A Little Word on Nowruz

If you missed my recent article on Travel + Leisure’s blog, Carry On, announcing the under-appreciated Persian New Year, you may not have made it to Bread and Salt Hospitality’s Nowruz Dinner and Book Signing last Sunday.

That, of course, was where I could be found, and why my Sunday night post didn’t appear. I was busy working my way through a three course meal, not including the various amuse bouches and accompaniments that appeared throughout the evening.

The 13-day-long celebration of Spring, of our hopes for the new year, and of fresh beginnings has ended. But the positive sentiment lingers like the leftover Ash-e Reshteh I have frozen in freezer.

My old friend, Chef Josh Lewin from Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro, has teamed up with Katrina Jazayeri, of Belly Wine Bar, to develop geographic culinary experiences and events. These lavish affairs are designed to introduce foreign or unfamiliar foods and customs in a comforting and unique way. Their Texas BBQ event, for example, brought the bold flavor of Austin to the quintessential cobbled streets of Boston. And the evenings go beyond what’s on the table – music, setting, conversation, and information blend to create an immersive experience.

In the same way, their Persian New Year Dinner was meant to educate guests about the holiday, celebrated primarily in Iran. It brought the underserved Persian cuisine to plates in Boston and New York, and shared the traditional haftsin table and the philosophy behind the meal with diners.

Each item on the festive haft-sin table is symbolic of a hope or wish for the New Day. At front, somaq, from the sumac fruit, meant to conjure images of the sunrise.

Each item on the festive haftsin table is symbolic of a hope or wish for the New Day. At front, somaq, from the sumac fruit, is meant to conjure images of the sunrise.

Typical for Lewin, the dinners featured fresh, locally foraged and sourced ingredients, and showcased his familiarity with Middle Eastern cooking.

Like the dried senjed olive Lewin can be seen uprooting from the edges of streets around Boston – “You can rip it out by the roots,” Lewin tells me, “and never be rid of it” – and the first ripe green almonds of springtime, the meal was a celebration of the good things the Earth gives us. Especially for those invested enough to seek it out.

I arrived early, and as guests began to fill the two small dining rooms, I joined Lewin in the kitchen. “Now this,” he tells me, pulling back the lid on a giant, opaque tupperware, “is the dessert that had everyone completely silent in Boston.” I take a small spoonful and smile, saying nothing for a few moments. “That,” I agree, “is something.”

Jazayeri joins us, and begins plating the first course. I admire the neatly ordered, colorful containers of thin-sliced radish, and a box holding the first delicate viola blooms of the season.

Later, we would find the radishes floating in an herbaceous yogurt sauce, meant to complement the hake (or to spread on leftover flatbread with knob of beet burger).

Later, we would find the radishes floating in an herbaceous yogurt sauce, served to complement the hake (or to spread on leftover flatbread with a knob of beet burger).

When my friend Sirma arrives, I join her at the table, and author Laura Silver joins us. It is a communal meal meant for igniting conversation, and for filling hungry stomachs. We are seated directly in front of the haftsin table, and are quickly taken by the giant marzipan goldfish. “We didn’t think a real fish could handle the trip,” Lewin admits, referring to the goblet of live goldfish not uncommon in the symbolic tableau. The goldfish represent new life, and the end of the Astral year Pisces – not something well-illustrated by a fish floating belly-up.

Award-winning author Louisa Shafia – of The New Persian Kitchen – was also at part of the New York dinner. She worked with Lewin and Jazayeri to bring an innovative flourish to the traditional Iranian fare, and many of her recipes appeared throughout the evening.  “Norooz celebrations,” Shafia says in her book, are notable for a profusion of green hues, echoing the holiday’s emphasis on the reawakening of nature.” And as the first palate teaser arrived, her keen observation was realized.

Mild in flavor, slightly bitter, and best enjoyed with a creamy almond milk custard, the first green almonds of spring were a colorful entrance to the Persian New Year feast.

Mild in flavor, slightly bitter, and best enjoyed with a creamy almond milk custard, the first green almonds of spring were a colorful entrance to the Persian New Year feast.

Lewin passed Laura, Sirma, and myself the small plates, and introduced the duo of green almond – one large raw slice, and a few slivers only quickly poached. There was a tab of almond milk custard, fine fibers of clay pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. The flavors were unconventional, and the ingredients ones you would never normally encounter.

During the first course, Laura and I benefited from Sirma’s distaste for pickles. We filled lavash with salty cheeses, pickles and relishes, and fresh herbs, and used the thick, crusty barbari to sop up the vinegars and spices.

Moist feta and a variety of Persian breads went perfectly with the Sabzeh Khordan, or fresh herb platter.

Moist feta and a variety of Persian breads went perfectly with the Sabzeh Khordan, or fresh herb platter.

The second course was an enormous bowl of vegetarian soup known as Ash-e Reshteh. The heavily-herbed stew (one of Shafia’s recipes) is full of beans (kidney, fava, garbanzo), lentils, enormous fronds of dill, mint, and other green herbs, spinach, thick noodles, and a generous dollop of kashk (fermented whey). Crispy caramelized onions, and one of the lovely viola blooms, topped this hearty Iranian stew.

In typical LWB fashion, I ate this soup from broth to herb, to leafy green, to lentil, and then finally had a few beans and a slurp of noodle. During large, multi-course meals, it’s important to work through dishes slowly, and it’s rarely possible to finish everything. With the intention of saving room for the courses to come, I left the highest-fat, highest-calorie ingredients for last. By the time they began clearing plates, I had consumed a much lighter portion than had I eaten through the whole thing.

This deep bowl of beans, lentils, noodles, and herbs could easily stand alone as a meal - or two!

This deep bowl of beans, lentils, noodles, and herbs could easily stand alone as a meal – or two!

The entree was Sabzi Polo Mahi, one of Jazayeri’s family classics. “[It] was a specialty of my dad’s,” she tells me before the meal. “His creation of the green sauce…is really the inspiration behind taking rustic Persian flavors and putting a professional spin on them.”

Halfway through dinner, I duck back to the kitchen to watch the final entree plating.

Halfway through dinner, I ducked back to the kitchen to watch the final entree plating.

While most diners enjoyed the dill-flavored rice and flaky hake, topped with Jazayeri’s father’s signature sauce, I experienced another one of Shafia’s recipes. The beet burgers, made both sweet as well as earthy with golden raisins, walnuts, rice, and green lentils. were a stellar gluten-free and vegan alternative.

And with an arc of green sauce on the side, I was still able to sample a bit of Jazayeri’s family heritage.

With a crispy grilled char, these beet burgers were a flavorful and exotic riff on the peas-and-carrots veggie burger.

With a crispy grilled char, these beet burgers were a flavorful and exotic riff on the peas-and-carrots veggie burger.

We cleansed our palates with a hot hibiscus tea and sweet, dried figs, before goblets of the silence-inducing dessert came around.  The saffron-infused ice cream, thick with barberries and brightened with orange zest, was a playful spin on the traditional savory rice dish, Zereshk Polo. As promised, the dining room fell silent.

Yes, I'd buy a pint.

Yes, I’d buy a pint.

The meal concluded, and we all said our farewells, taking with us “breakfast” for the following morning – a delicate chickpea shortbread known as Nan-e Nokhodchi, and a Haf Mewa biscuit stuffed with dried dates.

Despite the unseasonably cold weather – the constant spritz of frigid precipitation and a powerful wind that ripped through Astor Place – Sirma and I left feeling full and warm, our bellies satisfied and our appetite for an interesting, dynamic meal more than satiated. “Katrina made the evening really special with lots of personal touches,” Shafia agreed after the dinner.

In the days leading up to the dinner, Jazayeri told me her expectations for the Persian New Year Dinner and Book Signing – as well as future Bread and Salt Hospitality dinners. “I hope people learn something new about a cuisine and culture that may be unfamiliar to them…all of [the] events are inspired by [our] appreciation for the type of hospitality you receive when you walk into someone’s home.”

Clearly, the dinner was a success. And with our bags heavy with leftover soup and burgers, our personal treats for the following day – or the subway ride home – it truly felt like the comforts of a family kitchen had been extended to us, so that we may begin the new season with a full fridge and a craving for anything braised in, stewed with, or buried under fistfulls of fresh dill.

Until next time, Happy New Year.

-Melanie

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