I’ve had a hard time thinking about what I should write about lately. I’ve got an over-abundance of food-porny close-ups from some marathon eating sessions, but I got a bit sick of the bragadaccio associated with showing off to everyone in internet land. Knowing me and my narcissistic tendencies however, I’m sure this will pass.
My late grandmother on my mother’s side is someone who puts a smile on my face whenever I think about her. Her name was Clementine, but we all called her Titine (pronounced “Tee-teen”). Titine was an amazing woman by all accounts, and I was so lucky to know her for the first 13 years of my silly life on this planet. While it may be 15 years since she’s left us, her mark on me hasn’t faded much. Why is that? The answer lies in that photo.
Titine was prolific in the kitchen. Her cuisine spoke to her Iraqi/Chaldean/Ottoman roots, and she handed it down with furor to her children. The food was simple, heartfelt, and full of comfort, texture, and flavor.
I’ve talked about it a few times before, and it seems to be a recurring theme for me: Food as an emotional connector.
When you use food to provide for people you care about, it transcends its role as a type of physical sustenance. When you strive to cook food that makes people happy, it becomes something experiential. It might be a stretch, but I really believe that food and more specifically, the act of cooking, can be one of the most powerful legacies we hand down to family and friends. It evolves bit by bit as it moves from generation to generation. These changes can be caused by external cultural influences, availability of ingredients, and the cooking style of the individual. In a way, family dishes can evolve from generation to generation much like our DNA does. I think that’s awesome.
The dish in the photo above is called “Djadj Mayy Narenge.” Loosely translated, it means “water from the bitter orange.” If you’re a smartie pants, you may come to the conclusion that this is a stew that has some citrus characteristics to it. You would be right.
The funny part is that I just discovered the name of the dish today. All of my life, I never had to call it by its real name. My brothers and I would just hassle my mother and ask her to make the “Lemon chicken stew.”
Djadj Mayy Narenge is a thick, filling chicken and potato stew that’s traditionally flavored with a citrus fruit known as “Bitter Orange.” This fruit, indigenous to Iraq and surrounding areas, is a close cousin of the Seville Orange. Here in NYC, we modify the recipe by using orange juice or lemon juice and honey as a substitute. The presence of saffron and cardamom adds complexity, warmth and aroma to the dish. The smell alone is invasive in a wonderfully comforting way, and the simple combination of those spices provides a delicate balance of exoticism to the universal (but not necessarily boring) chicken and potato. We like to pair it with a Persian preparation of Basmati rice, touched with saffron and cooked in a way that allows it to develop a crunchy crust (also known as tadigh).
Up until last year I had never made it myself. The thought of trying to replicate something so close to home was intimidating to me- more so than trying to pull off recipes by the likes of Jean-Georges and Eric Ripert. Finally, last new year’s, I decided to make it for family and friends. Having them take part in eating a dish so close to me and my family was a special thing to me. I was able to share a side of myself and my family that I hadn’t really done before, and I really enjoyed doing so.
It occured to me that sharing something like this with the world is more important to me than showing off something beautiful I ate at a michelin starred restaurant. Food from home might lack the polish and professional touch of haute cuisine, but becomes a powerful, accessible vehicle for shared tastes and experiences.
I’d like to think that Titine would be proud that we keep her with us through the food she made for us. I might be a bit fatter for it, but I wouldn’t trade my olfactory connection to my family for anything.
Djadj Mayy Narenge
Makes 6 servings
10 Skinless, Boneless chicken thighs
2 Tbsp. Flour
2 Lb Small red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 in. pieces (half if necessary)
6 Cups chicken broth
3 Saffron packets
10 Cardamom pods in a cheesecloth bundle tied with string
2 Tbsp. Butter and veg oil for sauteing
1 cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey
In a large enameled cast iron pot, bring broth to a boil, add 3 small individual packs of saffron and cardamom, and a little salt. Add potatoes and simmer for 15 – 20min, they should still feel firm. Reserve.
Take the chicken pieces , season them w salt + pepper, put in a ziplock bag with 2 Tbsp of flour, shake to coat.
Take a large teflon saute pan, heat to medium high, add butter (2Tbsp) and grapeseed oil, shake excess flour from chicken and saute until golden color (don’t overcook, just make sure they’re cooked outside. Cook chicken in batches to prevent overcrowding the pan. Remove with a slotted spatula and put on 2 layers of paper towels to absorb excess fat.
Add 1 cup lemon juice to the potato/broth and 1 Tbsp honey, stir to dissolve well and add chicken to the lemon broth/potatoes, let simmer for a good hour or so. Taste and adjust seasoning. The earlier you cook it the better so flavors really mingle.
Persian-Style Basmati Saffron Rice
Count 1 cup of dry Basmati rice for 3ppl.
3 Saffron packets
5 Tbsp Butter
In a bowl, put the rice and rinse several times with tepid water, then let it soak for up to 1 hour.
In the large Teflon pot, almost fill with water, add 1 Tbsp Kosher salt, bring to a boil. Strain rice and add to boiling water, let boil for approx 4 minutes, strain in a colander.
Add 2 Tbsp butter in the Teflon pot, along with 1/2 cup water, and 2 to 3 small saffron individual packets, mix well, bring to a boil, the gently fold in rice, mix gently with wood spatula until rice is yellow, then add on the top 5 pats of butter (max 1/2 Tbsp each) evenly spaced, cover with 2 papertowels under the lid and put on low for a couple of hours. Don’t touch the rice or stir.
Now for the tricky part. When you are ready to serve, remove the cover, place the serving plate upside down on top of the pot, and flip the whole thing over. If you did it right, the entire rice “cake” should pop right out, and the crust should be a golden yellow-brown color.