Growing up far from my family in Iran made for few family memories and even fewer family dinners. With my grandmother across the Atlantic Ocean, I didn't have many encounters with the game-changing Persian cuisine only a truly seasoned hand can make. My dad did his best with potfuls of lentil-studded rice, but the difference was as clear as night and day. If his cooking was Little League, my grandmothers and aunts were playing in the World Series.
One distant relative, Mahin Joon, lived in Scott’s Valley, an hour-long winding drive through the mountains. I remember my dad driving us there once a month, and Mahin Joon’s husband, Cyrus Khan, inviting me to join him on the couch for a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream and an episode of Seventh Heaven every time we arrived. He spoke little English and I didn’t speak much of anything, even at 6 or 7, but this happened once a month, and we understood the shared language of television and ice cream.
While Cyrus Khan and I did what we did best, Mahin Joon was in the kitchen doing the same. Of the tens or twenties of different recipes from different families that I’ve been lucky enough to taste, nobody has made a lubiah polo like Mahin Joon. Her passing this year was a sad reminder to share these sentiments with people while you still can—I wonder if Mahin Joon ever knew that years and years later, 2500 miles away from her old apartment in Scott’s Valley, I still dream of her lubiah polo.
I never cracked the code on what Mahin Joon did differently, but for now, I’ve found something close enough—a warming, hearty dish that tastes like home. This recipe serves about 10, which makes it the perfect candidate for a Not Sad Desk Lunch, or an excuse to invite over friends and family. You might even follow it with a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream.
—Azora Zoe Paknad
10 to 12, maybe more
large yellow onions
lean ground beef
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
advieh or Persian spice mix (easy to find on Amazon!)
1 1/2 tablespoons
Neutral cooking oil
green beans, trimmed and chopped into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
basmati rice, rinsed until water runs clear
In This Recipe
Crush the saffron in a mortar and pestle and transfer the saffron powder to 1/3 cup of hot, hot water. Stir and steep: You’ll be left with bright orange liquid saffron.
Roughly chop one of the yellow onions, then blitz in a food processor until it's a slushy texture. In a large pot, mix it with ground beef.
Season with salt and pepper, turmeric, advieh, and cinnamon, and cook on medium heat, mixing gently with a spatula or wooden spoon, until the beef is browned and the liquid has cooked off. then add tomato paste, mix gently until incorporated, and cook for another 3 minutes before removing from heat.
Dice your second onion finely. In a separate pan with a lid, heat a glug of neutral oil, then sauté the diced onion and green beans, cooking for 10 minutes, until the color deepens slightly. Remove from heat and add to the beef mixture.
Cook the rice just like pasta: Bring water to a boil in a large stainless steel pot, salt generously, and add the rice. Continue to cook on medium-high heat and cook until al dente (this time will vary baed on the size of your pot), then remove from heat and rinse with cold water in a colander.
Add a hearty glug of oil and a spoonful of water to the same pot, and spoon the rice over gently, until a thin layer covers the bottom. Continue to add the rice, heaping it in the shape of a pyramid and adding the green bean and beef mixture halfway through. Drizzle with the liquid saffron and butter, and use the handle of a wooden spoon to gently poke holes in the mixture: You’re shooting for a thin layer of delicious, crunchy rice at the bottom and these little pockets will help. Wrap the pot lid in a dishtowel and place on top snugly.
Leave covered for 25 to 30 minutes (until the bottom is a crunchy, light brown!) on very low heat, then invert the pot (you might need an extra set of hands!) onto a serving dish and cut into like a cake. If your lubiah polo falls apart, don't fret: Scrape the crunchy bits off the bottom of the pan, then make sure each person gets some of that tahdig along with the fluffy, more pilaf-like rice, too.