Cooking For Joy

A Friday Night Tradition I Crave More Than Ever

There is really nothing better than Bibi’s choresh and rice

Bibi’s table. Photos courtesy of Andrea Strong

Editor’s Note: Heated has asked contributors to write about a dish they’re cooking that cuts through bleak headlines, forced isolation, and limited ingredients to bring them joy; we’ll be running at least one contribution a day through this social-distancing stretch.

I grew up in Queens. My mother was born in England to Persian parents who fled the country when Jews were persecuted in the 1920s. My dad was born in Brooklyn to Ashkenazi parents, who viewed cooking as an exercise in boiling things in pots of water into saltless oblivion. Obviously, I tended to gravitate toward my mother’s family’s cooking — more specifically, my grandmother, Bibi’s.

Bibi hosted nearly every family gathering around her 12-seat dining room table (who has those anymore?), cooking in pots so large they could have been used to bathe small children. In them, she made platter upon platter of rice — green rice flecked with dill; jeweled rice with sour cherries, pistachios, orange peel, and almonds; silken rice tossed with plump raisins, braised veal, and carrots; steamy white rice stained with saffron. There were tiny triangular sanbouseh (savory turnovers) filled up with beef, boat-sized terrines filled with slow-simmering stews called khoresh, and chelo galeyeh — a spinach soup made with bunches of dill, cilantro, and parsley served with fat moist meatballs called gondee, melt-away pieces of braised chicken, and eggs, dropped in raw and poached in the soup.

And after dinner came the platters of fresh fruit and trays of little round cookies made from groundnuts and rosewater, dusted in powdered sugar, and the glasses of tea with lump sugar. She cooked as fervently as she fed us, as though our lives depended on it.

Bibi at the stove. Photo courtesy Andrea Strong

So you see why I liked her cooking. Bibi was the best cook I have ever known. And I have known some good cooks over my life.

Bibi died the day before Christmas in 2009, the winter I was pregnant with my daughter Emily. What I learned when I lost Bibi is that death is not a neat or finite experience. It’s like a bruise, the kind you get after you really bang into something. You don’t see a mark at first, but you know it’s gonna be bad. It’s only days later that the deep blue, green, and purple mark begins to bloom, borderless and tender. And it never goes away. Weeks can go by with nothing, and then your hand happens to brush against that spot, and you’re reminded, oh, right, loss, you’re still here.

I lost an entire landscape of food. It’s a unique form of heartbreak, not only to lose the person, but to lose their cooking, too: the smells, the tastes, the sheer quantity of it all — and the way the stale, dry air in her building’s long hallway changed when the door to her apartment opened.

But then I had kids. And I started cooking a lot more. One Friday, I decided to try to make her choresh. It was a small disaster but I kept trying, every Friday night, working on the recipe, hearing her gravelly smoker’s voice, her faint British accent, in my head, “Andy, you need more salt. Andy, let the potatoes sit there longer until they brown.”

A few years of trying — no joke — it got so it was pretty decent. By this time, my kids started eating solid food and I began serving it to the family on Shabbat. My son Sam, who doesn’t care for anything other than grilled cheese, devoured it and asked for more. Emily could not get enough. “More rice, Mommy!” Bibi would have loved hearing that sentence.

Now every Friday night it’s our tradition. I make Bibi’s choresh and rice. It’s a meal filled with memories and love. And it’s something both my kids will gladly eat without issue. There really is nothing better.

The writer and Bibi.

Chickpea Choresh

Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut to a medium dice
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 pound beef stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1¼ inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • A couple of grinds of black pepper
  • 6 ounces tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 15 ounces canned chickpeas

Instructions

In a medium pot, sauteé the diced onions in vegetable oil over medium-high heat until they are soft and translucent but not getting brown, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the beef to the onions and begin to brown. Add the turmeric, cinnamon, salt and pepper as you brown beef on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the tomato paste and stir to incorporate into the beef.

Add the water, just enough to cover the meat.

Bring the stew to a boil then reduce to medium-low heat and cover and simmer for 2 to 2½ hours.

Add chickpeas 10 minutes before the stew is finished.

Serve the stew hot over rice.

Rice with Potato Tahdig (Potato-Crusted Rice)

Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups long-grain white basmati rice, rinsed five times in cold water
  • 6 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 to 2 medium-sized potatoes, skin on, thinly sliced into ½ inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon saffron (1 pinch)

Instructions

Drain the rice from the water.

Add water and 6 tablespoons kosher salt to a large pot or Dutch oven over high heat. Bring the water to a boil. You may think this is too much salt but it’s not, the salt flavors the rice. Trust me.

Add the rice to the boiling water and let it boil rapidly for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it’s toothsome like al dente pasta. You will see the rice start to float up to the top of the water.

Strain the rice and set aside.

In the bottom of your pot (this step is easier if you use a nonstick pot), add a good coating of oil and sprinkle the oil with salt. Then place the potato slices in one layer to cover the bottom of the pan. Add a couple more shakes of salt. Cook the potatoes over medium-high heat for 10 to 15 minutes until they are crispy and golden brown. You should see them brown on the edges, careful not to burn.

Now pour the boiled rice over the top of the potatoes in a pyramid shape and poke three holes around the top of the mound with the back of a wooden spoon.

Reduce the heat to low, pour 2 teaspoons of olive oil over the top the rice and gently cover the rice with a dish towel and the top of the pot.

Cook the rice on the stovetop (or in a 350F degree oven) for 20 minutes.

Steep the saffron threads in 2 to 3 tablespoons of hot water and pour over the rice just before serving.

Flip the rice over onto a flat plate when it is ready to serve to reveal the potato crust.

Serve hot with the choresh.

Andrea Strong is a journalist who covers the intersection of food, policy, business and law. She is also the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.

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