5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (2024)

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Wednesday Night Persian—part of Epi's Wednesday Nights in America series—starts with this curated list of weeknight recipes, and continues with a visit to a home kitchen, where we witness Iranian-American cooking in action.

“I love to cook,” says Najmieh Batmanglij as we settle into a conversation about her favorite weeknight recipes. She hardly had to tell me. Batmanglij is the author of 10 cookbooks on Persian food, wine, and culture; an instructor of popular cooking classes in Washington, DC; a former guest chef for the Persian New Year feast at the White House; and in general is what the Washington Post called The Grande Dame of Iranian Cooking. But, if her mother had had her way, all that might not have happened.

"My mother was an excellent cook and herbalist, but she discouraged me to cook," Batmanglij told me during a recent phone call. "She didn't go to university and wanted me and all my sisters to focus on our education first." After Batmanglij had earned a master's degree and had published her first cookbook (which she did while living in the south of France after fleeing the 1979 Iranian Revolution), she said that when people asked what she did for work, she’d reply that she was a cook. In response, her mother would scold her, instructing: "Don't say you're a cook, say you're a writer!"

Batmanglij in her home, with tahdig.

Photo courtesy of Mage Publishers

Still, Batmanglij says she "wanted to be a cook more than anything.” Cooking Persian recipes, she believes, was the surest way to stay connected to her roots. But she understands her mother’s worries. "In Iranian tradition, and even up to 30 years ago here, chefs didn't have much reputation. Now, everyone wants to be a cook."

In 1983, a pregnant Batmanglij immigrated to America with her husband, Mohammad, and their first-born son, Zal (who—no big deal—would grow up to be a filmmaker and co-creator of the Netflix series The OA; their younger son, Rostam, is a musician and record producer who's worked with the likes of Vampire Weekend and Carly Rae Jepsen). When she reached out to publishers to gauge their interest in her first English language cookbook, Food of Life, she had trouble finding support. This was shortly after the Iran Hostage Crisis; she says publishers didn't think American audiences were ready for a book on Iranian food. To move things forward, the Batmanglijs decided to start their own publishing house.

As praise for Food of Life began to flood in from both the Iranian-American community and the food community at large, Batmanglij knew they were right where they needed to be. Her books cover a wide scope of Iranian cooking, from foods of the ancient Persians stretching back as far as 1000 BCE, to modern favorites, including regional dishes from all over the country. She’s written a book on wine at the Persian table, one about vegetarian cooking along the historic Silk Road trade route, and more.

In 2015, Batmanglij published Joon, which focuses on "authentically flavored Persian recipes that can be prepared in under an hour." It’s in this book that several of the recipes we discussed below can be found. All but one of these five dishes is easily made from start to finish on a weeknight. And the outlier, meatballs—which I want to eat, but not prepare, on a Wednesday—is prime for weekend batch cooking. They are as vibrant and varied as Iran itself, and Batmanglij would happily cook any of them any night of the week.

1. Celery Khoresh

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

"Traditional celery khoresh [that is, Persian celery stew] is made with lamb shank, but I don't eat red meat," says Batmanglij. So while she'll often make this quick, herby braise with chicken, she developed a vegetarian version to cook whenever her sons are home (Zal has been vegan since about 2008). The fragrant flavorings she uses—saffron, parsley, and mint—are all the ones her mother reached for when making this dish, though she says that “in different regions, they put in other spices or herbs.” The souring agent changes, too: "Near the Caspian they put verjus, in the center they use dried lime, on the Persian Gulf they use tamarind. But the basic stew is meat, celery, and herbs, sautéed together."

In this version, Batmanglij replaces the meat with cremini mushrooms, which grounds the flavor. She also notes that it's especially good to make with fresh, young celery "when the strings aren't too tough." For more mature stalks of celery, she'll often peel the outer edge to remove those strings. Another #NajmiehNote: don't waste the stems of tender herbs by using just the leaf; both can go into the braise to contribute their flavor to the mix.

5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (1)

Persian Celery Stew With Mushrooms (Khoresh-e Karafs)

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2. Spicy Sweet-and-Sour Salmon With Dates

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Erika Joyce

"By the Persian Gulf, they use dates in everything," says Batmanglij. "They're really special there." She’s not just talking about whole dates—you’ll also find date molasses (also known as date honey), date juice, and date paste by the Gulf, each with its own signature uses.

This recipe makes use of both syrupy date molasses and pitted, sliced dates to give the dish a rounded sweetness. There's also a dash of sourness from apple cider vinegar, and heat from cayenne. Batmanglij likes to serve this salmon with kateh, which she calls "casual Persian rice." (Kateh takes much less time to prepare than golden-crusted tahdig, but it still develops a lightly crusted bottom.) Batmanglij also loves to serve this dish with quick cucumber pickles for a bit of sour-on-sour action, and recommends showering the finished dish with whatever tender herbs you have on hand.

5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (2)

Qaliyeh-e Khorma (Spicy Sweet-and-Sour Salmon With Dates)

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3. Pomegranate and Pistachio Meatballs

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

Batmanglij says this is one of her very favorite recipes, not least because pomegranate is one of her very favorite flavors (she recommends squeezing the juice fresh when the fruit’s in season). These meatballs are quite versatile—and the recipe makes a big batch to boot. Ground pistachios add heft and flavor to the ground turkey used here, but if you’re not a fan of turkey, you can make this recipe with ground lamb, or fish fillets that have been chopped to a chunky paste in your food processor.

The glaze contains both pomegranate molasses (Batmanglij's favorite brand is Sadaf) and grape molasses (which you may find labeled saba, as it's called in Italy). The pomegranate molasses is vibrant, tart, and bright, while the grape molasses has a darker, sweeter flavor that rounds out the tangy sauce. Toss the meatballs and sauce with rice noodles one night, and pile the leftovers into lavash with a bit of yogurt, herbs, and lettuce the next.

5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (3)

Pistachio and Pomegranate Meatballs (Kufteh-Ye Pesteh-o Anar)

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4. Fava and Dill Polow

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Erika Joyce

"In March, you have to have greens!" Batmanglij exclaimed as we were discussing this dish of herbed rice and beans, which is loaded with fresh dill and sweet sautéed leeks. She says it’s a traditional side dish for Nowruz (the Persian new year, a celebration of spring renewal), and she even made a version of it when she appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, complete with a tahdig (the golden, crispy crust I mentioned above).

But this quicker version is ideal for weeknight cooking—especially if you look for frozen favas that have already been freed from their pods and interior husks. The rice and beans are steamed with a host of aromatics: a cinnamon stick, cardamom, rose water, turmeric, and garlic, all of which make for a wonderfully fragrant kitchen while you're waiting for dinner to be ready.

Since it's vegetarian, Batmanglij makes it when her boys are home "with a grilled chicken kebab on the side" for herself. She also loves to serve it with a fried egg and a yogurt sauce made with Persian shallots. Like truffles, she says, these shallots are hunted and dug out of the ground by expert foragers. They’re found in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains that run the length of Iran’s western border. She says their flavor is something like "elephant garlic mixed with regular shallots." They're available dried at Iranian markets and on Amazon, and must be soaked for at least three hours (and up to 24) before mincing and stirring into the dip.

5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (4)

Persian Rice With Fava Beans and Dill (Baqala Polow)

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5. Sumac-Baked Bass With Saffron Quinoa

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

"Before the 17th century, Iranians did not eat rice," Batmanglij tells me. "Instead, they would spoon khoresh over naan. Now, Iranians eat rice with everything." Sometimes, though, she likes to switch things up by making quinoa instead. Quinoa has no history in Iran—it was originally cultivated by pre-Columbian civilizations in what is now Peru and Bolivia—but Batmanglij often treats quinoa just the way she would rice, and calls it "a wonderful addition to Persian cooking."

In this recipe, she steams the quinoa with saffron, which she prefers to buy as threads and grind herself with a mortar and pestle, giving the nutty quinoa an earthy-sweet flavor.

Atop the quinoa rests a fillet of white fish that's been rubbed in a mix of sumac, turmeric, salt, and pepper and baked. To top the dish, Batmanglij suggests tossing together a fragrant mix of basil, cilantro, and mint with walnuts and lime juice and sprinkling it over the whole thing. The tart, nutty, fresh finish complements the bright, earthy spice mix and makes the dish (which takes just about 30 minutes to prepare) seem like something you spent days thinking about—which, not for nothing, is something you will do after you’ve eaten it.

5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (5)

Sumac Baked Fish With Saffron Quinoa

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5 Persian Recipes From Najmieh Batmanglij (2024)
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