There’s no time for small talk at the late morning start of Najmieh Batmanglij’s class in the art of Persian cuisine. On a recent Sunday morning, ten eager students surround the broad butcher-block island in the Iranian-American chef’s home kitchen, two short blocks from the main gate of Georgetown University. Over the next four and a half hours, the group will learn new knife skills, the how-to of grinding spices and help in the preparation of six dishes — from savory cardamom-scented beef pastries to sweet saffron-laced honey almond brittle. Let the chopping begin.
When the work is done, it will be time to take a seat in the chef’s art-filled dining room and pay due respects to a woman who has spent the past 30 years cooking, traveling and updating authentic recipes from her homeland. All in the group are owners of one or more of her seven cookbooks.
“Now, pick up a peeler . This eggplant will make your life easy,” instructs Batmanglij, as she waves a pale purple Asian variety of the fruit in the air. Unlike the more common broad glossy black cultivar, “It’s not bitter, has a delicate flavor and you don’t have to soak it in salt water.” Non-stop, experience and wisdom is shared. She will tell you that vinegar is her kitchen essential for rinsing vegetables, as well as cleaning counter tops. The stems of vegetables and herbs, such as parsley, have “the best food properties of the plant.” And, who knew that the addition of unripe grapes brings a unique tart accent to a chicken stew?
But this student could not help wandering off to the nearby rear French doors for a view of the lush garden with potted olive and orange trees as well as trellises dripping with thick assorted vines. A perfect oasis. Every interior wall holds treasures from her travels, from Middle Eastern relics to pressed glass pedestal serving pieces. The eyes need never stop.
I came away as a big fan of the chef’s recipe for doymaj — a terrific, healthy and easy-to-throw-together dip, perfect for summer entertaining, made with walnuts, goat cheese and handfuls of herbs. For scooping up the nutty/herbal goodness, serve with small Persian cucumbers (available at farmers markets and Whole Foods stores).
Batmanglij’s current favourite restaurants: Sushiko in Glover Park and Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan.
Doymaj: Cheese, Walnut, and Herb Dip
1/2 pound goat feta cheese, rinsed and drained
2 cups walnuts, toasted
2 fresh spring onions, chopped
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh tarragon leaves
2 cups fresh mint leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 2 limes
1/2 cup olive oil
1. In a food processor, place all the ingredients and pulse until you have a grainy paste.
2. Transfer the mixture to a serving bowl.
Serve with triangles of pita bread, Persian cucumbers sliced on the diagonal and a chilled French Rose.
Note: To toast the nuts: Preheat oven to 350?F (180?C), place nuts on a baking sheet, and bake—10 minutes