The spring equinox is just around the corner, and that means Nowruz is upon us. To celebrate, many Iranians will start off the year with traditional dishes like sabzi polo baa mahi, a fragrant saffron rice pilaf served with salmon. Author Yasmin Khan makes her version of the classic using handfuls of fragrant chives, parsley, cilantro and dill to symbolize the rebirth and renewal of spring.
“For many Iranians, the best part of this dish is the crisp crust that forms at the bottom of the pan during cooking — the ‘tahdig,’” Khan tells us in “The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen.” Mastering the buttery saffron crust requires some practice, but the trick is to wash, soak and parboil your rice before steaming it very slowly in a well-sealed saucepan. Then transfer the saucepan to cold water bath to loosen the tahdig from the bottom and just…flip! If all goes well, you should have yourself “an elegant golden rice cake.”
MIXED HERB RICE WITH BAKED SALMON (SABZI POLO BAA MAHI)
Khan says this recipe does not call for a specific water-to-rice ratio, so any amount of rice can be cooked using this method. All you need is a heavy-based, nonstick pan with a snug-fitting lid and a clean tea towel or paper towels to line the lid.
Yield: Makes 4 servings
4 salmon fillets
1¾ cups white basmati rice
2 tbsps boiling water
A pinch of saffron strands
1 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 tbsps fresh dill, finely chopped
2 tbsps fresh chives, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
Sunflower oil, as needed
2 tbsps unsalted butter
Sea salt, to taste
A pinch of sugar
¼ cup soy sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
A pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Prepare the marinade: Combine the soy sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and cayenne pepper in a large bowl. Add the salmon and turn to coat well, then cover with plastic wrap. Transfer to the refrigerator to marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Parboil the rice: Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear, then leave to soak in a large bowl of water for 15 minutes. Drain.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. (Don’t worry about the large amount of salt. The rice cooks in the water very briefly, so the final result won’t be too salty.) Now add the rice and parboil for 4 to 5 minutes over medium heat. Taste to test; the rice should be soft on the outside but still hard and firm in the middle. Drain and rinse the parboiled rice to stop it from cooking any further. Reserve and set aside.
Prepare the Saffron Liquid: Using a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron threads with a pinch of sugar and then add 2 tablespoons of boiling water. Steep and set aside.
Season the rice: Gently fold the rice, chopped herbs, garlic clove and 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil together, being careful not to break the grains of rice.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil in an 8-inch nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the Saffron Liquid to the mixture and season with a pinch of salt. Once hot, sprinkle a thin layer of parboiled rice over the bottom of the saucepan and press down firmly. Then, using a large spoon, gently layer the remaining rice over the base layer, until it forms a pyramid-shaped mound. Using the handle of the wooden spoon, poke four holes into the rice. Insert ¼-tablespoon of the remaining butter into each of the four holes. Now pour the rest of the Saffron Liquid over the rice.
Cook the rice: Place a clean tea towel or four sheets of paper towels over the rim of your saucepan and position the lid over them to ensure you have a snug fit. (Be sure to tuck the edges of the tea towel up beneath the lid’s handle, or trim the edges of the paper towels beforehand so that they won’t catch fire.) Cook the rice for 5 minutes over medium heat, and then reduce to a low simmer and cook for another 15 minutes. Once done, remove the saucepan from the heat and let the rice steam for 20 minutes. Resist the temptation to sneak a peek so that you don’t disturb the steaming process.
Bake the salmon: After the rice has steamed for 10 minutes, transfer the marinated salmon to a baking tray and bake the fish, skin-side up, for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until preferred doneness.
Do not remove the lid from the saucepan once the rice has finished cooking. Fill the sink with a few inches of cold water and place the saucepan — with the lid still tightly sealed — in the cold water. This will produce a rush of steam that should loosen the base of the rice from the bottom surface of the pan. Remove the lid and hold a large plate over the top of the pan and quickly flip the rice out onto the plate.
Serve the baked salmon and herbed rice with plenty of natural yogurt and a salad.
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