Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mahboubeh, Persian Tulips, and Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

When I was in high school, my family hosted an exchange student for a year from Iran named Mahboubeh M-M. It was 1976 when Iran still was ruled by The Shah and before the Iranian Revolution and Hostage Crisis and the start of ABC's Nightline. It was one of those life-changing experiences for both Mahboubeh and my entire family. She couldn't speak a word of English, was a practicing Muslim, and she had never looked a man in the eyes. I can only imagine how scary it was for her to arrive in the U.S. We shared a room where she immediately figured out which wall was the East side of the room. She put on her hijab, lay down on her prayer mat and prayed what my 17 year old brain thought was all day long. The year with Mahboubeh was an awakening for me. Although I can easily admit that I wasn't always happy with my "new sister" reigning in on my senior year in high school, I now look back on it as to the year my life began to grow past my small town upbringing. The world is a large place full of different religions, morals, foods, and cultures and although we don't always get along with everyone, it is vital to remember that people all over the world are basically the same. They love their families and friends, are proud and fierce over the safety, health and love of their children, and have hometown pride.

The year with Mahboubeh awakened my family to Persian food. I grew up eating pretty bland typical 1970's fare. Food was always important to us even if it wasn't "gourmet." One of us was always baking some kind of sweet thing. German food was about as exotic as we got due to my German Grandmother Frieda's influence. Food was the way Mahboubeh was able to bond with us and become part of the family. She had never cooked before but had obviously watched her mom. She missed the spices and meals she had always eaten and my mom gave her the opportunity to learn to cook and share her country's food with our family. In town there was a Doctor Minoui who was Iranian. His wife took Mahboubeh under her wing, sharing Persian recipes. Soon Mahboubeh was cooking stews, sweets and our very favorite Persian dish - a potato-crusted rice called Tadik. Mom began buying saffron and the exotic spices wafted through our house every weekend. Mahboubeh's cooking adventures were the secret to her learning English and becoming part of our family. By Christmas, she could speak English quite well and we all settled into a typical family routine. Dad was in love with her cooking but I don't think she was ever brave enough to look him in the eye.

Mahboubeh returned to Iran after her year in Dover but not for long. She returned to the States, went to university in Houston, married a fellow Iranian, and had three children. She is a pharmacist and still comes to visit us for family rites of passage. Her daughter Shandiz has come to New England for extended vacations and is great friends with my older nieces and nephews. 

1976, The Year of the Mahboubeh, had an everlasting effect on all of us. It was the year I became more aware of foreign lands, foods and exotic motifs and textiles. My mom has passed on many of the gifts Mahboubeh's family sent to us including woolen shawls and metal serving trays. I treasure all of them and frequently use them as props in my photos.  

As I travel through my life, I frequently think back on that important year when my life opened up to all things Persian. In my gardening life, I discovered a love of tulips only to later find out that they grow as wildflowers in Iran. Although I can't grow them here at the farm like Jane can (the deer and sheep think they are lollipops), I do have a few little bulbs that somehow persevere every year despite complete neglect. They are called Flaming Parrot Tulips and this year I beat the critters, plucked them from the garden and have been enjoying them in a vase all week long. My kind of show - frilly, colorful, and over the top!

And now onto the recipe of the week. Always looking for interesting ways to cook lamb, I stumbled upon an odd recipe in a small paperback book called Persian Lamb and Rhubarb Stew. This week with the arrival of the yearly rhubarb harvest, I decided to give it a go. I ended up changing it up completely. With the help of my friend Kay, I turned it into the recipe below. Although it seems a mighty odd combination, upon googling "lamb rhubarb" you will find that it is a classic combination. 

My advice is to let the stew sit for a couple of days because it sure does improve with age. And make sure you use golden raisins - otherwise the stew will look like there are lamb pellets in it! (Most likely only a sheep farmer would think of this!) Enjoy!

Persian Lamb and Rhubarb Stew

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 to 2 pounds lamb shoulder – bone-in
    (lamb stew meat can be used although the bones will add more flavor)
1 Tbsp tomato paste or a small can (14 oz.) Italian tomatoes
1 pound rhubarb – cut into 1 inch pieces with stringy bits removed if the skins are very thick
1/2 cup raisins (preferably golden)
2 Tbsp sugar
¼ cup minced mint or parsley or a mix of the two – whatever is easier – for garnish

In a dutch oven, brown the onion and garlic until onions are translucent in 2 Tbsp olive oil. Add the coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg and cook until spices begin to smell lovely. If it begins to stick, add a little bit of water to create a bit of a sauce. Set aside onion mixture.

Add 1 Tbsp olive oil to pan. Brown the lamb on all sides. Remove lamb from pan. Clean excess fat out of pan. Return the onions, spice mixture and lamb to the dutch oven. Add the tomato paste (or tomatoes), salt and pepper and add water (or lamb stock) to the pot so that it is half the way up the lamb shoulder.

Bring to a boil on top of stove. Cover with a tight fitting lid and place in a 250 degree oven and cook for 3 hours, turning the shoulder roast half way through. Alternately, cook in a slow cooker for 5 hours on low.

At the end of the three hours, remove the meat from the pot and pull the bones out of it. If the meat is not falling off the bones, return to the oven for another hour. (Save the bones for lamb stock. Store them in the freezer if you don’t have time to make the stock just yet.) With your hands, shred the meat which should be falling apart into chunks. Add the sliced rhubarb, the chunks of cooked meat, the golden raisins and the sugar back to the pot. Bring to a boil on the top of the stove and immediately return to the oven and cook another hour.

Remove from oven and taste for spices. Add more if you want a more intense flavor. If the flavor is too sour, add a touch more sugar. If the stew is too saucy, simmer with the lid off to reduce the stock. 

This stew really does improve if it sits in the fridge for a couple of days. Serve over basmati rice, couscous, or rice pilaf garnished with the parsley and mint. A green salad would be nice with it.



Amy S. said...

Great story and recipe, Kristin--I'll have to try that. I love cooking with golden raisins (and cumin is also great for lamb). One question: I don't think she can really have had a "poster of Allah"--it's forbidden in Islam to worship images, and Allah is just the Arabic word for God.

Kristin Nicholas said...

Amy - I can't remember what the picture was of but I know it was of something because I looked at it all year long. Maybe it was just something that reminded her of home. Will have to ask Mahboubeh next time we speak, if she can remember.

Alexis E. said...

Lovely story, great recipe and beautiful dishes!

ellen said...

What wonderful memories and what richness was added to both of your lives. It's heartwarming that you have been able to stay in touch through the years.
I do have to try this recipe. I'm not sure that I can find lamb shoulder (small town), but I can get lamb shanks. Hopefully, they would be just as yummy.
Thanks for the recipe and the inspiration.

Rae said...

Wonderful story! That recipe looks awfully tasty. I only get to cook lamb a couple times a year because my guy is not really a fan. I may have to slip this dish in there, though. :)

Christine said...

Even though we "don't eat lamb" in the daughter wouldn't eat it when young and I wanted to respect her feelings by not even bringing it into the house...I grew up eating lamb and grew up around peoples from Middle Eastern countries.

This story brought a tear to my eye, as it was most opportune that you had this experience, which possibly heightened your color/people life experience for both of you and Mahboubeh . It was a wonderful thing for you. It is sad that children can't be introduced to this kind of experience early on so that they know of all the beautiful peoples around them and it tempers their fears or appreciation of the differences and similarities in all of us.

I grew up with all kinds of peoples, from beginnings in the Bronx to downtown Detroit later on. And that daughter is now an environmental marine biologist!

Kay said...

Hey! You're in the Best of the Blogs in the Food Journal today!

Karen Smith said...

What beautiful photos, Kristin!

Jenny said...

We have lamb and rhubarb so I think I will have to try your recipe! My hubby's business partner is from India and she has introduced us to new spices and ways of preparing lamb! It's a wonderful world filled with opportunity. Thanks, your blog is great!