Family dinners have different meanings for every family. I am half-Iranian, half-American and I married a man who is full Iranian, but very American. Make sense? Our family parties are not small. In most middle-eastern cultures, if you are related as little as a drop of blood, you are considered family. When your husband’s sister gets married, her in-laws are now your family. My cousin’s son’s fiancé’s parents are now a part of my family. Distant cousins are very much part of our family’s everyday life. This makes for great parties!
We are also blessed to be living in San Diego, California. While the rest of the country is freezing, we have had a mild winter. Except for a week of rain, we’ve been sunny and 75ºF most of the time! But don’t hate us because of that!
Last night my husband’s family was together and we celebrated my mother-in-law and father-in-law’s return to the U.S. after a two-month visit to Iran. And the best way for us to celebrate is with a Winter Barbeque – Persian Style, with Kabobs.
You have probably heard of kabobs, maybe even made your version of it. But, in Iran, it is more than just meat on a stick. Meat is marinated and prepared in special ways, depending on the meat you are using. In last night’s case, we made kabob-eh barg (filet mignon), kabob-eh koobideh (ground beef kabob) and joojeh kabob (chicken breast kabob). Each are prepared differently, and each are equally delicious. And with Chef Babak manning the grill, my husband’s cousin, no one turned down the invitation to this family barbeque!
Appetizers were light, we had a lot of kabobs waiting to be eaten. But these family favorites were a must: Kashk-eh Bademjoon (eggplant dip), Mast-o Khiar (yogurt with cucumbers), and fresh herbs (basil, mint, tarragon) with radishes, feta and lavash.
All three kabobs were prepared and marinating two nights before the big day. The filet mignon and chicken were marinated similarly: onions, garlic, yogurt, saffron, salt & pepper. The filet is cut thin, about half-inch thick while the chicken is a big chunkier, about 2 inch chunks. We use long flat skewers for our kabobs, and one skewer full of meat is a lot for one person to handle. In our culture, more isn’t just better, it’s a must. And way too much food is just right! So calculating how much meat per person can be a challenge, depending on how generous you want your portions to be. We figured approximately half a pound of meat per person, but I’m sure I ate more!
The ground beef kabob takes special care. My mother-in-law showed me in the past how she prepares this special dish. Her recipe is found here. Last night we did basically the same thing. You purée your onions, squeeze out the excess water and mix it with the meat and salt and pepper. Then you massage it, like you do pizza dough, over and over and over again. My mother-in-law likes to use the food processor for part of this process. Unlike baking, the more you massage the kabob meat, the fluffier and juicier your kabob will turn out. As my mother-in-law told me, “This is not a hamburger.”
Another trick with ground beef kabob is making sure your meat does not fall off the skewer. By removing the juices from the puréed onion, you will have a stickier meat mixture, and most likely your kabob will stick to your skewer. Pinching the ends of the meat on the skewer also helps keep the meat from falling off, and seals in the juices and flavor of your kabob. I have yet to master this dance. I prefer going to Babak’s house for my kabob! Firouzeh, Babak’s wife, was kind enough to demonstrate how to form your ground beef kabob onto your skewer:
Babak had his barbecue custom built for kabob grilling. Hot coals are a must for kabobs. You are constantly heating the coal by fanning the flames. It might be a throw back to a primitive time, but almost every Iranian’s home, especially one who grills kabobs, has a straw fan to fan the flames by hand and keep the coals burning hot.
My husband, Reza, is the assistant when Babak is outside grilling our kabobs. I often wondered what the men were doing, while we women were inside laughing, setting the table and getting the basmati rice and shirazi salad ready. The mystery was revealed last night. The men were drinking, laughing and eating the kabob fresh off the grill, wrapped in small pieces of lavash. I observed these two grown men coordinating the basting, the kabob-turning and sliding the meat off the skewers. I was impressed. They really knew what they were doing!
After grilling the kabob, you remove them from the skewer using lavash bread. Usually, your serving platter is lined with lavash and kabob rests over it, covered with another piece of lavash. The juices from the meats get soaked into the bottom layer and during dinner, everyone fights for those juicy pieces of bread.
All three kabobs are served with white basmati rice, grilled tomatoes, fresh herbs, lavash bread, and salad shirazi (cucumber-tomato salad). Kabob is also served with sumac, a dark red spice that offers a great tang to your meal.
And when you thought you were ready to burst, and you couldn’t eat any more, dessert was served. In my family, we like to have a little bite of something sweet, to help with digestion, we tell each other. Whether a little bite or a big one, we served these popular Persian desserts: Napoleons (influenced by the French), Baklava (made with rose water syrup) and Sholeh Zard (saffron rice pudding). And of course, dessert is served with aromatic and delicious Perisan tea.
In total, we had about thirty people over last night for a night of kabob and good times. We all came hungry and left totally stuffed. Everyone was full of compliments and offered sage advice (“Laura, your sholeh-zard needs more saffron”). My mother-in-law used her creative talents to help me garnish our dishes. Alas, another family dinner was under our belt, even if we couldn’t keep that belt buckled around our oh-so-full stomachs.
We said our good-byes, gave our hugs and kisses and vowed to workout extra hard the next day to burn off all the lovely food we ate. That is, until the next family dinner… later this week…. Maybe we can wait another week?
I took so many pictures last night that I decided to put together this little slide show of our amazing evening, with beautiful Persian music provided by cousin’s husband (of course) Emad Bonakdar.
And in case you couldn’t keep track of all the food we made, here is the official menu:
Eggplant Dip (Kashk-eh Bademjoon)
Yogurt with Cucumbers (Mast-o Khiar)
Lavash Bread with fresh herbs and feta cheese