Tehrangeles, Pt. II

One of the most extraordinary and exciting things about living in Los Angeles is the diversity of people and cultures you are exposed to. Over the years, I have dated women from Sri Lanka, Japan, Peru and Afghanistan. I’ve had friends from Malaysia, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, Egypt, New Zealand, Morocco, Norway, China, India, Australia, Fiji, Ukraine, Ireland, Israel, Argentina, France and nearly every region of Mexico. And of course, from Iran.

Three generations — Alex, Miles & Reza Tehrani

Sometime after college, while I was living in Santa Monica, I met Roxanna. She was funny and awkward and beautiful and innocent, and she was from Iran. We were not romantic — she dated Iranian men. But people could be forgiven — and often were — for assuming that we were, seeing us leave one another’s apartments late at night. We were, however, only talking. And eating.

When Roxanna came to my place, I would cook a risotto, pasta or soup. When I went to her apartment, she would dazzle me with lavish displays of Iranian treats — pistachios, olives, small flatbreads — all set on tiny, ornate antique Persian dishes. And then she would serve me a dinner redolent of all those scents and flavors — saffron, dried lime, cinnamon, mint — that would transport me across the world. As enamored as I was of my friend Roxanna, it was the culinary splendor of her culture that left me the most seduced.

The further you get from any epic immigration event — one like the Iranian influx at the time of the Islamic revolution in the late 1970s — the muddier the waters become. I got the Irish name from my ancestors who fled the potato famine, and still have a relatively impressive 40-50% blood. But it’s mixed with English, Swedish, Welsh, Dutch and who knows what else. The children of that wave of Iranian immigrants are native-born Americans, some are marrying caucasian women or Mexican women or Asian women. My friend, Alex Tehrani, was raised in Berkeley to an Iranian father and a white Jewish mother. He married a caucasian woman and they had three kids, who are each one quarter Iranian. They in turn will likely marry people with other muddled ancestry and little by little we all become simply American.

Over at the Tehrani’s for dinner recently, I drank vodka out by the barbecue with Reza, Alex’s dad, and talked revolution and recipes. Reza moved from Iran to Berkeley in his youth, began working in restaurants and eventually opened a café. I asked him about traditional Persian cooking, the Caspian and caviar. He told me about Alex’s mother who died young, about raising his two children all by himself, and insisted that I must meet his daughter who makes movies and loves to eat. Alex had warned me to be prepared — his father drank two shots at a time if he drank any, and I would likely not outlast him. But Reza seemed in a contemplative mood, it was more a sipping evening, as I learned the ritual of chasing my vodka with a taste of cucumber and yogurt. A sort of Persian version of the lime after tequila. Around the table, Reza toasted Alex’s good taste in friends, we ate rice perfumed with rose and saffron — with its crisp tah deeg crust, the best rice in the world! — and grilled meats redolent of mint and garlic, drank vodka and wine, and laughed. “You must visit us in Berkeley!” Reza declared, his arm around my shoulder, vodka in hand. “We have a great deck. We’ll sit outside and cook!” Next thing I knew he was sleeping.

Driving in my car, I listen to a story about the current tense state of the relationship between Iran and the United States. Iran now occupies the role of global bogeyman once held by the Cold War-era Soviet Union in the black-and-white mythology of our collective national psyche. Fortunately, my children have no concept of international intrigues, and no fear of Iran. They play with friends whose last names are Tehrani, Farasat and Gandomikal, while their light complexioned parents laugh and drink and break bread with their friends’ dark complexioned parents as if there was no greater difference than the color of skin. Which, of course… there isn’t.

Braised lamb shank with Persian rice and grilled fava beans

Here is a recipe for braised lamb shanks and the best rice in the world. The rice is the traditional Iranian preparation; the shanks are my own creation utilizing flavors often found in Persian cooking and the ubiquitous global technique of braising. Enjoy.

*   *   *

Braised lamb shank with prunes and cinnamon
serves 4

4 lamb shanks
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup dried prunes, chopped
2 cups red wine
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup port or other dessert wine
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
salt & pepper

French the lamb shanks: With a paring knife, cut through the flesh at the smaller end of the shank to expose the bone. Take a larger knife and carefully separate the meat away from the bone, working up and making sure you don’t actually cut any meat off, until you’ve reached halfway up the shank. Push the meat you’ve cut away toward the meatier end and tuck under the top meat as much as possible. (Creating a kind of big meat lollipop.) Season with salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil over medium high in a large dutch oven or skillet. Brown the shanks, about 5 minutes on each side. Add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring, for another 2 minutes. Add the wine, vinegar, tomato paste, prunes, sugar and cinnamon. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile heat oven to 250. Remove pan with shanks from stove to the oven. Cook, covered, for 1 hour. Remove cover and continue cooking 1.5 to 2.5 hours, turning occasionally, until sauce is thick and caramelized, and meat from shanks tender to the bone. Serve with Persian rice (below).

*   *   *

Persian rice
serves 4

2 cups long-grain white rice (such as basmati)
1 tsp. saffron
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp. orange peel, thinly slivered
1 tsp. rose water
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
1 tbsp. butter

In a large saucepan, place your rice in 2 cups of lightly salted water and let sit for 90 minutes. While the rice is sitting, bring another cup of water to a simmer over medium high heat in a pan, add sugar, saffron, rose water and orange peel and turn off heat.

Bring the pan with rice and water to the stove and put over high heat. Cook for 10 minutes, then drain. Place milk, salt and oil in the pan you cooked the rice in and return to high heat. Place rice back in the pan with the milk mixture, creating a mound. Cover, reduce heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. While the rice is cooking, reheat saffron rose water mixture in another pan until steaming slightly. Stir in butter to melt, and then strain mixture into the rice pan, reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook for 30 minutes.

Remove from heat and scoop out onto a platter, breaking up the golden crusty tah deeg as you do.

Top with chopped pistachios, if you’d like.

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Greggie
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 01:15:47

    Redolent? Now I have a new word of the day aside from a new recipe for rice.
    Thanks!

    Reply

  2. Michelle
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 12:20:01

    Sweet. And the food looks great, too.

    Reply

  3. mom
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 16:29:15

    Lovely.

    Reply

  4. JC Williams
    Sep 21, 2013 @ 04:20:11

    Please forgive my ignorance of Iranian ingredients, but where do you get or how do you make the rose water?

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Sep 21, 2013 @ 19:59:12

      I would be surprised if you knew where to get it! 🙂 Any Iranian market would work. There’s a good one on Wilshire at 14th St. in Santa Monica.

      Reply

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