Persian vegetable stew
There is something about these long, grey, cold days that makes me revisit my favourite television series. While there is so much new television coming at us from every angle, there is something comforting about old favourites. They are often like food, taking us back in time and giving us a sense of comfort, nostalgia and, sometimes, of severe loss.
A series I recently returned to was the BBC’s Spooks. The storylines are familiar but the finer details are often sketchy and it takes a rewatch to remind me of exactly what transpired.
One of the most chilling reminders of how the world has changed is vision of Syria. At some point in the storyline characters come and go from Syrian locations. It is sobering to know that, in the 10 or 15 years since the series was filmed, those locations have been destroyed and are now just shells of cities, bombed to oblivion along with their people, architecture and culture.
But the storyline shifts and morphs over the years and there is often an interplay with Iran. In TV land the British have a seemingly interesting and far more intellectual relationship with the Iranians than the Americans, who, I might add, are often portrayed as slightly thuggish.
I have a fascination with the last shah, the fall of the Pahlavi family and the genesis of the new regime. The Westernising of Iran was the complete opposite of the imperialism that led to the downfall of the Romanovs more than 60 years earlier, yet it had the same result for a ruler who thought he was ordained by a higher power to rule. All of this, with a new BBC podcast to listen to, has again piqued my interest in Iranian food.
This vegetable stew is a little more complex than the new year noodle soup I made a few weeks ago, but is an equally satisfying dish. Spices, saffron and mint are there, as is the wonderful interplay between sweet and savoury with the addition of apricots and currants. And of course, it’s vegan too.
Persian vegetable stew
– 200g giant couscous
– 75g currants
– 3 tbsp sunflower oil
– 1 small/500g celeriac, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
– 1 large carrot, cut into small chunks
– 2 red onions, roughly chopped
– 2 sticks celery, sliced 1cm thick
– 2 tbsp coriander seed, crushed
– 2 tsp cumin seed, crushed
– ½ tsp chilli flakes
– 100g dried apricots, quartered
– pinch saffron (about ⅓ of a 0.4g pack) soaked in 750ml boiling water
– 1 tbsp low-salt vegetable stock powder
– 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2.5cm chunks
– 200g baby aubergines, halved
– juice of 1 lemon
– salt and pepper
– small bunch of mint, leaves only
– 30g toasted flaked almonds
Mix the couscous and currants in a large bowl. Cover with 750 millilitres of boiling water, stir, cover and leave for 20 minutes. Drain.
Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a large, heavy-based pan or casserole, add the celeriac and cook for five minutes, until golden. Transfer to a bowl, add the remaining oil to the pan with the carrot, onion and celery and cook for five minutes, stirring. Add the dry spices and apricots and cook for a further two minutes. Mix the saffron water with the stock powder and add to the pan. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the squash and baby aubergines, return the celeriac, stir to coat, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes. Stir through the lemon juice, season to taste, then scatter over the soaked couscous and currants. Cook over a gentle heat for five minutes, until piping hot. Serve scattered with a few mint leaves and almonds.
You can turn this vegetable casserole into a carnivore’s feast by adding leftover meat such as chicken or beef to the pot at the end to heat it through.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Iran so far away". Subscribe here.