’t so much friendliness, but her genuine interest in knowing what you cared about, who you were underneath the swim cap and goggles. She asked good questions and listened for your answer with her head tilted, as if what you had to say was all she cared about.

When Heidi had a stroke, we swam, filling our days with yards. What else were we to do? Some people pray. Some people swim. We did a lot of both—convinced that if we swam hard enough, long enough, she would come back to us. One thing I’ve learned about swimmers is, we’re a dogged bunch. Fill a three-foot hole with water, we’ll jump in and try to do laps.

They say that when loved ones die, they leave a hole. Heidi’s loss on the other hand, has filled us with a capacity to love we didn’t know we had—our hearts have grown fonder, of each other, of water, of trees, rain, sun, clouds, grueling work-outs, warm showers. We’ve become like the mad painter, filling our canvas with blues, imitating her arc.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trial By Fire

Mitchell Johnson  Broadway & Laguna, 2010  28x16 inches

I spent my second night in San Francisco in the apartment I had just rented from Mrs. Lupescu at the top of a four-story on Pacific Avenue, around the corner from the Hyde street cable car. And there I stayed for seven years, subletting from time to time to go back to France. I had come from Paris with a diploma, a set of copper pots, a tin of fluted cookie cutters, a moka coffee pot, and a knapsack. I owned no television, no toaster, no dresser. My family quickly supplied me with hand-me-downs: a foldout couch, sheets and towels, mismatched bowls, cutlery, and an iron. Although I only wore t-shirts and jeans, I needed to iron my white chef’s coat and checkered pants.

My first job was at Campton Place, a posh hotel on Union Square, where I was filling in for the morning baker on leave. A young American chef stood at the helm, trailblazing the way for American cuisine. Critics were swooning over his pot roast, the baked potatoes with bacon, creamed spinach and butterscotch pudding. I took this temporary position to get my foot in the door, not realizing that my French culinary pedigree was useless in this kitchen where it quickly became apparent that what I knew of haute-American baking was limited to Mrs. Field’s chocolate chip cookies (a rare treat the summer I worked as a girl-Friday in a downtown San Francisco office). My resume read that I had apprenticed at a bakery in Paris and that was good enough. “Be here tomorrow morning at four.”

I made my way downtown in the pre-dawn hours when the only sounds came from foghorns on the bay and buzzing cable car lines. I wore a parka over my uniform but the wind was strong and it flapped about my knees, opening and closing, and I wished I could ride the trolley. There is a clear headedness that comes from tramping out before sunrise, you can feel heir to the city that still sleeps. At three-forty I walked through the employee entrance like I owned the place.

Pam greeted me in the far corner of the kitchen behind a deck of pizza ovens that were already roaring at four hundred and fifty degrees warming her cheeks pink. Two was a crowd in the cramped carved-out space for the pastry chef and his crew, but we were both small and I stood at her elbow while she explained the morning routine. We started out making an enormous batch of muffin batter. Sleeves rolled up to her biceps, I watched her fold eggs, cream and melted butter into flour with her hands. “You can use a spatula if you like.” she sighed, seeing the doubtful look on my face. I emptied baskets of blueberries into the lumpy mass and helped her scoop the mix into greased muffin tins. When they were done, row after row of gold and blue domes cooled on a rack behind us and we feasted on the first warm muffins of the day, slathering them with butter from a fifty pound brick. And when we stirred heavy cream in our coffee, I confessed that I had never made muffins before. “What did you do – before you came here?” Our eyes met – her’s, narrow slits. “I made croissants, brioche, madeleines.” “Well then, we haven’t got much time.” She was leaving the next day.

If you’ve ordered a continental breakfast in any hotel, you know how it varies from place to place. How the apricot danish can be a sad soggy mess or real fruit tucked into a glorious circle of light crispy dough. Campton Place prided itself on its exquisite basket of morning glories—cheese danish, raisin bread, coffee cake, banana poppy seed muffins, sticky buns, all served with homemade preserves and crocks of butter. The bread basket at lunch was equally enticing with an array of chive buttermilk biscuits, whole wheat rolls sweetened with molasses, and corn sticks. When Pam went through the morning baker’s tasks, she assumed I had some prior knowledge of Fannie Farmer fare. I may have eaten my share of sticky buns but I had no idea how to make one. We had less than six hours to bring me up to speed and we threw back our last sips of coffee before launching into a marathon training session.

Hurled from the basement of Paris’ most esteemed patisserie to the basement of a lauded San Francisco hotel is a little like going from selling silk stockings at Bergdorf Goodman in New York to snake skin boots at Nieman Marcus. Where both strive for uncompromised quality, one is understated, the other has something to prove. One knew they had the best croissants in Paris, the other was re-imagining the breads we had forfeited for the sake of packaged convenience, thus reminding us of our own treasures: cream biscuits, corn muffins, popovers, Shaker pie, sour cream coffee cake and so on. I felt sorry for Pam—not only did she end up with a je-ne-sais-quoi rookie, the girl shadowing her, replacing her, carried a green card and hadn’t sat on her grandmother’s lap at Thanksgiving eating pumpkin pie.

Thus my first day on the job—studying Pam, her ease as she kneaded big round loaves, her purpose when her nubbly hands swept flour on the wood counter. She traveled the small space between the ovens, the standing mixer, the sink and cooling racks like a dancer, humming between commands. Where she glided, I wrestled. My limbs got in the way, and even with hips as slim as a boy’s, I managed to bump into appliances. And as if there wasn’t enough to do, we hulled a flat of ripe strawberries for preserves. While jam bubbled on the stove, she pulled out cast iron pans shaped like ears of corn and explained corn sticks, instructing me to preheat the heavy molds in the oven before piping in the batter. I spooned the mixture into a pastry bag (at least I knew how to do that), but when I opened the oven door to pull the molds out, Pam stopped me: “They’ll lose their heat. You have to stick your head in the oven and fill ‘em.” No time for questions, lunch service was about to begin and the waiters looked in on us, agitated, tapping their watches—the sticks were to go into the bread baskets, hot. So I rounded my shoulders and stuck my head in the blackened space. I remembered a show where a woman’s hair burst into flame and everybody laughed. Was it I Love Lucy? This wasn’t funny. My cheeks were burning. The runny batter dripped and sizzled, smoke filled my eyes. The first batch got tossed, the next one, too. These weren’t non-stick pans. I had to scrape away stubborn chips and grease the ears, then line them up in the oven again. The wait staff was furious after having to explain to every table about the fabled corn sticks they had read about in the San Francisco Chronicle. The manager, a no-nonsense stunning woman in an exquisitely tailored ink-black suit, marched in, her heels striking the tile floor like cocking pistols. Pam stood between us. I thought. No. I prayed she would fire me, but she just glared at me, (I remember thinking how pretty her green eyes were) and hissed: “We. Need. Corn. Sticks. Now.” I shuddered in her wake. Don’t cryDon’t cry, I pleaded silently. Pam put a hand on my shoulder, “Whatever you do, don’t make Chloe mad.”

I never imagined that I would dawdle through my tasks because having just graduated, this was, after all, my first kitchen job, but I didn’t expect to jump into the fire and come home blistered. Surely I would die in that basement—a corpse. I called my mom, of course, but I didn’t tell her about my burns and left out the part about sticking my head in the oven. I pictured her sitting on the edge of her bed, smoothing her skirt with one hand, the other gripping the phone, her knuckles white, wishing but not saying: “Come home.” From that day on, the orbit of my world reduced to the penned space between the pizza ovens and the counter, and my bed where I collapsed every afternoon, rising only to stand in the shower to wash the flour dust from my hair and nurse my burns. On those dark mornings, I summoned Pam’s agility and command. I followed the order of her handwritten instructions on a clipboard that hung from a nail above the sink. I set my alarm earlier and earlier, arriving at two, two thirty, to allow for the mishaps – the blueberry muffins that stuck to the tins, the danish that oozed butter, hiding them in the trash under egg shells and milk cartons, starting over and over and over again. And more than once, I made Chloe mad. One Sunday, when brunch was in full swing, I heard the pistols coming my way. Something about the biscuits being too salty: “You know, we have a re-pu-ta-tion to keep.” She turned and walked slowly back to the dining room. One of the line cooks popped in, wiping the grease from her glasses with a handkerchief: “The coffee cake is delicious today.” I wanted to kiss her.

Two weeks were like two years. Fannie Farmer came to me like Florence Nightingale, slowly making her way, bringing bandages and balm and bravado. For three days in a row, nothing got tossed in the garbage can. Then it was a week. Then I couldn’t remember when I had last seen Chloe. Looking back, I know it was the only way I could have learned that lesson—to mind my reputation.

Buttermilk Biscuits

(one dozen biscuits)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 ounces (1 stick) butter, chilled, cubed
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a mixing bowl.
Cut the cubed butter into the flour and until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.
Add the buttermilk and stir just until the dough holds together and forms a ball.
On a lightly floured board, pat and roll the dough into a half-inch thickness.
Cut into two-inch rounds and place on a baking sheet one inch apart.
Bake 15 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.

You can always add a tablespoon of chopped chives, dill, caraway seeds, 
or lemon zest to the flour mixture to serve these biscuits with soup.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wine School

In the fall of 1985 I was learning to cook at the old Cordon Bleu in Paris, still under the direction of the surly Madame Brassart, before its makeover and transition to its brand new headquarters. Keith was one of my classmates. Tall and lanky with a soft Texas drawl, he’d find a seat next to me during our demonstration classes and interrupt my note-taking with only-in-Paris anecdotes like the neighbor who let his dog poop right in front of their entrance, or the old lady who elbowed past him in the bakery line, or the sour guard in the Louvre who scowled at his attempt to speak French. Then he would proceed to mock me for wasting my time watching the preparation of Faisan en Daube a la Gelee, Daube of Pheasant in Jelly, a complicated dish that involved stuffing the pheasant with truffles, foie gras and forcemeat, cooking it in Madeira, and immersing it in game jelly to serve as a cold appetizer. He could not fathom a room full of students, there for a desire to learn about French cuisine with eyes fixed to the large mirror hanging above our instructor’s stove, unaware of the food carnival on the streets of Paris. No amount of shushing would shut him up. “Why, I didn’t come all the way from Dallas to sit a classroom!” he declared. Eventually he would slink away to go buy his own pheasant and stuff it with nothing but a few sprigs of thyme, and make his own game stock with the feet and discarded bones. Sometimes, I’d get a call late in the evening: “So, Miss Persia, did you learn anything today?” And I would chide him for wasting his daddy’s money and skipping classes.

One morning Keith came to our pastry class with a brochure from a place he had stumbled upon while he was roaming the streets and we were whisking egg whites for chocolate mousse. The Academie du Vin, a little school founded by an Englishman, Steven Spurrier, offered introductory courses in French wine. “Wanna learn something about wine, Miss Persia, or are you going back to San Francisco to tell them you can stuff a duck, but don’t have a clue what wine you’d serve with it?” Although these smug remarks unnerved me, Keith was right. Only I didn’t have his unlimited funds to while away the hours in tea salons and cheese shops, when back home, my mother worked graveyard shifts at the hospital to pay my tuition. Fortunately, it was the golden age when the dollar fetched ten francs, so even on a tight budget, I could spare the sixty five francs for a six-week course.

And so it was that a few nights a week we met at the Madeleine metro and walked along the narrow streets behind the monument to our school—a former locksmith shop adjacent to Mr. Spurrier’s wine store, Les Caves de la Madeleine. Eight of us sat on tall stools along a curved bar while his partner, Pamela, conducted elementary lessons in comparative tasting and grape recognition. There were baskets of good bread and platters of cheese at room temperature, carafes of water, dozens of glasses and an empty ice bucket. I brought a notebook, Keith didn’t. He asked a lot of questions and spat noisily, but there was no way I was going to spit anything in a bucket. She poured, I drank, and soon I would have a hard time balancing my notes, a wine glass, the crusty baguette with camembert, and my pencil, which fell to the ground one more time and Keith reached his long arm to retrieve it while giving me a sidelong glance, amused to see this other side of me that was no longer eager to be the perfect student. When it was time to go, he stood gallantly nearby and watched me wrap myself in my coat, then walked alongside, down the steps to my metro stop, making sure I didn’t tumble forth. “One of these days, Miss Persia, I’m going to teach you how to spit.”

One night we came in from the rain and took our places along the bar. If you were walking by, you would have paused to look inside at the row of devoted backs leaning forward, at our raincoats piled on a coat stand by the door, rows of glasses hanging upside down like chandeliers, and wine bottles with cream colored labels lining the wall. You would have been drawn in by the glowing intimacy of that warmly lit space. We would have made room for you.

That evening, Pamela said she had a surprise for us. Little did she know that every lesson had been a surprise for me. Until then, grapes were green or red, sweet or sour, and sometimes I liked to stuff ten or so at a time in my mouth. “Tonight, you will taste liquid gold.” I’m definitely not spitting that out, I thought. “But,” she continued, I will also introduce you to a magical marriage of flavors.” She poured a Sauterne, pronouncing Chateau d’Yquem with such reverence that we fell silent. If you’re a connoisseur and wondering about the vintage, keep in mind that I was twenty three and prior to this I had been in college drinking boxed Chablis. Those days, no one felt compelled to brag about their wine expertise. She explained about the “noble rot” that causes this blend of semillon, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle grapes from southern Bordeaux to become raisined, that the color turns from yellow to copper, and with care, will age beautifully well beyond a century. We cradled our glasses and sniffed, anxious for the first sip but waiting for the nod from our instructor. My first thought was this wine was made by bees because what I tasted was cool honey. Then she reached below and brought out baskets of levain bread and platters of blue cheese and encouraged us each to take a morsel of Roquefort and follow it with the chilled Sauterne. We did. It was the first time I understood the meaning of “unctuous” and “rapture”. We sighed, we smiled, we leaned toward each other, our kinship sealed forever in that quiet moment. No one spat. I dropped my pencil and left it there. Pamela looked very pleased.

Weeks later, Keith and I would stop mid-sentence and say “Remember the Roquefort?” or sometimes just, “Remember?” and left it alone—neither of us willing to break the spell. I retrace my steps to this small turning point in my education when I gave myself permission to leave the classroom and wander the streets. I didn’t skip lessons, but spent hours in between, poking around, following a scent into a butcher shop where terrines of duck and rabbit cooled on marble, and a simple s’il vous plait would often lead to samples of cheese, pates, the first cherries. I came home one night with a celery root, an apple, a wedge of Roquefort, no more than four ounces, and assembled a tart in my closet kitchen using a chunk of day-old bread. I called Keith and two other classmates from Spain to come for dinner. The Spaniards brought a chunk of Serrano ham they had carried from a weekend home, and the Texan brought a half bottle of Sauterne. “You shouldn’t waste your daddy’s hard earned money!” I protested. He ignored me.

Celery Root and Apple Galette with Roquefort
Serves 4
1 celery root peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
2 apples, Pippins, Sierra Beauties, or Golden Delicious, peeled, cored, and quartered
Kosher salt, black pepper, honey
4 ounces unsalted butter melted
2 tablespoons lemon juice or cider vinegar
Half a loaf of chewy country bread
3 ounces Roquefort cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Toss the apples and celery root with a little salt, fresh ground pepper, 2 tablespoons of honey, 2 tablespoons of butter, and lemon juice or cider vinegar. Spread evenly in a roasting pan, cover and bake 20-25 minutes until the celery root and apples soften. Remove the cover, increase the heat to 400 degrees, and bake an additional 10 minutes to brown.
Turn the oven back to 350 degrees.
Butter a 9 inch pie dish. Slice the bread 1/8 inch thick and line the bottom and sides of your dish, fitting the slices snugly against each other. Brush the bread with melted butter. Spread an even layer of the apple and celery root, crumble half the Roquefort on top, and repeat with another layer of apple, celery root and cheese. Place the remaining slices of bread on top. Brush with butter and press down lightly.
Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown. To serve, you can slide a knife around the edge of the pie dish and turn out on a platter, or serve wedges directly from the dish with a hearts of butter lettuce salad.