He bursts through the front door – unwittingly inviting in the crisp November breeze. Out of breath and on a mission, he spreads out a world map on the kitchen table. An explorer out at sea – years in search of a long-lost exotic land. And now so close to setting his eyes upon it. Almost within reach. Running his aged fingers along the map and smoothing out its creases, he turns and focuses his periscope on me – the unknowing representative of said exotic land.
Now show me – where have you lived – exactly where are you from?
Uncle Ned. Drew’s great-uncle. Sweet, sweet Uncle Ned.
We were spending Thanksgiving with Drew’s grandparents and extended family in Battle Creek, Michigan. Over the years my travels had taken me throughout the United States – the Pacific Northwest, West Coast, East Coast, the South. But somehow I had always simply flown over the middle of the country – with maybe a brief (or at times not so brief) layover at Chicago’s O’Hare. This was officially my first visit to The Midwest. In the heart of the country to celebrate a mighty American tradition: Thanksgiving.
I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving. Whole turkeys are kind of hard to come by in Rome or Tehran. But having attended American schools, I was fully versed in the tradition and folklore of this holiday. Later when we moved to Canada, the Thanksgiving celebration shifted to early in October. My understanding of the difference of dates between the two countries is simple geography. Thanksgiving is essentially a celebration of the end of the harvest, and it is believed that since Canada is farther north, the end of the harvest and the onset of winter comes earlier. Another notable difference is the fervor and intensity with which this holiday is celebrated in America, versus the slightly more subdued approach Canadians take in all things (the current Toronto mayor buffoonery not-withstanding). Regardless – even tough this holiday is not cemented in my past – it is a gathering I can fully appreciate. An event centered around family, food, warmth, togetherness, love, and the mandatory familial tensions and misunderstandings. Yes – a gathering I can fully understand and embrace.
Adas polo literally means lentils and rice. It is a very common, everyday dish typically served with a fried, or hard-boiled egg. I think a poached egg would also be great. Ultimate comfort food. It has also taken on the role of the side dish to serve for Thanksgiving in many Persian homes. The addition of the dates, raisins, cranberries and a hint of cinnamon sprinkled in the rice give it a beautiful festive autumnal appeal and add just the right amount of sweetness and texture. It is also a great vegetarian alternative. Typically, adas polo is prepared with tahdig in mind. Which means you would go through the two step method of preparing the rice. First parboiling the rice and also cooking your lentils separately until they’re al-dente. Then steaming the two together until everything is cooked through and you have crunchy golden tahdig. You also have the option of adding the dried fruits mixture to the steaming process or simply scattering them on top of your rice when serving – as I have done here. But if you don’t want to make tahdig you can prepare your basmati rice (white or brown) as you like, cook your lentils completely through separately, prepare the dried fruits mixture and mix them all together at the very end when serving. But you know I’m going to urge you all to try and make tahdig. And actually, steaming the rice and lentils together wonderfully melds all the flavors.
I was seven years old the last time my entire extended family had the opportunity to gather in one place. This was before many of them scattered to various corners of the world, while some stayed – living through a revolution, a war and other struggles brought on by these events. We might have been celebrating a birthday, it might have been Persian New Year, it might have simply been a dinner – a get-together. As hard as I try, I can’t remember the exact occasion. And at the time I’m sure no one had an inkling that this particular get-together would be the last time we would all be laughing, eating, and bickering together. That those casual good nights and kisses at the door would be our very last.
As foreign as Battle Creek, Michigan might have seemed to me – as foreign and exotic as I might have seemed to Battle Creek – spending that Thanksgiving at Drew’s grandparents house was as familiar and loving as any family get-together from my childhood. The linoleum-floored cozy kitchen, the shaggy rug, playing Canasata with Grandma and great-aunt Lolie, Grandpa’s morning coffee and doughnut ritual, Grandma’s Steinway piano and German antiques, the cuckoo clock, Grandpa enchanting me with his tales of serving in the Coast Guard in Alaska during World War 2, bringing down boxes full of black and white photographs capturing those moments (some of which now adorn our walls), Lolie and Ned sharing their love story and how they loved to go out dancing. And of course the day long madness of preparing the great meal. Tip-toeing around individual desires and needs of what and how a dish should be prepared. (I’ve come to understand that it really takes some diplomatic, ambassadorial savvy to successfully get everything on the table to everyone’s liking). And finally opening up the card tables, attaching them to the antique dining table, spreading out the table cloth and gathering around the table. No matter what is served, or how it is served – it’s that moment of togetherness that is forever going to be etched in our memories.
All the elders of the family are now gone. Grandma, Grandpa, Lolie & Ned. As are my own grandparents and great uncles and aunts. All of them hearts and souls of the family. We are told Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks and be thankful. And so I give thanks for that Thanksgiving in Michigan. For the warm embrace of all those sweet people. And with that same sentiment I offer you a lentil and rice dish. It might not be familiar, it might not be traditional, but it is delicious and made with love. And I hope at some point it can find its way to your table.
When the explorer sets foot on the foreign land gifts are exchanged, customs and languages described. And when he leaves to make his long journey back home he returns with new stories, new discoveries and hopefully a box full of new recipes.
* For a more detailed guide to cooking Persian rice please see this post.
* If you don’t want to make tahdig (but you really should!) you can prepare white or brown basmati rice, prepare the lentils as described below, just make sure to add a little more water so they cook through, prepare the dried fruits mixture as described below and mix everything together when serving.
LENTILS AND RICE DISH WITH TAHDIG AND DRIED FRUITS – ADAS POLO
Serves 4-6 as a main dish or 8-10 as a side dish
3 cups white basmati rice, washed and soaked in 2 cups cold water with 3 tablespoons kosher salt for 30 mins or up to 1 hour
1 cup lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 1/2 tablespoons butter or ghee for rice, plus more for dotting, plus 2 tablespoons for dried fruits mixture
cinnamon, for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon ground saffron, steeped in 2 tablespoons hot water, plus a small pich for tahdig
1/2 medium onion, chopped
8 large dates, quartered
1/2 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped if they are large
1/3 cup raisins
1- While the rice soaks place the lentils in a medium sized pot and cover with 1 and 1/4 cups water and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Gently stir and cover with the lid slightly ajar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once at a boil turn down the heat to medium-low and cook until all the water has evaporated and the lentils are cooked al-dente. About 20 minutes. Set aside.
2- In a large non-stick pot or heavy bottomed pot (not stainless steel) bring 12 cups water and 4 tablespoons salt to a boil. Once at a boil drain the rice and add the rice to the pot (do not stir!). Return to a boil and keep a close eye on it. Skim off any foam. Test your rice after 6-8 minutes until the rice is al-dente. Once al-dente drain the rice and give a quick gentle rinse under cold water. Allow the rice to drain completely.
3- Give your pot a quick rinse. Have the rice and lentils close by. Melt 2 and 1/2 tablespoons butter or ghee over low heat. Make sure the melted butter covers the entire surface of your pot and along the sides. If not add more butter accordingly. Add a pinch of saffron to the oil and swirl around. With a spatula add enough rice to fully cover the bottom of the pot. Using the back of the spatula or the back of a wooden spoon pack down the rice firmly. Sprinkle with a little bit of cinnamon. Add a layer of lentils. Add a layer of rice sprinkle top of rice with cinnamon. Repeat, alternating rice, cinnamon, lentil layer in the shape of a pyramid. Your top layer should be a rice layer. Using the handle of a wooden spoon poke a couple of holes in the rice to allow the steam to escape. Dot with a little butter or drizzle with a little olive oil. Cover and turn up heat to medium-high. Cook for 10 minutes. (Don’t go anywhere! The tahdig can burn very quickly)
4- Turn down the heat to medium. Lift the lid and cover with a clean kitchen towel or a couple of layers of paper towel. Place the lid firmly back on the pot and cook for 10 minutes.
5- Turn the heat down to low. Place a heat diffuser under the pot and cook for 40 minutes. In the meantime prepare the dried fruits mixture.
6- In a medium sauté pan melt 2 tablespoons butter (you can use coconut oil or olive oil instead as well) over medium-high heat. Add onion and a pinch of salt. Stir constantly for 5-8 minutes. Turn down heat to medium-low and cook for another 10 minutes, until the onion has softened and turned golden. Turn heat up to medium and add all dried fruits. Give a quick stir and add half of the saffron water. Stir and allow dried fruits to soften. About 10 minutes. Take off heat and set aside.
7- When the rice is done remove lid and with a spatula gently scatter the rice and lentils mixture on a serving platter. Drizzle the top with the remaining saffron water and scatter the dried fruit mixture on top. Gently remove the tahdig and serve on the side.
Will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months.