Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

My 'Children of Heaven' Iranian Dinner: How Everything Turned Out

My 'Children of Heaven' Iranian dinner exceeded all expectations. However, I had to field a few curve balls in the process. First, I decided to prepare and serve the meal at Rene's house instead of my own, so I had the double challenge of preparing a new cuisine in an unfamiliar kitchen. Just when I had gotten my bearings and begun to make some progess with the prep, Rene's nephew Jovan arrived from school, followed soon thereafter by Rene's sister Alicia to pick up her son. She was keen to know all about my Iranian cooking extravaganza, so we spent half an hour or so chatting about the recipes and ingredients. In the interim, the phone rang. It was my son Will...He'd missed the bus. So, since the high school is only two blocks away, I suggested he walk over and stay the night with us instead of catching the late bus to his dad's. Although I was peeved at him for missing the bus, I was secretly glad, because that meant he would get to enjoy my 'Children of Heaven' dinner and I'd get to spend an extra evening with him before he headed to Los Angeles for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Not all the recipes I tried turned out as I'd hoped. But the ones that did were a resounding success. The Kufteh Sabzi, savory meatballs simmered in tomato sauce, which I had originally intended to serve as appetizers, were actually more suitable for the main course. Nevertheless, they were by far the tastiest dish on the table, and one that I will definitely make again. The kotlet dumplings were a disappointment. These little beef and potato croquettes fell apart during the cooking process, and by the time they were done all the way through, the bread crumb coating was too brown. I even tried sauteeing the second batch in butter instead of deep frying, but that was no improvement. So I'm going to omit that recipe from my collection.

The Aash-e Reshteh was another less than perfect dish. It's a hearty herbed noodle and mixed bean soup, but it was much too heavy to serve with a multi-course meal. Moreover, the flavor was not especially distinctive, probably due in part to the fact that I couldn't bring myself to top it with the kashk. That ingredient is a thick whey paste with a tart flavor, and in the throes of trying out so many new recipes, I couldn't devote the kind of time and attention to ensure that I was using it properly. I was also told that the kashk is optional. I'm sure the soup just as it is will make for hearty and delicious leftovers. I'd like to try it in a restaurant sometime, just to see how it's supposed to turn out, but I probably won't be making that recipe again.

The Lamb Kebabs were a tasty success, but one that turned out differently than I originally intended. At the last minute, I decided not to use the sumac spice on them. I dipped a finger into it to get a feel for its flavor and intensity and decided that it was too overpowering for the rest of the dishes on the menu. So instead, I brushed them with olive oil and drizzled them with lemon juice before grilling. I'm going save the sumac for another meal when I can devote my undivided attention to one dish seasoned with it.

The Polow Albaloo was also delicious. The chicken, carmelized onions and cherries were a unique combination of sweet and savory. But unfortunately, mine turned out a little ragged. The cooking process calls for the rice to brown at the bottom, which forms the crispy top layer when the dish is turned out of the pan for serving. Unfortunately, mine didn't brown evenly, so it was perfect on one edge, and a little overdone on the other. And I didn't have a container big enough to hold water for cooling the pan to make the rice easy to remove, so it came apart in places and had to be reconstructed for presentation. I think the trick to this dish is to really know both your cookware and your stove, because there's no peeking midway through the cooking process to see how brown it is. And since I was working in an unfamiliar kitchen with someone else's cookware on an electric stove, I was a little out of my element. Nonetheless, it was absolutely delicious, and the carmelized onion sauce that I made by deglazing the chicken saute pan was an unexpected bonus that wasn't in the original recipe. But it will certainly be added to my version of it.

The Maast va Khiar, cucumber-tomato-yogurt salad was a remarkably simple yet perfect accompaniment to the other dishes on the table. And the Borani Esfanaaj was delicious too. It's a simple vegetable side dish made with spinach, onions, and yogurt, served at room temperature, but I think I would have preferred it served warm. So I'm going to heat it up when I serve the leftovers.

I had also originally intended to make homemade pita bread, but when the moment of truth came, I wisely decided to send Rene to the store for a package of ready-made pita instead.

The wine I chose was also an unexpected treat. Safeway had a sale on a Napa Valley label called Sea Ridge, three bottles for ten dollars. An unheard-of bargain, but at that price I was game to gamble. I chose a pinot noir, and not only was it a delightful bottle of wine, but also the perfect accompaniment to the flavors of the meal. I should definitely pick up a couple more bottles of it while the sale is still going on, since it will no doubt be wonderful with my Thanksgiving dinner as well.

As expected, the Baklava that Mike Alimusa taught me how to make at Small World on Saturday afternoon was the star of the show. He sent me home with a huge tray of it, and I must admit that we cheated and sampled some of it the day before my 'Children of Heaven' dinner. It was honey-golden, sticky-delicioius and absolutely the perfect end to a fantastic meal. Clean-up was a breeze with a dishwasher to lighten the chore, and once I was done, I settled down on the sofa to enjoy a piece of it while we watched the movie.

I can't wait to enjoy an encore presentation of last night's meal.