A Persian New Year’s Feast

The most famous feast day in March is St. Patrick’s day, but not so for the people of Persia. The vernal equinox occurs precisely at the moment the sun crosses the equator on March, 20, 21, or 22. In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the Iranian New Year’s celebration, or Aide Noruz, always begins on the first day of spring. The tradition of welcoming in the New Year is a time honored custom in almost every culture. Washing away the old, and bringing in new hopes, wishes and luck is universal.For the past couple of years I have been invited to the Gordon household in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey to participate in their Persian New Year’s celebration. Mrs. Gordon was raised in Iran in the 1940’s and continues the tradition today for her family. One of the most important components of the holiday is the significance of the food that is prepared.

To prepare for the New Year, Iranians engage in a thorough Spring cleaning. Many households make new clothes, bake pastries, and germinate seeds as a sign of renewal. Hadji Firuz (troubadours) travel from house to house spreading good cheer and announcing the New Year.

Normally the festivities span thirteen days after the equinox, but the Gordons have adapted the duration to fit their schedules. During the first few days, the younger members of the family visit their older relatives and friends as a sign of respect. These visits are filled with sweet pastries and frosty drinks. On the thirteenth day of Noruz (sizdeh bedar) entire families leave their homes to attend picnics near a stream or river. Sprouts are then thrown into the water bringing an end to one year and bracing for the new year. Last year the Gordons visited relatives near the Potomac River and tossed sprouts as part of the ritual.

Traditionally, sofreh-ye-haft-sinn (a ceremonial cloth) is set on the carpet or table where seven dishes are displayed symbolizing the seven angelic heralds of life: health, happiness, posterity, joy, patience, rebirth, and beauty.
“Noruz is not a religious holiday. Many Iranians are Zoroastrian. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he ordered everyone to place the Koran on every table. The citizens were outraged. He tried to cancel the ceremony altogether. Not even the Ayatollah could match the will of the people,” Mrs. Gordon proudly tells. In its place, a copy of the 50 poems by the famous Persian poet Hafiz is displayed on the cloth.
The number seven has been sacred in Iran since ancient times. The seven dishes consist of sabzeh (sprouts), samanu (a pudding of wheat sprouts), sib (apple), senjed (lotus tree fruit), seer (garlic), somaq (sumac berries), and serkeh (vinegar). These ingredients represent the original basics of Persian cuisine.

Mrs. Gordon prepares the traditional menu of several dishes which are actually served on New Year’s Day. An abundance of small appetizers are laid out on the table to arouse hunger. There’s dolmeh barg (stuffed grape leaves) and nazkhatun (eggplant caviar) nestled next to mast va khiar (yogurt with cucumbers).

She begins the meal with a sumptuous noodle soup (ashe-reshte). The noodles are made fresh and are tied in special knots. Eating them helps unravel life’s problems. This is followed by a serving of nane lavesh (thin flat bread), panir (feta-like cheese), and fresh herbs, to be nibbled for prosperity’s sake. A main course of rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi) is then brought in signifying life and rebirth. Kukuye sabzi is a favorite of all Persians. It is a vegetable casserole supreme, consisting of leeks, spinach, herbs and onions, all tossed with eggs and baked until crisp and brown. The Herb Kuku this year gets an eggplant twist, a mash with garlic, onion rings, and eggs.

This Noruz, Mrs. Gordon is shaking things up a bit by adding khoreshte gormeh sabzi ba polow (green herb stew with pilaf) to the mix. This is a hearty beef stew with sautéed chives, foengreek, scallions, spinach, parsley, and onion together simmered in a broth flavored with turmeric, cinnamon, and dried limes.
Then there is a mad dash for the tadik or sticky part of the rice. The bottom boasts a crispy, nutty flavor and texture, and is the cause of many a family fight.
The preparation of dessert begins two weeks before Noruz is well worth the effort. Homemade baglava and Persian cardamon cookies such as nune shekari (sugar) and badam choragi (almond) and halva provide a sweet-filled ending to the meal. A spice cake and non-traditional flan is also added for variety. Miveh (fruit in season) is offered for the weary tooth as well.

“The secret of the baglava lies in the thinness of the dough,” writes Maideh Mazda, aunt and recipe source to Mrs. Gordon and author of In a Persian Kitchen.

On a full stomach, I realize Noruz will be my third New Year’s of 2006 (Jan. 1st, & Chinese). As to the cycles of life, I believe that each individual’s birthday is the mark of the true new year, or personal rebirth and celebration. It’s a day to reflect on the past year, start anew, and make plans for the future. Perhaps that’s why people feel so special on their birthdays. As for Noruz, eat and drink life.

The old adage goes, “Good thought, good word, good deed – to the year end, happy indeed.”

The “Real” Wine Assault

Last week was Natural Winemaker’s week, and I had the opportunity to visit the Chambers Street Wines Shop for a selection of Louis/Dressner and LDM Wines.

Sometimes I find that I tend to purchase bottles based on importers rather than producers, especially if I feel that our palates are similar. I have yet to drink a bottle of wine from Louis/Dressner that I did not enjoy.

My exposure to natural wines occurred by accident. A few years back I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc from Theirry Puzelat. The wine tasted unusually fresh and boasted great minerality and balanced acidity. It was as if the wine were more alive. I felt like I was drinking the soil, and had a tremendous sense of the terroir of the wine even though I had never been there. Then a restaurant in Red Hook named 360 sported an all natural wine list. I was intrigued and my interest was piqued.

Since that first tasting I have been seeking out these types of wines to pair with my dishes and have become a big fan of many on the winemakers.

To ensure wine tasting stamina, I went to Katz’s Deli on Houston to load up on a pastrami sandwich, potato pancakes, and Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. I was also able to sample the reuben sandwich which was also quite filling. I rolled out into a cab to Chambers Street, and boy was I in for a treat.

The presence of famous natural winemakers made for a star-studded night. Just imagine six or seven of your favorite musicians gathered in one hall playing their music for you for free. In my mind’s eye I have imagined what some of these winemakers were like, often giving them outrageous personalities and superhuman abilities. They were indeed pleasant, wonderful hosts and obviously passionate about their wines.

The wine shop, glass aplenty, buzzed with tasters humming to and fro the narrow aisles for their chance at a glimpse of their heroes. Table One was shared by Marc Ollivier and Evelyn and Isaure de Jessy de Pontbriand. Monsieur Ollivier’s offered just one wine, a 2004 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur lie Clos de Briords. I had recently re-familiarized myself with this old vines muscadet recently by pairing it with Cantonese food at the Phoenix Garden. There were three Domaine du Closel bottles. My favorite Savenniere was an ’04 La Jalousie, young and refreshing, only missing a plate of fresh sea scallops. Both the ’02 and ’04 exhibited tremendous potential for aging. The owner was as charming as her wines.

Then I met one of my favorite winemakers, Monsieur Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue-Boeuf. Once I thought his wines to be so off the wall, I dubbed him “the mad man.”

Out of his five offerings my favorites were the 2004 Touraine, Thesee, and the 2004 Petillant Naturel. The Touraine was a bright sauvignon blanc and the Petillant was bubbly and slightly oxidized, but in a pleasing way. I almost asked for his autograph.

Clos Roche Blanche also represented with a Touraine sauvignon blanc, a gamay, and a cot/malbec blend. I have enjoyed these wines for years. They serve as my standby when I want solid, natural wines for good value. They are excellent food wines.

At Table Three I was graced by the presence of Pierre Breton, who produces the not so common Bourgueil. The 2004 Les Galichets was a terroir-driven dream. Everyone treated him like a rock star, a celebrity among men and women with vision.

In the back room at Table Four Frack Peillot was pouring the 2004 Altesse, a former Buster wine from Louis/Dressner. Alternately an ’04 Vin de Bugey, Mondeuse was also being offered. I recall the Vin de Bugey, but fastened á la methode champenoise, a real treat and a wine my friend used as the sparkler for his wedding.

Sylvia and Thomas Morey were quite the dashing couple as they poured the very young 2004 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Morgot, a white burgundy with plenty of years ahead of it. The more basic 2004 Bourgogne Blanc was a bit green, but drinking well.

As a bonus there were some winemakers present whose wines I had not yet tasted. Monsieur Gregoire Hubau of Chateau Moulin Pey-Labrie offered the 1999 Canon Fronsac, a vibrant merlot fully of earthy flavors and good fruit. I mentioned that a good sheperd’s pie on a cold night would accompany the wine well, to which Monsieur Hubau inquired of the pie’s main ingredients. When I said pommes de terre (potato), he wryly corrected me. “Where I come from the potato is known as the noble tuber (le noble tubercule).” Now that’s a man who knows his food and wine!

Rounding out the tasting at Table Five were three Italian wines illustrating in part the scope of the natural wine movement. Both the Colli Orientali dei Friuli, Clivi Galea, and the Collio Goriziano, Clivi Brazan from 1999 grabbed my attention. These Malvasia/Tokay blends were the types of whites I have been enjoying lately, lively, minerally, off the beaten path type of white wines. I preferred the Clivi Galea to the Clivi Brazan as I found it less austere. Both wines were crafted from 80 year old vines, and exhibited unusual depth.

The last two wines of the night were tasted in a flurry of emotion and fatigue, because I found myself refilling at the other tables quite often. My sense of smell was still intact, and thank goodness so was my vision. Throughout the tasting I had been speaking in my rusty French and getting by quite admirably. Italian is another story, as all I could remember from spending time in Italy was where’s the beach and thank you. Nadia Verrua from Cascina Tavijn poured a very different Barbera D’Asti than I am accustomed too, followed by a 2004 Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato. The Barbera was good and interesting, but the Ruche was complex and layered with flavor. The winemaker was impeccably dressed and I fumbled for words to keep the conversation alive. The Italian accent is a wonderful note to my ears. Her beauty remained, just as the aroma of the Ruche left in my now empty glass, and I blew a kiss goodbye which somehow got lost in translation. Alas, the love of wine needs no translation, and what a magical couple of hours were embraced under a pale moon beaming down Chambers Street.

Inaugural Post

Welcome to Chef Mateo’s Blog. My motto is simple: Eat and Drink Life.

This is a new blog about food and wine, pleasure and taste, restaurants and recipes, vintages and pairings, cheeses, travel, and trends in the life of a food and wine enthusiast.

Although the blog will primarily be used as a method to discuss food and wine ideas, the opinions and discussion will reflect my thoughts and experiences, as well as my friends, loving called the Grand Crew.

My eating and drinking companions are invaluable in that they help me to formulate my own opinions even if it contradicts members of the group. What we do agree upon is lifestyle, the lifestyle of those who seek to enjoy and enhance their lives through food and wine. We plan, meet, talk, eat and drink. Above all, we laugh, especially after giving food and wine its due.

I hope this blog will invite discussion and vicarious enjoyment too. I can’t promise to answer every question or respond to each comment, but I savor the chance to read your comments and concerns.

As a chef/teacher I maintain a website where you can explore the pleasures of Caribbean cuisine, restaurant reviews, and wine tastings. I hope you enjoy your visit there weekly.

Remember, man gotta eat, woman too.