For someone who is pretty much obsessed with cooking and eating, my cookbook collection is a fairly tiny one: about 20 cookbooks and a few booklets. All but one have been gifts from encouraging friends and family (the only one I actually bought is Dakshin). In a couple of cases, "gifts" is a euphemism for "stolen from my mother when she was not looking". I tend to use my cookbooks for two things: the glossy ones to moon over, and the others as sources of ideas and inspiration. To be perfectly honest, it is only in the last couple of months that I have had the time to read through my cookbooks and really start using them. And one book is turning out to be a perfect treasure, and perfectly indispensable: Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian.
I first jotted down some recipes from World Vegetarian when I borrowed it from the public library a few years ago, and then, when my friend Anu gifted me a B&N gift card, I ran out and bought the book. Madhur Jaffrey has managed to collect hundreds of the most interesting home-style recipes from all around the world, and neatly divided them into sections such as beans and legumes, vegetables, grains and dairy. It hardly matters if you are a meat-eater or not- if you are looking to eat more grains, beans and vegetables (and really, we all should be), this book will provide you with endless (a) tips on buying, storing and preparing these foods, for instance, 5 methods for cooking eggplant, (b) ideas on using these ingredients. I find myself turning to World Vegetarian constantly to find creative uses for, say, the big bag of kidney beans in the pantry or the extra cauliflower in the vegetable crisper.
The recipe that I am about to make today from this book comes from Iran. It is called Shamsi Davis' Persian Pilaf with Lime and Green Beans, or Lubia Polo. I am a sucker for layered rice, and this pilaf sounds so good: You make a delicious curry of green beans with some dried Persian limes. Then, you layer thinly-sliced potatoes, rice, and the green beans and cook it together into one heavenly pilaf.
What really intrigues me were the dried Persian limes that add a tangy note to this dish. In Indian cooking, we use so many different ingredients to add that tang: tamarind, mango powder, kokum, and of course, fresh lemon and lime juice. But not dried limes as far as I know.
In Jaffrey's words "Persian dried limes are a world unto themselves. Once you have discovered them, you will wonder how you ever lived without them". I don't need much convincing. That was enough to make me buy a bag on my last trip to the International market (they are very cheap, by the way).
The dried limes look, um, unimpressive, to say the least. Exactly like limes that have been sitting around for too long and have dried-up and shriveled. In my kitchen, these would be hastily thrown into the trash, but the Persians seem to know something that I don't.
Here are the three stages in the extraction of lime-y goodness: The whole dried limes are hard, dry and hollow. I used a hammer to split each into half or thirds. The minute you do that, you can smell a deep lime aroma, that to me, smelled like the delicious Indian lime pickles, and to V, smelled like some dried berries used in South Indian cooking. Anyway, the insides look awful and smell delicious (you can see the halves in the picture). Then, use your fingers to scrape out the black dried stuff (bottom right of picture) and discard the seeds.
Persian Lime-Green Bean Pilaf
1. The Rice: Rinse 1 cup Basmati rice 3-4 times in cold water, then boil in 2 cups water (lightly salted) until *just short* of tender. Drain well and set aside. The rice will be cooked again, so it should remain undercooked at this point.
2. Vegetable filling: Wash 2 cups of green beans (also called French beans or haricots verts) and cut them into thirds or so. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a skillet. Saute 1 small chopped onion until lightly browned. Add the beans and saute for a few minutes. Now add 1/3 cup tomato puree, salt to taste and 1 tsp. garam masala (Jaffrey's recipe calls for cinnamon). Simmer the beans until tender, by which time the mixture should be quite thick. Turn off the heat. Add 1 heaping tsp. powdered dried lime or 1 tbsp. fresh lime juice and set aside.
3. Layering: In a non-stick pan, melt 1 tbsp. butter. Stir in 1/2. tsp turmeric and 1 tbsp. water. Layer the bottom of the pan with thin slices of peeled potato. Now gently layer the potatoes with half the rice, then the entire bean mixture, then the rest of the rice.
4. Cooking: Cover the pan and leave on medium heat for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to lowest point. Place a dish towel on the pan, under the lid (to absorb condensation), being careful to fold the edges of the towel over the lid so that it cannot catch on fire. Cook on low heat for 20 minutes, then let it rest for 5-10 minutes. The idea is to allow the potatoes to cook and brown, and for the rice around the edges to become brown and crisp. The time given here worked well in my kitchen, but may change for a different-sized pot and a different stove. Invert gently onto a serving plate. A non-stick pan makes this easy. Cut into wedges and serve!
The Verdict: We loved it. This was one special meal. I don't think the pictures quite do justice to how pretty this dish looks. The combination of juicy, tangy beans, rice and browned potatoes is just delicious. This recipe is a must-try! I know I am going to play around with the dried limes and try and find more uses for them.
I just realized that I have posted an upside-down recipe twice in 10 days! At least this one is savory and quite different from the first. Meanwhile, green beans represent "G", and we shall meet again on Sunday for the G of Indian Vegetables.