The salty air. The very salty sea. A warm seaside breeze. Hair tangled and knotted in the wind – sticking to very salty lips.
These are my memories of Shomal – North.
Memories can be very elusive, hard to pin down. They tease us with a hazy snap shot of what once was – a time long since passed. A familiar scent, taste, the caress of a warm breeze. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get wrapped up in the all–consuming embrace of nostalgia.
The Northern region of Iran bordering the Caspian sea is referred to as Shomal. It is made up of three seaside provinces: Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan.
My father’s family hails from Gilan, a region well known for its rice paddies, lush green Alborz mountains, popular seaside destinations (for tourists and locals alike), its very distinct Gilaki dialect, and of course its cuisine. Volumes could be written about the delicious food of Gilan – khoresh fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut stew – a dish particularly close to my heart), mirza ghasemi, kabab torsh, zeitoon parvardeh…and of course the abundance of fresh seafood and its much prized caviar. But the one dish enjoyed most often is baghali ghatogh.
Baghala ghatogh (as it’s called in Gilaki) is traditionally made with a type of bean called pacha baghala – which literally translates to short–leg beans.
I was inspired to try my hand at baghali ghatogh after spotting the abundance of fresh fava beans popping up at the farmers market. Fava beans (fresh or frozen) or lima beans (fresh or frozen) are often used as a substitute for pacha baghala – which is not readily available outside of Iran. After a call to my cousin for a little direction I learned that canned white kidney beans (cannellini beans) are also a good and quick substitute. So you have a few choices for the bean – but I had my sights set on those favas.
Call it cooking serendipity, chance – what you will – it was also right around this time that Baba – my dad – and step-mother Kumi decided to surprise us with a visit. And after one glorious family outing to the farmers market I had Baba making his baghali ghatogh. Fresh fava beans, fresh spring garlic, fresh dill, and eggs. The makings of a perfect springtime meal.
This dish is very quick and easy to prepare. Except for one thing – shelling and peeling the fresh fava beans. I won’t sugarcoat this. It takes some time – as in, it took 45 minutes to get through it. And like you, I really don’t have an extra 45 minutes to devote to shelling 4lbs of fava beans. But I do it because fresh favas are here for a short period of time and they taste great – because of the ritual – the tradition – beacause I imagine my aunts, uncles and cousins having done the same. And yes, also because I‘m inclined to get obsessive like that. To make it a little less time–consuming you can split up the bean shelling and peeling process. You can shell the beans the night before while you catch up on your favorite tv show. Then store the shelled beans in a plastic bag in the fridge. All you have to do the next day is peel the outer skin. Try not to split the bean in half when you do this. Once the outer skin has been peeled you have to cook the beans right away. Or even better, enlist the help of others. (Please note fava beans can cause a rare but serious allergic reaction in some people and children. Make sure you or your little ones are not allergic before handling or eating favas.)
The afternoon we got back from the farmers market with our 4lb bag of favas quickly turned from a we’ll just make a simple baghali ghatogh dinner to an epic food odyssey. As it often does. Seduced and inspired by the goods at the farmers market, we decided last minute to throw together a fresh herb koo koo (Kumi’s request), steam some artichokes (the girls’ absolute favorite), put some rice on and quickly saute some fish (the way Baba likes his baghali ghatogh served). As for Drew he had no requests – he just loves and consumes it all, in high quantities.
Baghali ghatogh is typically served over rice, with a side of smoked fish. Or that caviar from Gilan – if you can get your hands on some… I also like it served over some crusty bread to soak up all the delicious juices with some salty feta cheese (to mimic the salty smoked fish) crumbled on top.
Every corner of the house was alive with activity. Baba shelling and peeling the favas at the coffee table – Soleil perched in front of him watching attentively. Kumi prepping the herbs for the koo koo at the kitchen table – Luna working on homework and munching on watermelon. Me at the kitchen island – command central – wondering exactly how we got ourselves into this madness. Every pot in use, both oven and stove in play, the background music trying to keep up with our tempo, children’s questions, costume changes (impromptu fairy performance!) and other needs being met. Absolute wonderful chaos. And somehow, as is usually the case, it all came together. All of us gathered around that kitchen table digging into some baghali ghatogh.
I was about Soleil’s age the last time we were in Shomal. And now, all I have to recall from my visits are those hazy snapshots – the salty air, the salty sea, the warm breeze.
I wonder if many years from now the girls will all of a sudden get a flash, a snapshot of a bustling and loud kitchen filled with the aroma of fresh dill and parsley, homework with a side of watermelon, aged but still strong and gentle hands of a grandfather shelling fava beans…
Fava Bean, Dill And Egg Stew – Baghali Ghatogh
Inspired by Baba and my cousin F.
1 pound fresh fava beans shelled and outer skin peeled*, OR 1 pound frozen favas or lima beans, thawed, OR 1 14-16oz can white kidney beans (cannellini beans), rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons olive oil, or butter or ghee
2 fresh spring garlic, finely chopped (green parts too!), OR 5 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh dill, finely chopped, OR 4 tablespons dried dill
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron steeped in 2 tablespoons hot water (optional)
olive oil for garnish (optional)
feta cheese, crumbled, for garnish (optional)
* I found roughly 4 pounds fresh favas in their shell yielded about 1 pound favas shelled and peeled
1- In a dutch oven or pot or deep skillet heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic, give a quick stir. Add beans and dill. Gently stir to combine for 2 minutes. Until the dill begins to wilt and release its aroma. Take care not to over stir. You want the beans to maintain their shape and not break down.
2- Add the turmeric, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Saute for 2 minutes. Add the saffron water (if using).
3- Add enough water to cover the beans. I used about 2 cups of water. If the stew starts to dry out add more water. Bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook with the lid slightly ajar until the beans are fork tender. About 15 minutes for fresh favas. Take care not to overcook the beans.
4- Taste and adjust seasoning. Right before serving crack the eggs one by one (one egg per person) into the stew. Cook until the egg whites set, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the tops of eggs with a little salt and pepper. Finish off with a drizzle of olive oil.
Serve over rice with a side of your preferred smoked fish (you can skip the fish all together if you want) or serve over crusty bread topped off with crumbled feta cheese.
Will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.