I used to really love getting cookbooks from the library, and there were some volumes that I would take out and renew over and over again. Najmieh Batmaglij's "Food of Life" was one of those books that kept returning to my coffee table, though that was many years ago. Getting books from the library was long ago a family tradition, we went every Sunday to check-out new books, and even though it was an ugly florescent-lit space, it is still a good memory for me, the excitement of finding something new to read.
In college, I worked on Sundays in the library as a work-study (funny how traditions repeat themselves), and that is where my cookbook reading began in earnest. On my lunch break I would go up to the cookbook floor and find the books I would take home for that week. Sometimes I would cart home a heavy bagful of them back to my apartment, my arms aching by the time I got to my front door. I rarely cooked from them, but I read from them each night before I went to bed, de-stressing at the end of a long day of dancing and studying by contemplating the ratios of a chocolate mousse recipe (Pierre Herme was a favorite at the time). To this day, when my husband marvels at why I know this or that about cooking, it is almost always because of all the cookbooks I read in those days.
When I saw Batmanglij's book was re-issued recently with new photos, I remembered my old dog-eared library copy, and ordered my very own edition. Before it even arrived, I found myself craving those uniquely Persian flavors, the sour limes and crispy rice dishes. Persian soups, almost more stew-like in consistency, are amazingly complex in both taste and ingredients. They often involve adding ingredients slowly over many hours, layering flavor over flavor. There are often miles and miles of herbs and greens melted into the stew, lots of onions, a touch of meat, legumes, and flavor builders like sour grape juice (verjus) and sizzled garlic.
In this sweet and sour Persian soup, there is a lot going on -- meatballs, herbs, lentils, dried fruit and nuts, not to mention the sweet and sour elements from vinegar and molasses. It's the kind of dish you should make on a quiet weekend afternoon and then eat all week long, where you'll find the soup is almost certainly better on the second and even third day. It is also a forgiving recipe - I couldn't find any yellow lentils, so I used orange lentils, if you don't have beet leaves you could use spinach or turnip greens. Grape molasses (available in Middle Eastern in shops) can be substituted with honey for the sweet element. Like the library, there's something communal in a big extended recipe like this, the ideas shared, the flavors layered together, the sort of thing you cook together and eat with family or friends around the table, passing some extra sizzled garlic to share.
Persian Sweet and Sour Soup (Osh-
This complex soup takes time to make, but other than chopping some herbs and making some very basic meatballs, the preparation is simple and the whole endeavor is quite easy going. I made this recipe while also making some bread to serve along side it. Adapted from Najmieh Batmanglij.
2 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup yellow split peas or orange lentils
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 cups broth, 5 cups water (or 10 cups water)
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped beet leaves (or spinach)
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 small onion
1 lb ground lamb, veal, or chicken
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each pepper, turmeric, cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Finishing the soup:
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup rice
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup grape molasses, date molasses, or honey
1/4 cup red wine vinegar, sour orange juice, or lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter
5 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons crushed dried mint flakes
1. Prepare the meatballs by mixing together all the ingredients with your hands. Form into small meatballs, place on a tray, and refrigerate.
2. Heat some olive oil in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the onions soften and caramelize, about 20-30 minutes. Add in the turmeric and split peas or lentils, and stir everything around until it is fragrant, about a minute.
3. Add in the broth/water combination and season well with salt. Let the mixture simmer for about 30 minutes if using split peas, and only 10 minutes if using orange lentils. Add in all the greens and let simmer for another 15 minutes, until wilted.
4. Add in the meatballs, prunes, and apricots, season again with salt, and simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Add the rice and walnuts. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together your sweet and sour elements in a bowl (the vinegar and molasses, or whatever you are using). Taste the sweet-sour mixture for balance. After 30 minutes, stir in the the sweet-sour mixture and stir everything together to combine. Taste the soup for seasoning. Remove the soup from the heat and let rest while you prepare the garnish.
6. Before serving, prepare the garnish. Melt the butter in a small skillet Add the garlic, turmeric, and dried mint until sizzling. Ladle the warm soup into bowl and top each bowl with a bit of the butter/garlic mixture. Serve.