Top chefs famously test new applicants by asking them to cook an egg. Only a cook who can execute a perfectly prepared egg is hired. When a dish is so simple it has to be perfect.
Another simple dish is rice, the staple of over half the world’s population. Seemingly easy to prepare, like the egg, it is also easy to mess up. The rice dish called tahdig is a ubiquitous Persian specialty, and every Persian cook has a recipe in her/his repertoire. With such simple ingredients, it’s all in the execution. The word “tahdig” means “bottom of the pot” and refers to pan-fried Persian rice with a golden crust on the outside and a fluffy, buttery texture on the inside. Cooks use a tightly covered pan, which steam-cooks the rice as the outside gets crispy. To serve, it’s turned upside down out of the pan onto a platter, with the crispy crust holding the dish together.
“Rice dishes figure prominently in Persian dinner parties,” writes Angela Cohan in her new cookbook, “Persian Delicacies: Jewish Foods for Special Occasions” (Clyde Custom Publishing, $35), which features over 100 recipes from her native homeland, plus traditions of her Persian Jewish heritage. “My mother serves rice even when she prepares a Thanksgiving feast! I’ll never forget when a guest said in a horrified voice, ‘Oh no, the rice is burnt!’ I had to explain that tahdig is a Persian delicacy and that we overcook the bottom of the rice on purpose to create a crunchy and delicious treat. It soon became her favorite too.”
Brown basmati rice may be substituted, said Cohan, by boiling it 5 to 10 minutes longer before draining. “My grandmothers soaked the rice in water overnight, but with the quality of today’s rice, it’s no longer necessary,” she notes. “However, I still soak the rice in salted water for a few hours prior to cooking in order to soften and season it and to remove residues. The trick to a crispy tahdig is to add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water, oil, and turmeric powder to the bottom of your rice pot before adding the parboiled rice back into the pot. Some cooks serve potato tahdig as well. My mother created new recipes with sweet potato when we moved to the United States and were exposed to different root vegetables native to California.”
What could be more iconic among Ashkenazim than matzo ball soup? You boil chicken with a bunch of vegetables – what could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently. When I was gathering stories for my cookbook, “Cooking Jewish,” Nancy Gimpel Silberman, a cousin of a cousin, wrote: “My mother was a spectacular cook, and the highlight of our Seder was her incredible golden chicken soup with matzo balls that were lighter than air. One year when my brother and I were quite young, we were invited to have Seder with friends. The ceremony seemed to go on forever, and we were starved. When the chicken soup was finally served, to us it looked like water. When we got home my mother said, ‘It looked like the chicken ran through the soup!’”
Every one of my cousins gave me their mother’s chicken soup recipe for the cookbook and claimed it was the best. My mother’s made the final cut, because her recipe really is the best. How she would laugh at chicken soup recipes from famous cookbook authors calling for two carrots and a stalk of celery. My mother used two pounds of carrots in that soup, plus a whole produce market’s worth of other vegetables. No wonder we think of it as elixir of the gods!
I hoard the leftovers to use on special occasions in recipes calling for chicken stock (the real secret of my stuffing and gravy). You see, my mother adhered to the “if some is good, more is better” school of cooking. While this theory usually spells disaster in the kitchen (notably in her meat loaf!), it is the method of choice in making chicken soup. And this is one case where the method is as important as the ingredients.
Some immutable rules to go by: You must use kosher chickens. The jury is still out on why they taste so much better. Is it the method of killing? The freshness? The salting? The blessing? Who knows, but there really is a difference. (Note: Kosher chickens are salted, so watch that shaker!) And pack it in! Use as much chicken and vegetables as you can pack into your pot, or conversely, use as little water as possible to give the most intense flavor. Most recipes will tell you to add water to cover. Do not do this! Do you want elixir of the gods or weak tea? As the soup cooks, the vegetables will shrink and will be covered soon enough. Adding water up to two-thirds is a good rule. Resist the temptation to get a little more soup by adding a little more water. Using fresh dill and lots of it is one of her secrets. After cooking, reserve some of the carrots to be sliced into the soup later, then squeeze the remaining vegetables well through a strainer – her other secret – to retain all the flavors. (Lately I’ve been cooking the vegetables in the broth an hour longer after removing the chicken for even more flavor and easier straining.)
Unsolicited testimonial: After “Cooking Jewish” was published, I found this message on my answering machine from my friend, Diane Weiss, in New Jersey: “Judy? I just made your mother’s chicken soup, and my whole family is standing around the pot slurping with a straw!”
Persian Rice and Tahdig (Crispy Rice)
Grains of rice are said to symbolize money in Persian culture.
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups plus 2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons avocado oil
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 small potato, sliced in 1-inch rounds (optional,
for potato tahdig)
1 teaspoon saffron garnish (recipe follows)
1. In large pot (preferably one with a hole on the cover for steam to escape) bring 4 cups water to a boil. Add rice and salt and boil in uncovered pot until rice has become al dente (not too soft, about 10 to 15 minutes). Drain rice in colander.
2. Pour oil, 2 tablespoons water and turmeric on bottom of the same pot. Place sliced potatoes on bottom of pot for (optional) potato tahdig or omit potato for rice tahdig. Add drained rice with spatula. Cover pot with dishtowel, wrapping towel over lid (to absorb extra steam). Cook 20 minutes on medium-low heat.
Saffron Garnish (Method 1)
1 teaspoon saffron strands
5 or 6 ice cubes
Pour saffron into small cup or bowl. Add ice cubes and set aside 10 minutes or until ice has completely melted.
1 teaspoon saffron strands
½ cup hot water
Place saffron strands in mortar, and with pestle grind strands until they form a powder. Add hot water and set aside at least 10 minutes.
Source: “Persian Delicacies” by Angela Cohan
Lillian Bart’s Jewish Penicillin (Chicken Soup)
While my mother’s exact ingredients would vary as the mood hit her, here is her recipe from a typical day. Serve the soup with matzo balls and lokshen (thin noodles), or on Passover with mandlen (soup nuts).
2 kosher chickens (about 4 pounds each) with giblets (no liver), quartered2 pounds carrots (yes, 2 pounds, not 2 carrots)
2 large onions, cut in half
5 large ribs celery with leaves, cut in half
2 large parsnips
1 small sweet potato (6 ounces), cut in half
1 turnip (6 ounces), cut in half
1 rutabaga (6 ounces), cut in half
1 small celery root, cut in half (optional)
½ large green bell pepper, stemmed and seeded
½ large yellow pepper, stemmed and seeded
2 large bunches dill, coarsely chopped
½ bunch curly-leaf parsley
3 cloves garlic
Kosher (coarse) salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste, if necessary
Chopped dill, for serving (optional)
1. Place chicken in 16-quart stockpot and add water to cover. Bring just to boiling point. Then reduce heat to a simmer and skim off foam that rises to the top. Add all the vegetables and garlic (except the optional chopped dill) and only enough water to come within about two-thirds of height of vegetables in pot. Simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 1½ hours.
2. Remove chicken and about half the carrots from pot, and set them aside. Taste and add salt and pepper only if necessary.
3. Strain soup through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot or container, pressing on vegetables to extract all the flavor. Scrape underside of strainer with a rubber spatula and add pulp to soup. Discard fibrous vegetable membranes that remain in strainer. If you’re fussy about clarity (and we’re not), you can strain it again through a fine tea strainer, but there goes some of the flavor. Cover soup and refrigerate overnight.
4. When ready to serve, scoop congealed fat off surface and discard it. Reheat, adding more dill, if desired. Because soup contains strained vegetable essence, stir soup before filling each bowl. Slice reserved carrots, add to soup, and serve with extra chopped dill, if desired.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” by Judy Bart Kancigor
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.