We can thank Yotam Ottolenghi for bringing Persian food into the spotlight, with his cookbooks “Plenty” and “Plenty More,” his restaurant empire in London, and even his veg-friendly column in the Guardian. His creative fusion cuisine, which marries the food of his native Iran (formerly called Persia) with other global flavors, is naturally plant-forward, making it perfect for the meatless crowd.
I had the pleasure of dining in two of his restaurants in London, where the food was intensely flavorful and beautifully presented. Yogurt seemed to work its way into most dishes, and fresh herbs and exotic spices made every bite a feast for the senses.
Persian food is notable for its use of spices, such as saffron and cinnamon, and lavish use of fresh herbs. Pine nuts, walnuts and pistachios add crunch and flavor, and fresh and dried fruits such as apricots, barberries, prunes and raisins add texture and sweetness.
Legumes like chickpeas, favas and lentils provide hearty, earthy protein. Sour flavors, such as lemon, lime and yogurt are balanced with rich olive oil, perking up the simplest of dishes. It’s a perfect cuisine to mine for meatless meals, as there is so much taste and texture going on that you don’t miss meat at all.
So for a summer Persian fusion dish, I made use of the bountiful sweet corn that’s starting to appear at the market. It’s so sweet that when you sauté it until it caramelizes a bit, it can stand in for the dried fruit in many Persian rice dishes. The golden corn mixes in with saffron-tinted rice for a burst of color on the plate. A hint of cinnamon rounds out the mild, but flavorful, spiciness.
To make a meal of it, I added chickpeas for some solid protein. Thick Greek yogurt gives the dish body and a tangy note.
Sweet bell peppers and tomatoes give it some color, and are at their prime right now. Show them off on the yellow rice. A generous handful of fresh mint and dill adds some greenery and herbal intrigue to the beautiful dish. I like to finish it with a sprinkling of pistachios, for even more crunch and color. If you’re feeling adventurous, and have access to a good spice market, try sprinkling dried barberries over the finished salad, for a tangy, deep red garnish.
Thank you Persia, for the inspiration.
Robin Asbell is a cooking instructor and author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.
Persian Rice and Sweet Corn Salad
Makes 8 cups.
Note: This light and colorful salad is a meal in itself, and would be terrific with a salad of sliced cucumbers and herbs, or some flatbread and baba ghanoush. For a special finish, sprinkle with chopped pistachios or pomegranate seeds. From Robin Asbell.
• 3 ears sweet corn, shucked
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
• 1 c. basmati rice
• 1 pinch saffron
• 1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 3/4 tsp. salt, divided
• 1 (15-oz.) can chickpeas (also called garbanzos), drained
• 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
• 1 large tomato, chopped
• 1/2 c. fresh spearmint, chopped, plus more for garnish
• 1/2 c. fresh dill, chopped, plus more for garnish
• 1/2 c. whole milk Greek yogurt
• 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• 1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
Cut the corn kernels from the cobs and reserve.
In a 2-quart pot, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the corn. Sauté, stirring, for about 2 minutes, until the corn is browned in spots and starting to stick to the pot. Scrape the corn into a large bowl.
Add the rice to the pot and stir, and crumble in the saffron, and stir for a few seconds. Add the cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cup water, and bring to a boil. Cover and lower the heat to low, cook for 15 minutes. Take off the heat to cool.
When the rice is cool, add it to the bowl with the corn, and add the chickpeas, peppers, tomatoes, mint and dill.
In a small bowl, stir the yogurt, lemon, pepper, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour over the rice and fold in.
Serve immediately, garnished with fresh mint and dill, or store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Nutrition information per 1-cup serving:
Calories 230 Fat 7 g Sodium 320 mg
Carbohydrates 38 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 5 g
Protein 6 g Cholesterol 5 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 starch, 1 fat.