Just like her mother-in-law makes it

A Venezuelan’s guide to Persian cooking.

Persian halva521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Persian halva521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At 12, it was revealed to a young girl that her family were anusim, secret Jews. With that bit of information, little Reyna of Venezuela began exploring her Jewish roots, an adventure that paved her life path. That path led her to become head cheerleader for the Persian Jews and their culinary traditions.
Reyna Simnegar met her future husband Sammy at a Taco Bell when they were both UCLA students. Her future mother-in-law insisted she learn to cook the only food fit for her boy, leading to the great Jewish-Persian cultural romance. Along the way the young couple further explores Judaism, so don’t worry, this is a very kosher cookbook.
The book is well organized and attractive with good sections including Jewish history in Iran up to the present; a comprehensive guide to Persian spices, seeds, ingredients and gadgets; a glossary with some nice Farsi phrases like bah bah – an exclamation meaning delicious; a guide to Persian peculiarities loved by the author; and my favorite part, the Persian Holiday Tutorial. The tutorial has brief explanations of all the major holidays along with Persian customs and lists of pertinent recipes.
Simnegar has the good humor and good sense to laugh at plenty of the things she embraces, as well as herself periodically. Marinating us with a little chuckle as she emphatically asserts her modernity, she describes herself on the run, a prototype of many women today, BlackBerry and coffee strategically positioned while racing through a hectic mom/businesswoman/carpooler/ volunteer schedule.
With that introduction she gives us her legitimized abbreviation for the cherished Persian marinade. “Marinate it overnight? The last thing I want to do with my evening is to be rubbing chicken legs with sauce. Forget it!” She takes shortcuts all over the place.
Time is a factor, the recipes are not generally overly time consuming or work intensive. Encouraged are the use of dried herbs and spices, as well as frozen greens and lemon and lime concentrates to save time.
This will figure well for many cooks.
Obscene quantities of oil used traditionally are shunned, as is frying in favor of more healthful cooking practices.
Alongside many recipes are useful tips and entertaining anecdotes.
Friendly and personable in each entry, the author introduces us to some of her friends and shares their recipes and stories, pushing beyond the Persian repasts.
The recipes I prepared were well received. I was disappointed not to find any culinary references to Simnegar’s native Venezuela. She does give the best advice, summing up what seems to be her attitude in life when she proclaims “cook like a goddess if you want to.”
Two questions keep nagging me: What was Sammy doing at Taco Bell? And where can I get a green burrito in Jerusalem?
Persian halva is not like regular halva. In contrast to the more popular Israeli halva made of sesame paste, in Iran, halva is flour based with a hint of rose water. Persian halva has a soft, play-dough consistency that is very agreeable to the palate. Halva is the food of choice after fasts and it is also one of the essential foods to be given away on Purim for mishloah manot. It is very easy to make and very easy to eat.
It is important to mix the dough very well. If too many flour lumps remain, process in the pot with an immersion hand blender until a thick paste is achieved. To serve, flatten dough into a shallow platter and garnish with slivered pistachios and almonds. Since this dough is very pliable, it can be shaped with cookie cutters in a myriad of shapes and sizes.
11⁄2 cups water 1 cup sugar 1⁄2 tsp. saffron 1 tsp cardamom powder 1⁄4 cup rose water
2 cups flour 1 cup canola oil
slivered pistachios and/or almonds
To make the syrup, bring water and sugar to a boil in a 4-liter saucepan.
When sugar has dissolved, turn off the heat; add saffron, cardamom, and rose water. Stir and set aside.
In another 4-liter saucepan, toast flour over high heat for no more than 3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to avoid burning. Watch carefully; as soon as the flour becomes light brown, reduce heat to medium and add oil.
Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add syrup and mix rapidly. Almost immediately bright yellow dough, similar to play dough, will form.
To serve, flatten dough into a shallow round platter and garnish with slivered pistachios and almonds, or cut into shapes and garnish.
Yield: 23-cm. round halva