5 Questions

Louisa Shafia on Persian Flavors and Traditions (plus a Giveaway!)

By • June 18, 2013 • 91 Comments

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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Louisa Shafia, the voice behind Lucid Food and the author of The New Persian Kitchen, explains how looking back at her Persian heritage was the logical step forward in her culinary career. And she's giving away three copies!

 

This week's guest editor, Louisa Shafia, grew up eating Persian food, the cuisine of her father's homeland, that she describes as otherwordly: eggplant stews, juicy lamb kebabs, and fluffy rice scented with saffron. It was not until later in her extensive culinary career, however, that she fully realized its influence on her tastes. 

In The New Persian Kitchen, Lousia offers century-old recipes alongside her own creations, introducing readers to an ancient culinary tradition while simultaneously demonstrating how modern meals can benefit from Persian ingredients and techniques. Read on for an introduction to this rich cuisine, in Louisa's words.

If you were speaking to a home cook with little or no experience with Persian food, what's the first dish that you would recommend they make?
I’d recommend fesenjan, the classic Persian stew of chicken or duck in a sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. The combination of rich walnuts and tart pomegranate is like the pairing of complementary colors; it’s a natural fit, and when you taste it, it makes perfect sense. Fesenjan is an ancient dish that reflects the Iranian history of growing lush fruit gardens in the desert, and it gives you a sense of how much Iranians love sour, fruity tastes. Fesenjan is pretty easy to make, too, but the flavors are so epic that it tastes like you were in the kitchen concocting magic for hours. When topped with a few mint leaves and served with fluffy basmati rice and thick yogurt, this is truly a regal meal.

More: How to make the most of pomegranate molasses. 

Your book features a mixture of dishes that are your own inventions -- personal explorations of Persian ingredients and techniques -- and time-honored dishes. Where did you get these traditional recipes?
There’s a well-established canon of classic recipes that you always find at Persian restaurants and in Persian cookbooks. If you are Iranian or if you’re good friends with an Iranian, it’s guaranteed you will know -- and love -- these dishes. Many of them are ones that my mom taught herself to make for our family (my mom is American, my dad is from Iran), like bademjan (eggplant stew), fesenjan (pomegranate stew), and joojeh kebab (chicken kebab), so they were favorites from childhood. My repertoire was expanded by going to family gatherings and tasting the different specialties of my hosts, and learning in the kitchens of friends and relatives who taught me their most treasured recipes, like Baghali polo (rice with favas and dill), step by step.

More: A recipe for fesenjan where pomegranate is the star. 

You've worked at raw, vegan, and high-end restaurants and written Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life. How did your culinary background shape this book?
Besides the fact that I’m half Iranian, what drew me to Persian cooking was that it’s healthy, fresh food, with an otherworldly aspect that comes from ingredients like rose petals, saffron, and pomegranates. After my experience working everywhere from Chinese to Swedish to vegan restaurants, turning my attention to Persian cooking feels like a natural next step. I’m fascinated by the way that cultural ideas were exchanged along the ancient Silk Road trade routes, and Iran, being right in the middle of it all, has a cuisine that draws influences from China, India, Russia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, to name a few.

I enjoy making food choices that take the environment into account, and Persian cooking fits right into my eco-friendly tendencies. Traditional Persian cooking uses a small amount of meat to flavor a dish, but the real focus is on fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs. 

More: Louisa's recipe for Lamb Kebabs in Pomegranate-Walnut Marinade.

What recipe in this book could you not live without? 
That would have to be ash-e reshteh, the classic soup of herbs, noodles, and four different kinds of beans that’s a traditional food for the new year. It’s a one-pot meal that’s warming and full of contrasting flavors and textures, from the hearty beans to the leafy greens to the pan-fried onion and mint garnish. 

What do you like to cook for yourself after a long day?
I take homemade chicken stock and add sweet potatoes, lentils, kale, and garlic. When everything is tender, I put it in a big Chinese soup bowl and top it with scallions, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. That’s my comfort food.

This week, Louisa Shafia is serving as a Guest Editor at Food52. She'll be choosing a Wildcard winner, answering your questions on the Hotline, and sharing recipes from her new book, The New Persian Kitchen -- because your kitchen deserves a taste of the exotic every once in a while.

We're giving away three copies of The New Persian Kitchen! To enter, tell us about a new ingredient you'd like to try -- we'll pick three winners at random by Friday, June 21 at 3 PM EST.

Photos by Sarah Remington

Tags: 5 questions, lousia shafia, persian, middle eastern, iran, pomegranate, healthy, nutritious, fresh

Comments (91)

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about 17 hours ago SooChef

Do use a bit of salt & pepper to taste in the yogurt!

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about 17 hours ago SooChef

I hear a lot of interest about how to use dried rose petals. My father(from Esfehan) uses it as a garnish by crushing a Tspoon along with dried mint on top of his mast-o-khiar(creamy plain yogurt with diced persian cucumbers, raisins & walnuts.) this is a side dish in Iran. But add some dates and dried bread in the mix, and you've got yourself a healthy meal. it is sooo good! Just be sure to use the edible kind of rose petals(not the commercially grown with chemicals & pesticides )): I make my own from my garden.

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about 22 hours ago Sholey Argani

preserved limes, which with fresh lime juice was always in my mother's khoresh (persian stews) I am glad to see Persian cuisine get some recognition, and want to introduce my daughters to some of these dishes. Still remember delicious baklava and saffron ice cream from Lalla rokh, persian/azeri restaurant tin Boston where I did medical training.

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2 months ago SooChef

Fenugreek . It is an essential ingredient in ghormé-sabzi (an all time favorite of mine) though not many people know of it's other uses in dishes particular to smaller regions in Iran.

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5 months ago JJSherman

My head is going in circles I am thinking what about a Pomegranate Molasses Rum Cake.

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10 months ago Jen P

Probably the pomegranate molasses.

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10 months ago cookinginvictoria

Dried Persian limes, if I can source them! Louisa's description of them in the pantry post makes them sound wonderful.

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10 months ago frogger097

I would love to learn how to saffron

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10 months ago shanc2011

Rose petals and rosewater. I've no experience with them, but how impressive do they sound for the next dinner party?

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10 months ago J_McCrory

Rosewater! It sounds so simple but so elegant!

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10 months ago Tina Fruehauf

Pomegranate molasses for savory dishes

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10 months ago Vorlizzie

After reading this review, how could I not say pomegranate molasses?

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10 months ago muse2323

Oh--so many! Rose water & pomegranate molasses have been mentioned, but I've never even cooked with fresh lemongrass, and I'd love to do that.

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10 months ago lbell16

Excited to use the bottle of pomegranate molasses that I just bought!

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10 months ago Carla Nishi Sonoda McFarland

gochugaru

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10 months ago mensaque

Sweetbreads.

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10 months ago melissav

pomegranate molasses

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10 months ago ATG117

rose petals or rose water. I'd love to strike that perfect, not too flowery balance with them.

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10 months ago llg

Gochugaru!

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10 months ago ChefJune

June is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I still remember the taste when I first tried Duck Fesenjan at Reza's in Chicago. I've been intending to make it ever since then. Time to get going, eh?

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10 months ago Carla Nishi Sonoda McFarland

pomegranate molasses. Sounds delicious.

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10 months ago MsMora

It's been years since I've used sumac and would love to reacquaint myself with it. Its tang was such a welcome flavor accent.

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10 months ago ohyoucook

Asafetida. I've seen it in many Indian recipes, but haven't tried it yet.

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10 months ago Camille17

I've never tried cooking on my own with pomegranate molasses, but my favorite restaurant in Cambridge uses it a lot- maybe it's time for me to give it a try!

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10 months ago EmilyArgh

I'd love to try using tamarind paste - but I don't know where to find it!

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10 months ago creamtea

When I visited Iran, we had red-wine cured garlic as an accompaniment to cocktails! They were delicious. I was told the garlic cloves were steeped, sometimes for years, in the red wine "brine" and were very rare and special. I've always wanted to make them.

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10 months ago JudyH

I would like to use pomegranate molasses. I returned from a recent trip to Turkey with a bottle and have only used it in salad dressing so far.

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10 months ago fiveandspice

Emily is a trusted source on Scandinavian Cuisine.

Persian cooking is so wonderfully flavorful. I love all the surprising combinations that I'm not used to. It's totally become one of my favorite cuisines. I almost never cook it at home though, which must change. I've never even bought myself pomegranate molasses to use at home. Time to do something about that.

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10 months ago lazychef

Barberries! I just picked some up at whole foods and am dying to try something with them.

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10 months ago mikansan

I want to cook with sumac. I even bought a little bit of it... still haven't decided how to use it though.

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10 months ago Krisr101

I would like to try Advieh.

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10 months ago Monica C

I'd like to cook with rose petals.

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10 months ago healthierkitchen

I plan to try fesenjan. I've had the recipe saved for ages! I do have pomegranate molasses but have used it so rarely and would love to experiment with it more.

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10 months ago CarlaCooks

I've never cooked with dried rose petals, but I would certainly like to!

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10 months ago Lisa108

Sumac!

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10 months ago Pgolpira

Barberries. I have not cooked with them yet but love Persian food.

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10 months ago calendargirl

Pekmez! I was given a bottle of it but have not used it yet...

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10 months ago Maryam Vahedi

I love fesenjan! I will try the recipe from this book as well as many other recipes to post on my blog Phoodographs.com

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10 months ago LLStone

I have fenugreek and sumac, but no good ideas......

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10 months ago Jennifer Ann

Dried Persian limes!

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10 months ago fivebrowns

i would love to try pomegranate molasses! i use date honey/date molasses (silwan) and love it. hunting for pomegranate molasses tomorrow ;)

Chris_in_oslo

10 months ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

Lately, I've been thinking of using more tamarind. Until this week, that thought went more towards southeast Asian tamarind crab, but Louisa Shafia's book looks like a keeper. (Then, since you have the tamarind anyway, share your ideas for tamarind crab with me.)

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10 months ago Jessica D

Dried limes. I've used lots of other Persian ingredients but never those.

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10 months ago Tierney

I would love to try pomegranate molasses

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10 months ago MarcZ

I'd like to give currants a try!

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10 months ago russeaime

I would love to try using rose water. I've seen it in recipes for years but still haven't gotten around to trying it!

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10 months ago japancakes

I've recently become very interested in incorporating lavender or rosewater into my pastries and cakes!

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10 months ago D5

I would like to incorporate sabzi into my every day meals, having been diagnosed with acute kidney failure I need more healthy low/no salt phosphates and potassium recipes for my health. Living in Arizona I can grow all of these in my herb gardens.

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10 months ago hirobie

Pomegranate Molasses- I can never seem to get the bottle through to the cashier without second-guessing myself and putting it back on the shelf, sighing "I'll never really use this!". Now I will!

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10 months ago Stregakarin

Forget this...

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10 months ago Salvegging

I haven't yet used zaatar!

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10 months ago TrevorVM8

pomegranate-walnut marinade is my next ingredient

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10 months ago Maribel Lara

I love pomegranate butt have never cooked with it. Would love to try sooner of the recipes in the book that highlight this ingredient.

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10 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Green almonds. If I can find them . . . . ;o)

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10 months ago Greenstuff

Chris is a trusted source on General Cooking

You can find them! You live in walnut heaven.

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10 months ago Annette Rojas

Fesenjan was my gateway drug into persian food - delicious! Always looking for more ways to incorporate pomegranate molasses. ;)

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10 months ago How's it Taste?

Young walnuts, the kind in syrup. That and Gochujang are both high on my list. (I have both in my pantry, I'm just waiting for the right time to bring them out.)

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10 months ago mc4hanley

I love Persian food, but I'm still trying to master using rose water - can't wait to serve delicious Persian shireenha for all my friends!

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10 months ago Stregakarin

I would like to try "sumak", vever usted it, but just bought Za'atar. So I'm very curious.

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10 months ago Sheryl Forrester

Saffron.. bought some for some clam chowder. Now it lingers in my cupboard

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10 months ago Isabel S

Rose petals! I've never cooked with them. I am so excited about this book - I love Persian cuisine and fesenjan is one of my favorite dishes.

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10 months ago Bridget Cassun

I have some umeboshi paste I have yet to try; like to try it!

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10 months ago Mira C

I would love to try using fennel seeds. I've always avoided fennel (not a licorice fan), but I had the seeds on crackers recently, and am inspired to explore!

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10 months ago Carrie Smith

Saffron is an absolute Persian delight!

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10 months ago Courtney Bettle

Rose water has always scared me. I'd like to give it a try.

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10 months ago aixpat

I purchased some dried limes on a whim but haven't made much use of them yet. This cookbook looks like a good place to start!

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10 months ago Kukla

Here is my recipe for homemade pomegranate molasses:
For the Pomegranate Molasses (makes 1 cup)

• 3 cups 100% Pomegranate juice, no sugar added
• 1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
• 1/2 packed cup organic brown sugar
• 1 cinnamon stick + 2 star anise
1.Combine all ingredients in a medium sauce pan, bring to boil over medium heat, reduce heat to medium- low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and syrupy, for about 1 1/2 hours. Discard cinnamon stick and star anise, cool to room temperature and chill until ready to use. This is an easy way to make pomegranate molasses if you do not have access to a Middle Eastern grocery store, but can get a good quality Pomegranate juice.

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10 months ago Kukla

It is very easy, just like reducing any juice or wines for vinaigrettes or dessert sauces and most of all you can adjust the sweetness and flavors to your taste.

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10 months ago Kukla

I made the Pomegranate Molasses for my “Eggplant-Lentil Stew” and then used it also in the recipe for Gozinaki (Georgian Caramelized Nuts Candy.

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10 months ago Susan B.

I'd like to try using sumac. Someone gave me a little packet of it but I haven't used it yet.

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10 months ago Karen Earl

I'm curious about pomegranate molasses, from what I've read, it seems to be the sweet-sour ingredient that pulls together a lot of wonderful recipes,

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10 months ago Jessica M-G

Tamarind is new to me. The cookbook includes a recipe for tamarind stuffed fish using trout. I am hooked on our local trout so this would be a great one to try first!

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10 months ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

pomegranate molasses. Never used it yet.

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10 months ago Lisa Parks

that soup sounds amazing! years ago, i shared an office with a girl of persian heritage. she made the most amazing rice! it was "burned" on the bottom of the pan, then flipped over so we could eat the crunchy goodness. i will never forget it. i am also interested in learning more about rose water and herbs and spices.

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10 months ago sdebrango

Suzanne is a trusted source on General Cooking.

One of my favorites also is ash-e-reshteh so hearty and delicious, a great soup for the cold winter months. This brings back memories of some of my favorite foods.

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10 months ago queencake

and another one for the pomegranate molasses.have eaten pomegranate seeds, but have never tried the molasses. best from berlin.

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10 months ago happymontycooks

Pomegranate molasses. I would like to try to make my own using pom juice and cooking until it reduces to a nice, thick syrup. Date syrup in place of honey, maple syrup, agave, or molasses. I've made date paste and like how it lends itself to sweet treats but haven't worked with date syrup.

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10 months ago lmikkel

Add me to the pomegranate molasses brigade.

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10 months ago Madeline9

I'd like to try cooking with Rose Water. I always see it in the Persian markets but never know what to do with it!

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10 months ago Ida Yu

Pomegranate molasses would be interesting! I'd also like to try cooking with tamarind!

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10 months ago NovaS

I didn't even know pomegranate molasses was a thing, so that!

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10 months ago Emily Christenson

sumac!

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10 months ago True Blue

Fenugreek is my mystery spice. Toasted it smells nice but how do I work with its bitterness?

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10 months ago scott.finkelstein.5

Chinese cheese. God, that would be fun to learn about.
I've been meaning to get my hands on goat for a long time now.

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10 months ago Michael M

I've dabbled with pomegranate molasses a bit but would love to learn more.

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10 months ago kleahey

I want to experiment with fermented black beans soon.

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10 months ago cupcakemuffin

I want to try fennel pollen...so far I've decided it's too expensive, but it's going on my birthday list. :)

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10 months ago Jordan

I actually just purchased a bottle of pomegranate molasses, but I wasn't really sure how I could use it. I'd love to try making fesenjan!

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10 months ago aargersi

Abbie is a trusted source on General Cooking.

This is pitiful, but I have never cooked a fava bean, and it sounds like the time has come to correct that - with baghali polo

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10 months ago Marian Bull

Marian is an editor at Food52.

The time has come, the fava said, to cook with many things!

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10 months ago aargersi

Abbie is a trusted source on General Cooking.

With hooves and shrimps and bee-sweet wax!
And cabbages and things!
:-)