Pomegranates and Artichokes. Recipes and memories of a journey from Iran to Italy.
Immigrant cooks almost invariably fill their cookbooks with treasured recipes from their homeland. In Pomegranates and Artichokes, Saghar Setareh takes a very different approach.
Having lived in Rome for longer than any city in Iran, she sees herself as belonging to more than one culture. In her kitchen she cooks Iranian, Italian and everything in between.
In her book she takes us on a culinary journey starting in Iran, then West through the Levant and Eastern Meditteranean, before reaching Italy, her final destination where her home is now. Observing along the way how often their cuisines have ingredients, and cooking techniques in common.
In Italy, when cooking Guinea hen with pomegranate, she was reminded of chicken with pomegranate sauce from Northern Iran. Although very different geographically they are basically the same dish i.e. poultry with pomegranate seeds and juice. Only the aromatics are different. In Iran, turmeric and saffron are used, in Italy it would be local herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
And the Tomatoes stuffed with rice, another Italian recipe, bore an uncanny resemblance to Iranian dolmeh, the dolmas of Turkey and the Balkans, and the Greek gemista.
The first part of her book is a celebration of her Iranian heritage. She teaches some basics: how to cook golden onions, make a saffron infusion and how to cook Iranian rice which she likens to an art form perfected over many centuries.
She waxes lyrically about the joys of eating street food which she experienced as a student, and includes evocative stories about her family life when she was young.
Her beautiful photograph of an Iranian breakfast platter, which includes her grandmother’s bicoloured tea, looks lavish but would be easy to replicate.
Her everyday comfort food and small dishes include many different ways with yoghurt and a simple Iranian salad for summer and winter.
The dishes served at house parties and celebrations need more time and attention but they would be worth it! The upside-down saffron rice cake, a lavish, fragrant and highly savoury dish, and a platter of Iranian jewelled rice look especially alluring
Iranians celebrat, and commisserate with sugar. In Iran, tea must always be offered when visitors arrive, usually accompanied by something sweet. Sweets are served at religious ceremonies and funerals too. Here is an opportunity to satisfy your sweet tooth. Her chocolate cake with date frosting looks luscious!
For Saghar, when visiting the cities of the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean, it is the smell of kebabs which is the smell of this land. She has included a recipe for tiny kebab skewers spiced with paprika, cinnamon, cumin and oreganum which can be made at home on a grill pan or barbecue.
Her milky, silky tricolour pudding looks delicious. It shares its intriguing thousand year old roots with the French blancmange, Italian panna cotta and other similar white puddings everywhere.
Saghar loves the simplicity of everyday Italian cooking. The ingredients are disarmingly few and are often both seasonal and local.
Her recipe for midnight spaghetti with garlic, chilli and olive oil harks back to her student days when she shared a flat with a bunch of students, and made it when they came back, after a night out, in the early hours of the morning , feeling a bit tipsy and hungry. It is fast, cheap and easy.
Her version of peperonata, oniony, garlicky braised bell peppers, is such a versatile recipe. It can be tossed through pasta, spooned on toasted bread, or served as part of a simple supper.
For aperitivo, as well as nibbles and small bites, she has designed playful recipes for three cocktails: Spritz, the Classic, Negroni, the Bold, and Bellini, the Peachy which I think would be fun to serve.
For a celebratory meal, I may not rise to creating her majestic rice timbale from Naples but I can’t wait to make one of her rustic savory pies (one crustless, with potato, egg and cheese, the other with shortcrust pastry, spinach and ricotta).
In Pomegranates and Artichokes, Saghar Setareh has shown us how the culinary world is a world without borders. Ingredients are free to wander and over the years to take new shapes. They are symbols of our common humanity.
I think it is a cookbook to return to often, not only to cook from but to read her stories and salivate over her stunning food photography.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter