Laura Bashar’s story starts in Iran with a house full of family and a table full of food. Though that life is far behind her, one of her favorite Persian stews, Khoresteh Gormeh Sabzi, transports her back to the country her family longed to make their home.
Laura Bashar: My first early memories are actually in Iran. It’s food of course, and family.
Leigh Olson: Like most food stories, food blogger and cookbook author Laura Bashar’s story is centered around community and family. But it is also a story of change, discontent, resilience, fortitude, commitment, and patience
Laura’s food heritage is steeped in herbs and spices. Crispy rice dishes and long simmered stews. And large family dinners prepared in tiny, simple kitchens by women whose allegiance to the art of cooking could be tasted in every bite.
Laura Bashar: I have memories of these family events where you’re feeding maybe 40 people every week. And the table has enough food to feed a hundred. The dining tables would be filled with multiple stews and kebabs and rice and then the desserts and the pastries.
Persian family is all about getting together and it’s also getting together with food and it’s all about the food and the sitting together cooking together. It was just always getting together every week with my cousins. I mean you’re talking multiple cousins because my mom is one of six siblings and just a big family and distant cousins or as close to me as first cousins that we were all cousins. That’s how we knew each other. We’re just all cousins. No matter how far back the relationship would go. That’s some of my best memories were hanging out with my cousins, hanging out with my family and of course the food.
Leigh Olson: Welcome to The Heritage Cookbook Project Podcast where we document and preserve heritage by connecting with cooks across the country who share food memories, family recipes and a little bit of themselves. And I am your host, Leigh Olson.
Laura Bashar: My mom is a Persian. She grew up in Kermansha, which is a smaller town very close to Iraq. As my mom grew up she tells us a story that girls were only educated up to elementary school. This is in the 40s and 50s. She had to petition and get eight girls who wanted to go to middle school. So she would petition. She found eight girls and they would go to middle school. Then she had a petition again to go and get a high school education. Once she got her high school degree, she wanted to go to college, which was again unheard of. And my poor grandmother was like where she went wrong. And my mom and her twin sister both went to college and it was a very big deal at the time.
They went to college in Teheran at Tehran University. In Iran, I think even today you take this big test called the Konkour. It assesses your skill level and says, “Oh, you scored high enough, you can be a doctor. No, you didn’t score high enough.” As my mom said, she couldn’t, she didn’t score high enough to be a doctor, but she could be a geologist. So she became a geologist that way. The first female geologists in Iran.
From there to get to the US you had to get a scholarship and because her grades were high, she got a scholarship from the government to go study in the US. But part of that scholarship was that you were going to come back to Iran and teach.
She went back to Iran to try teaching, which was very difficult because none of the male students would take my mother very seriously. This was a time where both my parents were newly married living in Iran.
My Dad’s American. He’s a history buff. My Dad. When my dad saw a pretty girl and he’s trying to talk to her and she says she was from Iran, he said ahh the land of Persepholis. And my mom was shocked, at the time in the sixties nobody knew about Iran. That not only did he know Iran, but also Persepholis and the history of ancient Persian. And that was his pickup line when he met my mom.
They came to the west mostly because the culture was just not ready to deal with a female professor.
Both of my parents are geologists and they eventually got a job with the German oil company that brought them back to Iran. Which was always the goal to go back to Iran and live in Iran.
So back in 1974, we went back to Iran to live and had a great time because all my mom’s family was there.
Leigh Olson: After the break Laura talks about kabob’s, stews, and her family’s timely decision to return to the states.
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Laura Bashar: I have memories of my grandmother preparing kabobs over her little grill. She was in an apartment and she had a little balcony and had this little hibachi kind of little grill and I actually have a picture of my grandmother sitting on her haunches and fanning the flames and turning the skewers on her little grill and just lovingly making kabobs for all of us. She had a very simple setup and she just loved doing it. And her kabob was amazing.
Leigh Olson: In addition to the amazing kabob’s that Laura’s grandmother made, she carefully prepared traditional Persian dishes like tahdig, pastries, stuffed grape leaves, and stews. One particular stew that still transports Laura to her grandmother’s small apartment in Iran is Gormeh Sabzi.
Laura Bashar: The Gormeh Sabzi is a very aromatic dish. And I remember walking up the stairwell to her apartment I could smell it downstairs as we’re walking up the stairs to find her apartment. You could smell Gormeh Sabzi in the hallways.
If it wasn’t for the revolution, we probably would have stayed there. Indefinitely. It was a very volatile time. My mom says you could feel the tension. This is a time where people were fighting against the over westernization of the country.
Leigh Olson: Outwardly, the economic developments in Iran, seemed good. But social discontent grew steadily within groups that had become marginalized. They accused the shah of irreligion and foreign subservience. A culture that had once been very traditional, very conservative and rural had been thrust into a very modern, industrial, and very urban way of life.
It wasn’t until Laura’s parents traveled to Germany on a business trip, that they fully realized the implications of this discontent.
Laura Bashar: They traveled to Germany for one business trip and read what the American press, the western press was saying what was going on, that’s when they realize it is time to go. It wouldn’t be safe for my dad. Let alone us. I was born in the US. My brother was not. If we had stayed there after the revolution? It would have been, my brother would not have been able to leave the country. Um, it just, we were very lucky at the timing of when we left.
When we left, it was literally right before one of the milestone events, that there was a, uh, movie theater fire that was considered what sparked the revolution in Iran. And we left I think a week before that happened.
Leigh Olson: Laura’s family landed in Houston where both of her parents worked in the oil industry. The hours were long for the PHD professional geologists, but the gravity of food and family was unmistakable at the dinner table.
Laura Bashar: We had a home cooked meal every single night. Whether she made it ahead of time, whether she would start cooking when she got home, whether I helped her as I got older, I would help sometimes start the meal. Whatever it was. We always had a home cooked meal for dinner.
We primarily ate Persian stews and we ate a lot of seafood because we were in broth, the Gulf coast. A lot of creole food cause of Louisiana and our ties there.
Leigh Olson: You know the saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well, I think you can apply that to the foods that we grew up eating. You know, the ones that we often took for granted? This was the case when Laura left home to start her life in Florida.
When I was living in Miami, this was after college and I was working in an advertising agency and Miami has wonderful food, but you don’t find Persian restaurants in Miami at all. So I was always craving Persian food and I would visit my mom and I would come home with a frozen brick of Gormeh Sabzi back. Passing it through a inspection and everything and take it back with me. And uh, But I wanted to cook it myself. And that’s how I started. Yeah. I started my recipe with my mom’s recipe.
Khoresteh Gormeh Sabzi. And Koresh is “stew” or Gormeh means “to chop” and Sabzi are greens and herbs. So sabz the color green Sabzi are the herbs. And this is, it’s technically a green herbs stew. My brother and I, when we grew up as my mom’s making green steel, we always called it green stew. This is a very quintessential popular Persian dish.
Everybody has their own variety, but that’s basically parsley, Cilantro, green onions. And then I like to use a filler like spinach or Kale to add more green than substance to it. And then you also use fenugreek. What gives the Gormeh Sabzi it’s iconic smell is the fenugreek and that’s where you could smell it, you know, down the hall, down the street, you know, all over the apartment complex when whoever’s making it a stew because it’s just such a wonderful aroma.
So there’s this I call it a controversy. Everybody has their own or a mixture that they use. And then the whole preparation. Some people prefer the dried herbs to the fresh herbs. I personally prefer the fresh herbs. My mother-in-law uses a lot more oil than I do and fries, the vegetables almost right before it turns. I mean, it’s a deep, deep, and this is not on high, remember, it’s a slowly frying it. Um, and it becomes this really deep, dark green. That’s, I say it’s almost black because it’s like there’s no green there, you know, it’s not black.
I make my own stew meat from London broil. I like to use the London broil cut. You can do a chuck or just already precut whatever they’re selling at the butcher for stew meat. You can use lamb shanks as well. You can also use beef shanks. My mom uses beef shanks with the bone. I had a professor in University of Arizona who was a vegetarian and she made it vegetarian based and she actually put those baby Bella mushrooms in there. The other thing you have in there, you have beans. I like to use kidney beans and the dish, my mom uses pinto beans.
And as far as other flavors and spices, Persians loved their dried limes. They look like they’re about little smaller than a golf ball and they’re brown, wrinkly look horrible. But they are sour and their dried limes that you chop up and put in the stew to give it that wonderful tang.
You saute everything and then you add it to the stew and then you have to let it cook. So the whole process can take, gosh, five to six hours from start to finish. But even still it tastes so much better the next day. A lot of people will not eat Gormeh Sabzi the day they make it, they insist you have to eat it the next day cause it tastes better.
All the Persian stews are served over basmati rice, white rice usually. Although some stew, some Persian stew I’ve had tastes really wonderful with brown rice. Gormeh Sabzi it just wouldn’t be the same on brown rice.
And we par boil it until the, the outside is soft, but the inside is still a little bit hard. And that takes about six minutes and hot boiling water. And then we strain it, pass it through the strainer, remove the water, put the pot back on the stove and add some oil to the bottom. And I don’t know if you’ve had Persian rice, but were everybody fights over the crunchy crust that’s on the bottom of the pot, the tahdig.
And you can do potatoes on the bottom. We do a lab wash pieces or even tortillas on the bottom. And you can also do rice with a little bit of yogurt to make a nice thick rice crust on the bottom. And then you just layer in the rice over that. You don’t want to compress it because that’ll make it sticky and you just layer very gently layer the rice back into the pot and then you’re steaming it again. And then when you put the lid on, you cover it with a towel because you want all that extra moisture to be absorbed by the towel because he don’t want soggy rice. And that takes about when you’re doing the second steam, that takes about 45 minutes for it to cook.
Be patience. It is, it is not a hard dish to make in terms of skill level. It takes a long time. And it just requires a lot of patience. But be patient, you’ll, you’ll love the result.
Leigh Olson: I hope that you enjoyed listening to Laura’s story about her memories of living in Iran and of a Persian stew that ties her to her culture. If you want to hear more stories like this, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
The full recipe for Gormeh Sabzi can be found at theheritagecookbookproject.com and don’t forget to register for access to the printable cookbook pages. Cheers.
Oh, and if you decide to make Laura’s recipe for Gormeh Sabzi, don’t confuse fenugreek seeds for the leaves that are used in the recipe.
The Heritage Cookbook Project Podcast was produced and edited by me, I’m Leigh Olson. Sound design and mixing also by me. The music credit for this episode goes to Alireza Farrokhzadi for Setar.
EPISODE 7: PERSIAN STEW AND REVOLUTIONS
Food has a magical ability to tap into our memories. It can carry us to places far-far away or very close to home; to a time almost forgotten or right at the forefront of our memory.
Listen as food blogger and cookbook author, Laura Bashar, shares her memories of Iran, her grandmother’s kabobs and a Persian stew, dubbed Green Stew by Laura and her bother, with deep roots in her family’s heritage.
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Khoresteh Gormeh Sabzi and Laura’s grandmother making Kabobs on the balcony.
Khoresteh Gormeh Sabzi and Laura’s grandmother making Kabobs on the balcony.
- 3 pounds stew meat cut into 1-inch cubes
- 3 teaspoons turmeric divided
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour optional
- 9 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil divided
- 3 cups diced onions
- 2 cups beef broth
- 6 small dried Persian limes with slits cut into sides
- 26 ounces fresh parsley approximately 6 big bunches
- 10 ounces fresh cilantro approximately 4 bunches
- 9 ounces fresh kale 7 oz kale without stems
- 1/2 cup dried fenugreek divided
- 8 ounces fresh green onions diced both green and white parts (approximately 2 bunches)
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1 (20-ounccan red kidney beans drained, rinsed and soaked in a bowl of water for 2 hours
- In a large bowl combine meat, 2 teaspoons turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, and flour until meat is coated evenly. Set aside.
- Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and onions. Cook until the onions start to soften. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the onions are translucent. Do not caramelize.
- Stir remaining turmeric and 1/4 teaspoon salt into the onions. Increase the heat to high. Add the seasoned stew meat, brownings on all sides, about 15 minutes.
- Add broth, scraping the bits from the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low.
- Add dried limes to the pot, cover and cook on low heat for 1 hour. Once limes have softened, you can press them flat with your wooden spoon to remove the air inside.
- While meat is cooking, remove stems, especially the thick woody ones, from parsley, cilantro and kale.
- Wash, drain and spin green vegetables dry. A salad spinner works great with this step.
- Once dried, chop vegetables in batches using a food processor with a metal blade.
- In a large non-stick frying pan, over medium-high heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add half of the greens and 1/4 cup fenugreek.
- Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking until vegetables are dark green, 15 - 20 minutes. Transfer to the pot with the stew meat.
- Add another 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and cook the remaining fresh herbs and dried fenugreek until they are dark green, 15 - 20 minutes. Transfer to the pot with the stew meat.
- Add the remaining olive oil to the hot frying pan and sauté the green onions until lightly browned and greens are dark. Transfer to the pot with the stew meat.
- Stir in the water and lemon juice. Cover the pot and cook for at least another hour or two. The longer the stew cooks, the more fragrant and flavorful your stew will be. Ideally, you can serve the stew the next day.
- Drain beans, stir into the stew and cook for one more hour.
- Serve with white basmati rice.
My first early memories are actually in Iran. It’s food of course, and family.