RSS Feed

Tag Archives: gluten free

New Hope – Mushroom Barley Soup

Posted on

                Honey Hollow Farm  

The soup:

Mushrooms have long been associated with medicine and magic. Referenced by the Romans as “food of the gods” and “plants of immortality” by the Ancient Egyptians, mushrooms were fit for consumption by royalty. In fact commoners were forbidden from eating them. Eastern cultures, such as in China and Japan, have been using mushrooms for medicinal purposes dating back two thousand years. The health benefits of the ingredients include:  Selenium (good for bones, nails, hair and teeth as well as being an antioxidant), Calcium, Vitamin D, Copper (antibacterial), Potassium, Fiber, and Zinc — to name only a few.

One of my favorite soups is wild mushroom soup. Although I typically go dairy free with my soups, there is something about the combination of the mushrooms, herbs and cream that make my tastebuds soar. Anytime I see it on a restaurant menu, my eyes light up and  I am compelled to try it. On the other hand, I haven’t always appreciated mushroom barley soup. Perhaps it was barley, but I would typically skip right over it without a second thought.

A few years ago, I was invited for dinner where mushroom barley soup was being served. During that experience, I had a mushroom barley soup awakening and really liked it. In fact, I appreciated the graininess of the barley, as it gives the soup a filling and hearty dimension. Not only did I like the way it tastes but I knew that it was doing wonders for my digestive tract, inviting the kinds of bacteria my intestines needs to stay healthy. Fortunately, I have never had cholesterol issues, but another bonus is that barley has been proven to demonstrate multiple benefits for those battling high cholesterol as well. Gluten-free eaters don’t need to shy away from this soup as the barley can easily be replaced with brown or wild rice which is also rice in nutrients.

I quickly took to making it in my own kitchen, playing with ingredients. I learned that although I like barley in the soup, there has to be just the right ratio of ingredients, my preference heavy on the mushrooms and light on the barley, avoiding a grain overkill. I add other vegetables such as carrots and celery as a base, but I also like to include a bit of fresh chopped spinach for an extra superfood boost.

It has become a soup that I make often for my family and is one of my best sellers when preparing it for others.

What you will need:

  • Soup pot
  • Sautee pan (optional can also use the soup pot)
  • Strainer (s) to clean mushrooms and barley.
  • Chopping knives
  • Chopping board
  • Bowls for ingredients

Ingredients:

  • 30 ounces of mixed mushrooms:

        My preference: 10 ounces of cremini mushrooms, 10 ounces of button mushroom, 4 ounces portabella mushrooms, 4 ounces of shitake mushrooms

  • 1/4 – 1/2 half cup pearl barley (depending on personal preference of barley); for gluten-free users 1/2 cup of brown or wild rice
  • 1/2 half cup of diced carrots
  • 1/2 half cup of diced celery
  • 1 medium to large chopped onion
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic minced
  • 1 cup fresh chopped spinach
  • 1 cup of wine (red or white)
  • 8 cups of vegetable broth (meat eaters can use beef broth).
  • 1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaf leaves
  • 1 tablespoon of turmeric
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper

 Instructions:

  1. Heat pan/pot with with a tablespoon of olive oil.
  2. Add the chopped onions and garlic and mix on low heat.Onions & Garlic
  3. Mix in turmeric and thyme.
  4. Add salt and pepper to your liking.
  5. Caramelize the onions and garlic until a golden color. Then turn off.
  6. Wash and slice mushrooms.
  7. Rinse the barley in a strainer.
  8. If the onions & garlic are in the pan, transfer to soup pot.
  9. Mix the onions, garlic, carrots, celery and mushrooms together. First start with heat at off then turn to low to medium heat.
  10. Add broth, barley (or rice), wine and bay leaves to the mix.mushroom mix
  11. Leave on medium heat to low heat.
  12. Will typically take an hour to cook. I don’t like the barley too mushy, so I typically check the barley around 45 minutes later.
  13. Since the barley and rice absorb water, you may need to add more water.
  14. When you are ready to completely turn off the heat, remove the bay leaves, add the cup of spinach and stir together.Adding spinach
  15. Salt and pepper to taste.
  16. Serve with bread and a glass of wine.the soup.

The Story:

My blood and breath rely heavily on a lifeline vein connected to a source of polluted air, noise and movement of the city. When I feel lifeless I look its fumes for resuscitation. When I am overwhelmed I take refuge in the comfort of its womb and the chaotic commotion lulls me. No matter how dirty or worn out, like a security blanket, just having it there makes everything ok.

I am an urban junkie. So how did I ever become a farmer’s wife?

I am naturally drawn to metropolitan cities. I thrive on new places and faces. I revel in unfamiliar tongues and cultures. While most people avoid moving, preferring a constant familiar environment, I have always appreciated jumping from one spot to another. Frankly over the last twenty years of my life I have developed a codependent relationship with moving. With each move I look for whatever is lacking in my current surroundings. I have always maintained that I could live anywhere. Yet I have never clearly qualified where and what anywhere would be.  And I have learned that making sweeping statements, like boomerangs, will not only come back to me, but sometimes knock me straight over. This case is not an exception.  After years of effortless movement, I stumbled on move that was not only highly taxing but would take me somewhere beyond my comfort zone.

It was almost two years ago that my husband, who I call Goodman, abandoned the tumultuous finance industry. After a dozen-year stint he had become burned out with the roller coaster that is the world of stocks, bonds and options. For his own sanity, he wanted off the ride. Most people comb the newspaper and the Web for homes or property for sale, Goodman spent days and nights looking for a business. After months of searching, he stumbled on something green, an organic soil amendment company that produces and sells a range of products for growers of all kinds. When I met my husband, it became immediately clear that he is a quirky man, who consumes himself with a healthy lifestyle, reflected in the way he eats. And as the years have passed he has become increasingly obsessed with organic and non-GMO foods. What became extremely magnified, however, is his obsession with living off the grid and his dream to produce anything he would ever need to live. Like a beacon, this business beckoned him home.

Although the business could be run from anywhere, in buying it came the understanding that we would be relocating  to his parents’ farm in New Hope/ Solebury, Pennsylvania, where he would have the agricultural land and facilities to grow the business.

Although we had been out to visit his farm in New Hope many times before, the thought of living and raising a family there, never crossed my mind. It was a great place for a long-weekend, country-life getaway while visiting his parents in Philadelphia, but I was as happy to leave it as I was to arrive.

With a defeated and heavy heart I packed up, sold and/or donated all of our belongings.  Although I physically made the move, I emotionally and mentally refused to leave. I had come to depend on the circle of family, friends and the outspoken Persian community for support. New Hope felt like a world away. In all my years of watching Green Acres reruns, I never would have imagined that I could identify with Eva Gabor’s character. Alas, I was being dragged out of my beloved city living so that my husband could live out his farming fantasies. There I was a modern-day Persian Lisa Douglas, soon-to-be farmer’s wife. We had just six weeks to pack up our lives and move from California to Pennsylvania with two babes in tow.

Set in Bucks County, New Hope is a picturesque little town located on the Delaware River dividing Pennsylvania from New Jersey. I remember the first time Goodman brought me to New Hope while we were dating. I was instantly charmed by the cobble-stoned streets lined with quaint restaurants, roaring bars and kitschy shops. Stumbling on the town library, I fell in love with the delightful little structure that looks like an old church, complete with a steeple. It became clear why it is such a popular tourist destination. It has a certain small-town sweetness to it, making it a nice weekend getaway.  After moving to New Hope, however, I made greater discoveries  that became more appealing. It is a liberal and progressive town with a high level of culture, a bastion of artists – literary, visual and performing. I also developed an affinity for Lambertville which is just over the bridge in New Jersey. It’s less touristy and slightly more edgy reminding me a bit of neighborhoods I love in Brooklyn.

We live just a couple miles out of the town of New Hope on Honey Hollow Farm.

The first time we drove up the quarter-mile driveway  leading to the farm, I felt I had landed in a pastoral paradise. Built in the 1700s, Goodman’s grandparents bought the property back in fifties. His grandfather was among a handful of pioneers who lobbied to preserve the surrounding land and watershed, which is now a Historical National Landmark. Once they passed away, Goodman’s parents who I refer to as Father and Mother Blueblood transformed it into a bed and breakfast until a year before we moved in.

Walking around for the first time, I was captivated, as are most others, by the magnificence of the property. The scene of the stone house, barn, stables, and old creamery surrounded by the majestic sycamore trees was breathtaking. It is the kind of setting that artists dream of painting or photographing. There were stretches of corn fields. Just beyond the fields were the swelling pastures of green, where horses graze, that were sprinkled with a sea of yellow dandelions.

It is also home to the countless other creatures, like the dozens of deer that prance around. In fact, as a major animal activist, Mother Blueblood has rescued a whole slew of furry and feathered friends: horses; goats; pigs; a ram and sheep; a handful of gorgeously-plumed guinea hens to get rid of the ticks, about twenty chickens and two barn cats.

Pulling up to the farm years later, this time with the intention of living there, I was overcome with a sobering shot of reality. This idyllic setting didn’t care for itself. There weren’t little fairies who would feed the animals or extra farm hands to tend to the property. Mother and Father Blueblood had been handling the upkeep of the farm and animals for years. Once we moved in, they continued to make weekly trips out  to help, but the day-to-day chores of caring and cleaning up after the animals would fall to us.  No matter how oppressively hot or bone-chillingly cold, the animals need to be given fresh water and food daily.

Growing up I never had any pets. Being located in a secluded rural setting has taken some serious acclimation, without the animals. Having the animals has set the bar at a whole different level. My personal learning curve moved to a sharp and occasionally insurmountable incline.

It starts with the chickens who rule the roost. They are as free range as it comes, and strut around the property with a sense of entitlement. They will walk straight up to our front door or surround the car as we are trying to pull out of our driveway creating a racket. When the guinea hens chime in with their alarmist cries, it is absolute pandemonium. Here I am in my in-laws home, who are so mindful of our personal space, yet its the chickens who completely overstep all boundaries. They are as dirty as they are loud, leaving watery-brown poop everywhere. It is an odious chore of cleaning out the chicken coop several times a week. I recall one sweltering hot and humid summer day, dragging myself out to feed the animals and clean up the coop. Drenched in sweat and overcome by the gag-inducing scent of overheated animals and fecal matter, I was squatting to the ground, using all my elbow grease to scrape up the poop that had been caked onto the floor. In that moment, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry, wondering when in my previous life would I have ever been caught dead or alive cleaning up after farm animals.  I desperately wanted to click my heels and just be home. The reality was that this had become home.

As for the chickens, the only redeeming quality to having them around are the fresh farm eggs.  We do need to be wary of potentially fertilized eggs. As a farming neophyte, I have unknowingly boiled a few. When I cracked the shell, I discovered a solidified and bloodied baby chick’s embryo. I am sure my ear-piercing shrills of horror carried as far as California.

There are a handful of roosters who inherently fight. They engage in a violent pecking war where the feathers around their necks stand up, reminding me of the collars women wore in the Elizabethan Era. They fight until death or until one is balding and so badly hurt that they find a hiding spot in which to heal and live in banishment. In the dead of winter, when we have been stuck at home for days on end, I feel like a banished chicken, unable to roam where and with whom I want to.

In the first year here I drifted into a state of mental, emotional and physical paralysis, sometimes struggling to get out of bed.  Unlike any other move I experienced, I wasn’t able to adapt to my environment with my usual adventurous and open-minded spirit. It was all I could do to get through my days and weeks tending to the chores of the farm, helping Goodman with the business, as well as running a household. I had completely lost my footing. Before we moved, I had set out to start a soup business, but that all fell by the wayside. It was almost as if my life was the soup and I was an ingredient in it, that just didn’t belong. I felt an overwhelming experience of isolation. The winter months only exacerbate the situation. The cold was never a deterrent in moving back East, but suddenly the winter weather became intolerably bleak.

Yet as a mother, I could ask for nothing better than raising my children on a farm. Compared to life in Los Angeles, childhood on Honey Hollow Farm is magical. Just behind our house and down the grassy lane, lined with the sweetest smelling honeysuckle, are the woods. My daughter has labeled them the fairy woods. It is where the fairies come out of their stout mushroom-capped homes to dance and play under the towering canopies of the trees. Running around outdoors freely, they collect sticks, make forts, climb trees, tromp through the stream and scavenge through the woods looking for treasures.  I recall a playdate that my son had with one of his friends, who is a treasure seeker extraordinaire. Rummaging through the pole barn where the tractors are kept, they discovered a mummified corpse of groundhog and with such pride, as if they had struck gold, carted it out on a big shovel to show me. Of course I squealed and refused to go within 100 feet of it. They, on the other hand, marveled over it with keen fascination and even Lulu, my three year-old daughter, joined in without a trace of fear or disgust. Albeit far from my idea of Eden, they have found themselves in hog heaven. In these moments,  I remind myself of how much healthier it is for them to be experiencing nature and the love of animals in their upbringing, something completely foreign to me.

As the saying goes, you can take the girl out of the city, but never the city out of the girl. Footwear remains my weakness and I have bought a collection of wellington boots of various colors and styles since heels and ballet flats aren’t ideal for walking through the muck. I joke that the animals appreciate my sense of fashion and it gives them something to look forward to each day.

In all fairness, it would be dishonest not mention the respect that I have developed for some, but certainly not all, of the animals. I now have a fondness for pigs. Our much-loved pig Boris died just days after Hurricane Sandy hit.  I shocked myself with an uncharacteristic courage, nursing and spoon feeding him in the weeks before. When he finally died, I made the discovery on my own without the protection of Goodman or the kids. Instead of reacting with fear and disgust, I felt peace and relief that he was set free. Pigs, which I always think get a bad rap as filthy animals, are in my humble opinion endearing and intelligent.

The main place that has brought me a great deal of solace, especially through the colder months, is the kitchen. It is my personal quadrant where I experience the familiarity and consolation of what it means to be home. Admittedly,  as far as making soups, I stumbled on the perfect spot. There is no better setting for a bowl of pipping hot soup.  Living on a farm with so much land, Goodman has gone a little grow happy and is producing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. His chest never swells as intensely as when he brings in his own harvest of produce that he managed to germinate from seed, like a bonafide agronomist. Being able to put meals on the table and demonstrate to our kids that we can grow what we eat has been a priceless lesson. Even Kiko, our little food racist, has been dabbling in new things. Farm-to-table cooking has admittedly taken our eating experience not only a more delectable but integrated and organic level. It’s my little silver lining that glimmers at the end of the darker days.

We are in the midst of our second winter – a year and a half after our move. At times, I am still in disbelief. Of all people and places, I would have never connected myself with the life I am living. I no longer ask how I got here. I have come to understand that humor is the answer. It is the protective shield that guards me from feeling broken and displaced like I have never felt before. I always joked that I could live anywhere and it seems that anywhere has found me, leaving me to an unimaginable adventure.

When I think about what soup I identify with my time here at Honey Hollow Farm, I think of mushroom barley with spinach. It may not be the most intuitive choice. Others joke about a soup with chicken, ham, or even venison but in this case I can’t help but to think about soil and all the elements that go into creating it. It isn’t much different than good soup. As elements to a whole experience, mushroom barley soup with spinach says it all for me. It is about the transition from old to new, the soil in all of its wondrous ways and of course the green. The individual ingredients of soup blend together to create a complete living and eating experience rich flavor and texture. I didn’t always like that combination but recently, I have come to long for it.

Mushrooms are undoubtedly one of my top-three favorite vegetables. I can add mushrooms to just about anything: sauces, salads, eggs, pizza or just on its own caramelized with garlic and salt. I typically never tire of consuming fungi, the non-poisoning kind of course, and will eat it in just about all varieties. Although we haven’t mastered growing mushrooms, I am hopeful that one day we can harvest them ourselves. Ironically in this experience, I feel I identify with the way mushrooms grow in the dark, as I do the most growing in the darker months. When spring arrives, the inertia that consumes my spirit and my stride begins to let up and I begin to pop up. It’s no wonder the Persian New Year is the first day of spring, as it is truly a time of regeneration in more ways than one. It is when I discover the beauty that  this life transition has ushered in with it.

Incidentally, the key ingredient in Goodman’s products is mycorrhizae, a fungus – just like the mushrooms in my soup. They are as good in soil as they are in soup. The barley in the soup is like the changes we are making in our lives and on the farm. In farming cover crops are key to good soil. Barley is a kind of cover crop used to transition from one year’s harvest to the next. Not only has moving to the farm been a major rotation in our lives, we also happen to be literally rotating from a conventional farm to an organic one.

Persians can never get enough of eating greens sabsi and typically will eat most of it, raw or cooked. I like to add a little green to the soup as well. Mushroom barley soup does not typically call for greens. But again the soup is a little bit like me. Here I am a Persian woman in New Hope, not a typical ingredient, but one that adds a new dimension to the taste and texture.  The green is also relative to this transition we have made coming to Honey Hollow Farm. The greener life that we discovered and the greener pastures on which we aspire to grow our New Hope.

So my life as not-the-farmer’s wife continues, forcing me to shift my perspective and look at life through different colored-lenses. Albeit out of my noise-polluted comfort zone that is in the midst of the action, I have found a sweet and refreshing spot to raise my family and, for however long, call home.

Advertisements

Ash-e Anar (Pomegranate Soup)

Posted on

Ash-e Anar – Pomegranate Soup.

The Soup:

Every year with the arrival of spring, Persian celebrate the biggest holiday of the year – Nowruz (it literally means new day, but it refers to a new year). With tribute to the recent celebration of Nowruz, I am featuring a Persian soup. Typically for Nowruz, Persians feast on a soup called Ash-e Reshteh (Persian Noodle Soup). Eating the noodle soup in the new year is said to bring good fortune and success. Yet, I have a particular fondness for Ash-e Anar (Pomegranate Soup), as it is one of my favorite dishes of all time. Persian food is vibrantly colored and has many layers of flavor. The cuisine makes use of a lot of different spices, herbs and fruits (both dried and fresh) including dates, cherries, persimmons, raisins, quince, prunes and plums. The pomegranate is also used widely in Persian cuisine for different types dishes such as Khoresht Fesenjaan (Pomegranate and Walnut Stew).

Ash-e Anar brings together garlic, onion, yellow split peas, beets, pomegranates, pomegranate molasses, oil, herbs, spices and for those meat eaters ground meat (in my house we use ground turkey). It is not only hearty but very warming. The flavors are of sweetness and sour all in one bite.

All ingredients combined make for an extremely healthy soup. On its own, the innumerable offerings of the pomegranate include vitamins A, C, E and folic acid. It is best known for its benefits related to promoting heart health, dental care, and blood circulation. It also combats digestive problems, anemia, cancer, and diabetes.

Making this soup can be somewhat labor intensive, but like many other soups, the divine taste is worth all the effort.

What you will need:

  • A pot ( I prefer cast iron pots, but I find stainless steel works well too).
  • A strainer to clean rice and to clean the split peas.
  • A chopper or a very good vegetable chopping knife.
  • A glass bowl to mix ingredients for the meat.
  • Measuring cups.
  • Measuring spoons.

Ingredients:

  • 3 onions (2 chopped) (1 grated and left to the side)
  • 6 cloves of garlic ( depending on how much garlic you like – add more or less)
  • 1/2 cup yellow split peas
  • 2 cups chopped fresh parsley (or 1/2 cup dried)
  • 2 cups chopped fresh cilantro (or 1/2 cup dried)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mint (or 1/4 cup dried)
  • 2 cups chopped fresh chives/scallions/leeks (or 1/2 cup dried)
  • 1 cup chopped fresh spinach (or 1 cup frozen)
  • 2 medium beets, peeled and cubed (depending on how much you like beets – add more or less)
  • 1 lb. ground meat (beef, turkey, lamb)
  • 1 cup dry rice (white or brown)
  • 2/3 cups pomegranate paste diluted in 2 cups of water or 4 cups pomegranate juice
  • 2 tablespoons angelica seeds or powder (available at specialty stores)
  • 1 teaspoon Turmeric
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or honey (optional)
  • 10-12 cups water

Garnish:

  • Pomegranate seeds (if in season)
  • Fresh Chopped Herbs (cilantro, mint, chives).

Instructions:

  1. Saute the 3 chopped onions and garlic with olive oil, a teaspoon of turmeric, as well as salt and pepper( to your liking).
  2. Add 10 cups of water and yellow split peas. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let it simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes.
  3. Add all the chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint and chives), the cubed beets and continue to cook for 20 more minutes. Make sure heat is not too high. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking to the pot.
  4. In a separate bowl prepare your meat. Add the extra grated onion to the meat with some salt and pepper(to your liking). I usually add an extra clove or two of mincedgarlic as well.Mix the ingredients well and make chestnut-sizedmeatballs. Add the meatballs, one by oneto the pot.
  5. (It is important to check on the split peas before taking the step. Often if the peas haven’t cooked properly it is best to let them cook longer as adding rice deters the cooking of the split peas).  Add rice and cook for 30 minutes longer.
  6. Stir in the pomegranate paste, angelica powder and simmer over LOW HEAT for 30 minutes. (If you find that the taste is too sour, it is possible to ration in some sugar or honey- although I usually like the sour).
  7. Check the meatball and peas to make sure they are cooked. You can adjust the flavor of the seasoning. The taste should be sweet and sour.
  8. I usually add the fresh spinach last since I don’t like for spinach to overcook and lose it’s nutrients. You can also add frozen spinach. Spinach doesn’t need more than a couple minutes.
  9. Add water if the soup is too thick.
  10. When serving one can garnish the top with fresh pomegranate seeds and the chopped fresh herbs.

Soup Serving 6 -8

** Soup tastes equally as good if not better, a day later. If you are going to use pomegranate juice, it is probably less likely you will need to add extra water.

The Story:

The City of Angels is a place that I have always loved to hate.

It is the city of my birth and my childhood, yet I have always struggled to call it home. Of all the places I have lived, I always favored it the least. In reality, Los Angeles has never done me any real harm. Despite having repeatedly abandoned it for somewhere better, it has always warmly welcomed me back. Ultimately, it’s been nothing more than a backdrop, although not entirely idealistic, for my long-lasting challenge to bridge the gap between the country of my birth and the blood of my ancestry.

Like many Angelenos, I belong to one of the many sizable ethnic contingents inhabiting the Southland. Los Angeles is better known to me as Tehrangeles, a locale where an overwhelmingly large community of Persians landed after the Iranian Revolution. There are enclaves located throughout Southern California, yet they are headquartered in Beverly Hills/West Los Angeles. Despite a mass exodus of Persians from Iran, Iran will never be taken out of the people. They have taken the town by storm and have created a formidable subculture. Whether they need to shop, visit the doctor, take a driving test or become a US citizen, the Iranians in Los Angeles are able to do so in their native Farsi.

Like an episode of National Geographic, last spring I witnessed thousands of bee swarm a tree in front of our house. It was awe-inspiring. As they took over our front yard for the next few days,  I was partly fearful, as I am allergic to bee stings, but mostly amazed of how tightly they clung together and formed their community.

As marveled over bees, I couldn’t help to think of the Persians in Los Angeles. They are oddly reminiscent of a large colony of bees that have swarmed a tree and cluster tightly together to form their hive, generating a stir to the environment around them. Like the worker bees, some keep very busy buzzing about town and much like the drones, others do nothing at all. They also move about with their stingers in tow and aren’t opposed to sticking it to someone, even their own kind. Of course, at the center, is not one but multiple “queen bees”. The others defer to the queens and strive to emulate them. Unlike the swarm of bees, however, the Persians will not be relocating elsewhere anytime soon.

Life inside the hive was always somewhat unsettling for me. Although I looked like a “bee”, as well as shared the same history, traditions and experiences as the others, I certainly didn’t feel like a devoted member. I often felt as if I had been misplaced in the wrong habitat and dreamed of fleeing. To me, life within the community was clamorous and shambolic.

The local Persian grocery market – Elat Market – is a slice of the culture. When going into the store its important to have a pair of boxing gloves on hand, as it can be each man for himself. It can also be somewhat deceiving, at first glance, as a large portion of the shoppers are elderly. Yet, they are often the deadliest, especially the women, who take no prisoners. After claiming a shopping cart, one needs to weave through the store dodging others, who disregard anyone who wants to come in their direction. Shopping carts are usually lined up to one side the aisles because there is not enough room to navigate with them. People gather around the mounds of fruits and vegetables, picking through the produce where it’s possible for a quarrel or two to break out over something as simple as a cucumber. Then again, it is very much a social center, with Persian music blasting out of one corner of the store, and where shoppers will stop dead center of an already-cramped aisle to joyfully embrace and get into a lively conversation. It’s no place to go in a hurry, as Persians tend to move to the tick tock of their own clock. Their clock is usually set 2-3 hours behind Pacific Standard Time.

Whether it is in or out of the market, the concept of “boundaries”, both physical and emotional, is completely foreign. Persians do not have much of a filter. They will say what they think or feel with little regard for how it might affect or upset others. They have an opinion for everything and will give it, solicited or not. They are masters of giving guilt. It’s like crossing an emotional minefield with explosives that constantly detonate. Persians are typically an animated bunch, who are no strangers to demonstrating a range of intense emotions with very little volume control. It is also a community based on competition and appearances, giving the Jones’ a run for their money. Unforgivingly, at the center, is the rumor mill, that never seems to be out of order but always cranking out new gossip.

Fortunately,  for many years, my immediate family had the opportunity to live outside of the hive, in a suburban city just 25 miles east of Los Angeles, with little to no Persians. It was much more quiet and orderly.

It was like a breath of fresh air.

Living in the community, albeit welcoming, was like sitting next to a fantastically inviting swimming pool, where I was only able to dangle my feet in the water but not able to full submerge myself and swim. Growing up there I always longed to blend in and just be the girl next door — someone I could never ultimately be. My skin was always too dark, my hair too thick and curly, my parents’ accents too thick and our culture too different.

I would frequently be asked about my background. I usually say Persian, although it’s common for people use Persian and Iranian interchangeably. A recurrent reply to telling someone I am Persian was, “oh Persia, I would love to visit that country one day”. While talking to others about Iran, for their lack of better knowledge of the culture or other things to discuss, conversation would inevitably steer towards the Iranian Revolution, the oppression of women and Anti-Americanism. In all my frustration, I began to reject my heritage rather than embrace and illuminate it, for what it is.

My sense of orientation improved immensely when I entered high school, as I was surrounded by many others who were also trying to level the differences between their ethnic cultures and American upbringing. Yet, I was never able to fully gain my balance and my self-prescribed antidote was to leave for college. It was with great haste and resolution that I boarded a plane headed cross country and vowed never to come back.

Ironically, the further I strayed, the greater my appreciation for the Persian culture grew.  After a lengthy absence, I was beckoned back by the City of Angels and unexpectedly started my family here, near the hive. I would have never predicted such a return.  Gradually I have made peace with my experiences and surroundings.

I now do my best to illustrate, to my children, the beauty of being Persian.

Much like my beloved Ash-e Anar, the culture is full of color, texture and dynamic flavors. It has a vibrant aesthetic and is fascinating to experience. It is among the richest of ethnicities: the history, the literature, the philosophers, the food, the architecture, the antiques, and of course the people.

The people are undeniably fiery. They are kaleidoscopic, covering all the colors of the rainbow, including the hues in between. They love and live to gather together for any occasion or for none at all. They constantly celebrate life: eating, dancing, socializing, laughing, story telling, and building families. They are incredibly hospitable and will never let anyone leave their homes on an empty belly. They are impassioned in all they do, not the least of which is how they love. They unabashedly wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are generous with their devotion, perhaps, to a fault. In the name of love, they often project their own hopes and wishes onto others. They are prepared to defend that which they hold dear and do so fiercely. They don’t abandon those they truly care for, especially in real moments of need. They will go to any and all lengths to help with such dedication, forgoing their own needs. It is when they are at their best and demonstrate such overwhelming magnificence as a solid phalanx.

The bevy of boisterous bees – they are always there, with or without an invitation, typically late, usually with food and an earful of opinions to give, but never without their overflowing hearts.

It is a sweet reminder of what it means to be home, no matter where I am.

Ash-e Aroosi (Wedding Soup)

Growing up I never had any grand illusions about marriage or how I would become a mother, I just knew that I wanted children. I never was much of a girly girl. By that I mean, I didn’t spend countless hours of my youth acting out fantasies, with Barbie dolls, of being swept away by a prince on a white horse (or in a red Corvette–which may have been a Ken doll accessory) and then riding off into the sunset to have an extravagant wedding and, soon after, babies. Of course, much like the childhood tune “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage”, were ingrained the presumptions of my cultural heritage. Persians place a great deal of importance on marriage and family. From an early age, young girls are reared for one of their most important roles, to be a wife and a mother.  The wedding day is a day of supreme importance not only for the bride and the groom, but more importantly, for the parents to be able to share their ultimate pride with family members and friends. Most women might envision, for years in advance, every detail of their wedding day. I, on the other hand, have always recoiled from the very thought. I always imagined adopting my children, maybe from India or even Iran, with or without a husband.  Not that I didn’t want to marry, but being single would not deter me from becoming a mother. My aspirations may have been partly revolt against the customs of my cultural background or partly a means to manage my own expectations of how life might unfold. Of course each time I shared this with my parents, they would cringe, as it flew in the face of all their hopes for me. Adopting with or without a husband? No wedding? That I wanted to adopt a child without a husband, baffled them. That I didn’t want to have a wedding which could include approximately three to five hundred of their guests, insulted them.

In hindsight, how I stumbled upon marriage should not have been shocking, as a person who was determined to defy the formalities of her heritage. Yet, speaking truthfully, my self-portrayal of a recalcitrant character is nothing more than my own reverie.  My bark has always been louder than my bite. Although I like to march to the beat of my own drum, I have no intrinsic ability to upset any apple carts while doing so.

I met my “Golden Boy” serendipitously when I moved back to Los Angeles. We hit the ground running. For various reasons, months later we transitioned into a nebulous and very intolerable state of “friendship”. I was in love with him and couldn’t accept just being friends. Crestfallen, I walked away. After having sorted through his own unresolved issues, he came back and we gradually made our way to a steadier ground.

While on a holiday trip to meet my Golden Boy’s family, for the first time, I realized that something was amiss with my otherwise like-clockwork cycle. Yet, I dismissed any implications until the nausea was overwhelmingly undeniable. My hands were shaking and a thick fog settled over my eyes as I took the pregnancy test. It wasn’t even a minute later that the plus sign showed up. There had to be some mistake.

I might also interject, as a somewhat crucial side note, that four years earlier he was diagnosed with cancer. He had gone through all sorts of treatments, as well as surgery. After the cancer was cleared, he was tested and a few of his doctors concurred that it was improbable that he could have children naturally. As a person who had always wanted children, he became disillusioned by the prognosis and thus convinced himself he wasn’t destined to become a father. Regardless, my love for him was unwavering.  Indeed there were moments when I grappled with an ominous concern over our blind faith in the doctors’ pronouncements. He would humorously try to assuage my worries by recreating the nativity scene with me as the head-veiled Virgin Mother with Child and he as the haloed Saint Joseph.  Incidentally, he grossly underestimated fate as we had seemingly created our own blessed christmas phenomenon.

Completely bewildered, I found myself not only knocked up, but knocked off my feet. His denial was greater and more dramatic. He questioned if I had any other relations to confess to. I only had two words for him – “immaculate conception”. If anyone should have felt bamboozled, it was me.

My family quickly entered my mind. The community would certainly find this scandalous. I had nightmare visions of myself shopping at Elat Market, a local Persian grocery store, as an shameful outcast with a scarlet letter emblazoned on my belly. My thoughts turned to his family. They are the epitome of well-mannered and reserved East Coasters. I also thought back to our whimsical romance which, without warning, had transformed into a life-altering gravitas of decision-making, commitments,  and sacrifices for the future.

In the end we took the plunge.  Eloped actually.  On a majestic bluff.  In Big Sur.  Yes, with almost no planning, I had my own version of the classic Barbie fantasy. Yet, we still had to reveal our good news to our assorted family members, who had no notion of what we had done or the circumstances that precipitated it.

My mother initially elated, drifted into her own state of denial for a month afterwards. My father had flown in to meet my Golden Boy and I eased into the news. The first night was the meet and greet and the following day, while we walked by the beach, we told him the rest. He turned dead silent. Although he seemingly liked my Golden Boy, this was a tough pill to swallow. Nevertheless, my family rejoiced for our union and unborn child. To stave off the gossip, that would spread like wildfire, I was to keep my pregnancy quiet, as it is unbecoming of a nice Persian girl to find herself knocked up in such a fashion. So according them, I was 3 months pregnant when really I was really 6. In jest, my sister-in-law got us a cake that read shotgun wedding. I was completely amused but absolutely oblivious to its exact implications. One would think that I am fresh-off-the-boat, rather than a born and raised Persian American, based on the number of commonly used expressions that I don’t know the meanings of. Admittedly, I can be slightly clueless. So when sending out a mass email to family and friends with photos, I found no harm in including a photo of the cake.  My brother, who knew I was trying to keep my pregnancy under wraps, privately replied to my mass email with a single link to Wikapedia’s definition of shotgun wedding. Irony had struck again, as I wasn’t intentionally trying to foil my parents’ plans.

Some would comment on how great it was getting married and having a baby in one fell swoop. Honestly, although it was all so quick, it wasn’t always easy. The reality of our situation was very sobering at times. We found ourselves in fast forward mode of finding a new home, mentally and physically preparing for a baby, as well as acclimating to life as newlyweds. I found myself saying “my husband” only to turn around and check that it wasn’t coming out of someone else’s mouth.

It was with great rapture, however, that we welcomed our son Kiko into the world.  He is a reminder that, even at the most unexpected of times, magic will lead the way.

Coincidentally, this month we celebrate our 5th year wedding anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, I have made a special soup that I call Ash-e Aroosi (wedding soup). Actually, Persians do not have a traditional wedding soup, there are other dishes such as shirin polo (sweet rice) that are typically served. I have taken the liberty of making a soup that is a hybrid of a Persian recipe, Ash-e Saak (Spinach Soup) and Italian Wedding Soup. Incidentally,  the origin of Italian Wedding Soup has nothing to do with the ritual of marriage but everything to do with the soup’s ingredients. Minestra Mariata aka “Married Soup” combines together a meat-based broth with a variety of vegetables. The ingredients, as it is said, marry well together. Ash-e Aroosi, is also made with a poultry broth and is chock full of green vegetables.

This soup is not only a hearty and warming winter soup, but offers protein, fiber,  as well as a whole host of nutritional value from the leafy greens  – spinach and swiss chard. Although the spinach is called for in the original recipe, I also add swiss chard to bolster the sustenance of the soup. Both of these vegetables top the charts in their richness of nutrients including: vitamins A, C & K, magnesium and iron, just to name a few. Their benefits boast anti-oxidants, contain compounds that are known to fight inflammation as well as a host of anti-carcinogenic properties.

Turns out my Golden Boy does not eat red meat nor does he eat pork, so I typically prepare the soup with ground turkey meat, although one could also use ground chicken or beef.  After marinating the meat with onion, garlic, salt, peppers as well as spices and herbs such as turmeric and mint, I make chestnut-sized meatballs which I allow to simmer in the broth. I add caramelized onions and garlic to the soup, as well, to enhance the flavor of the broth. Typically the recipe calls for rice flour, which is a gluten-free way of making the soup thicker, but I prefer to add a 1/2 cup of brown rice which I finds not only helps to thicken it, but also makes the soup into more of a meal. Typically the Persian recipe calls for eggs to be added to the soup, enhancing the flavor and the texture of the soup, but personally I prefer it without. I add the spinach and swiss chard towards the end in order not to over cook them and retain as much of their nutrients. Something that Persians, namely myself, have a strong penchant for is a tangy or sour flavor. There are very few soups that I don’t add lemon or lime juice to. This soup is not one of them. As far as I am concerned, it is one of the best ingredients, therefore, it is typically the last ingredient I add.

With a soup bowl in hand, I make a toast to my Golden Boy, for our distinctive ingredients of diverse heritages and the unexpected yet wondrously rich way we have created our own “married soup”.

La Cubana

Birthdays – the quintessence of a love-hate relationship.

We spend the earlier years of our lives anticipating them with such keen enthusiasm, if not impatience, only to reach a certain age when we recoil from the very thought of them and possibly “forget” they are drawing near. In fact, over the past few years I have literally lost count of how many annual laps I’ve taken. It takes a few minutes, if not longer, to do the subtraction in my head and then to confirm with someone else that I haven’t made a mistake.  I watch how Kiko gleefully counts the months, weeks, days until he will be a year older. Only days after his 4th birthday, he set his sights towards turning 5, as if time couldn’t fly fast enough. His endearing enthusiasm triggers tears of sorrow through my laughter, as motherhood has taken the fast forward mode I’ve been living in and kicked it up to double speed.

I can’t remember the last time when my birthday did not induce a state of panic, if not a mild case of anaphylactic shock complete with dizziness, labored breathing and low blood pressure.  This annual psychosomatic attack was notably pronounced during the months before my 30th birthday. The dread intensified as I hurtled towards the completion of another decade. I swelled with feelings of disgrace as I examined my life achievements and choices.  What did I really have to show for myself? Where was I headed in life, if anywhere?  I laid there, ailing, as self-criticism prepared to swallow me whole. Immediately, I sought refuge with my greatest consolation in life — escape, preferably with a passport in hand.

Needless to say, it was with fate that I stumbled on an invitation to attend an International Education conference in Cuba – a destination which had been on my top 3 list for years. The stars were fortuitously aligned as I was granted permission to make the trip with my father, who would be visiting as a medical doctor. Flying directly from Florida to Havana, there would be no need for a below-the-radar/illicit stop over in Mexico or Canada where we would beg or even bribe officials not to stamp our passports.  It was a dream realized just weeks before my birthday. With a reanimated spirit, I turned my back to the looming number 30 and boarded the plane to Cuba.

In Havana, I felt as if I had landed on a run-down movie set that lit up with the most vibrant of colors …the band of men, who have honed their auto-mechanics skills, repairing the sea-green Chevy Pick-up right in the middle of town; the constant flow of music from all corners and alley ways, where, when night fell, the Cuban people could always be found dancing with infectiously carefree passion; stained glass windows; shrines of Che Guevara on every wall; propaganda of the revolution; El Malecón;  trips to the local elementary schools, where we were met by the wide smiles of pupils, whose eagerness to chat was heart-warming; and, of course, the splendid mojitos made with fresh sugarcane. We also traveled by taxi a couple hours west, where we spent some days in the province of Pinar del Río -a lushly green landscape of tobacco fields and mountain ranges. The rural life was a stark contrast to that of the city, but equally intriguing – thatch-roofed houses with oxen and cows standing out front, captivating expressions on fascinating faces bronzed by the sun, horse-drawn carts, sugarcane and baseball fields side by side, and breadlines. Even in the countryside setting, the villagers, in classic Cuban style, gathered after sunset to dance into the dawn.

Not the least of Cuba’s draw would be the fetching, blue-eyed and staunch Communist who became a friend and my tour guide in Havana. Sitting on the back of his motorbike my last night there, he drove me through the streets as I absorbed the energy of the enchanting city in all its hauntingly tainted beauty. It was all so sobering and uplifting in one breath. Any angst I harbored for my age or nebulous life accomplishments drifted out into the Straights of Florida, as la vida cubana surrounded me with a good dose of perspective.

Within days of my return from Cuba, I was able to usher in my 4th decade with a renewed sense of joie de vivre and gratitude.

Yet, for all the appreciation of the culture, personally the Cuban cuisine left something to be desired. I had higher expectations since one of my favorite go-to eateries in NYC was Café Habana as well as Versailles Restaurant in Los Angeles. Café Habana is a Cuban/Mexican diner known for its delicious sandwiches, among other dishes, made with tender and juicy meats that are well-seasoned and spiced to perfection. They are well complimented by the side dishes, that sublimely blend together smooth, spicy and tangy flavors to create a delectable feast. As for Versailles in LA, they have the most mouth-watering plate of arroz con pollo that I have tried in town, the chicken is prepared with the perfect combination of citrus and garlic flavors. Perhaps we missed all the right spots in Cuba, but I found very little to rave about in the epicurean vein. Normally, one of my greatest pleasures, when traveling, is eating. But while I was there, I ate out of necessity. In many cases the foods in the restaurants were overpriced and lacking in flavor. I was especially excited to try out some of the paladares (family-run restaurants out of their own homes) that serve up rustic Cuban cooking. Yet, I remained mostly unimpressed, save for the fresh and divinely flavorful tropical fruit that I lived on daily: mango, pineapple, guava and papaya (which normally I am not an avid fan of, but in Cuba I couldn’t get enough of). Another noteworthy mention was a scrumptious plate of arroz con pollo accompanied with plantains and a delightful bowl of sopa de frijoles negros (black bean soup) at a paladar we stumbled on, down one of the small streets in Havana. At that moment, I was reminded of my appreciation for Cuban cooking, specifically for one of my favorite bowls of soup.

    La Cubana – Black Bean Soup

The sacred black bean is said to have been domesticated over 7,000 years ago in Central and South America, becoming a staple of the Latin cultures. Today the black bean is ubiquitous, crediting the Spanish discoverers who returned from their travels to the New World and exchanged them in their international trades.

The black bean – a legume – is reverent in the nutrition it provides the body, yet it can play a formidable role in modern diets and nutritional guidelines.  For those vegetarians, it creates a complete protein when combined with rice. In addition, it offers folate and fiber (known for reducing cholesterol), promotes heart health, acts as a powerful antioxidant and has been suggested to protect against cancer.

One of the many beauties of black bean soup is its suitability for almost any day of the year, be it in the dead of winter or in the sweltering heat of summer . Fortunately, for black bean lovers – it is easily accessible all year long.  Moreover it is a meal in and of itself.

My preferred ingredients to include in the soup are: homemade veggie broth, black beans which I have soaked overnight, caramelized onions and garlic, peppers (both bell and jalapeno, although serrano peppers work well too), diced tomatoes, a splash of red wine, lime juice, as well as a mix of herbs such as cilantro and spices like cumin. I like to let this soup cook slowly so that all the flavors really meld together. The soup has a vibrant taste and texture with a bit of a punch thanks to the fresh jalapeno peppers. There are plenty of additions that can top off your pipping hot dish- sliced avocados; shredded cheese or sour cream – although a dollop of yogurt is a perfectly delicious as well as less caloric substitute; more lime juice; a handful of fresh cilantro and salsa – possibly a mango or papaya salsa, which for me will always bring to mind the tropical flavors and colors of Cuba in all of its evocative splendor.