My best friend during the year I lived with my aunt and uncle in Italy was Parinaz. She has an Italian mother, and Iranian father and was born in Tabriz. Her parents had come to Italy after the Shah was overthrown and we were in the same year in a high school in Monfalcone, near Trieste. We bonded because we were both the new girls in the class and it being a small town, everyone knew each other’s families. But no-one really knew ours, although both our mothers had lived in the town years back. We were both very good at English (Parinaz spoke three languages), much to the delight of our English teacher, who was Italian and heavily accented. She made us pronounce words for the rest of the class because Parinaz and I were incorrigible teenagers who smirked whenever she pronounced anything incorrectly.
Parinaz lived in a beautifully furnished apartment on the third floor; it seemed an Aladdin’s cave with chocolate-brown floor tiles, silver plates engraved with Farsi words and richly coloured plush Persian rugs hanging from the walls. I loved visiting her – she taught me to write my name in Persian (something I remember to this day) and the numbers up to ten. An exotic aroma would filter through the apartment when her mother was cooking Persian food: cinnamon, saffron and lemon. It was one of my first experiences with the cuisine of this part of the Middle East, which marries sweet and sour, with dishes that combine meats with fresh fruit, nuts and saffron, and rice with pulses and dried fruit.
I have never really cooked Persian food before, but when I received a monthly bag of goodies from the Prahran Market, which included quinces, I searched online for a savoury dish that uses quinces. Pork was one option (though I rarely eat pork) but I liked the sound of a Persian beef dish with quinces – khoreshe behh. I made a few changes based on what I had in the pantry, therefore it is a rich Persian-inspired stew rather than an authentic khoreshe behh. It is totally delicious though – the beef is cooked at length until melt-in-your-mouth tender and the quinces which have been previously tossed in butter are slow cooked with the beef for an hour. The combination of the two is divine. I served the dish with some steamed rice, tossed with finely chopped spring onion. I like to think that this might have been similar to one of the exotic dishes I had as a teenager in Italy at Parinaz’ house – at least it brings those memories back to me.
spezzatino alle mele cotogne - beef and quince stew with rice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 kg beef, diced (3cm dice)
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed
15 saffron threads, soaked in 1 tblsp hot water for 10 mins
3 tblsps lemon juice
1/4 tsp cinnamon powder
3 tblsp tomato concentrate
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
30g unsalted butter
2 medium to large quinces
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1 cup rice (long or medium grain)
3 shallots, thinly sliced
Place the onion and olive oil in a heavy bottomed oven-proof saucepan (that has a tight fitting lid) on the stove at low-medium heat. Cook about 12 minutes until softened, then add the turmeric. Allow to cook for a minite, stirring with a wooden spoon, then add the meat. Allow the meat to brown all over, stirring frequently then add the drained lentils, saffron water, lemon juice, cinnamon, tomato paste, salt, pepper and water and stir. Once it starts simmering, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for about one hour and a quarter, stirring every now and then.
After about 50 minutes, start preparing the quinces. Wash them well, rubbing off the furry coating on the skin. Cut the quinces in quarters and remove the central core (like you would an apple), then cut into thin slices, leaving the yellow skin in place. Place the butter in a large non-stick frypan and place on the stove at medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the sliced quinces and cook for about ten minutes until the quinces are starting to soften, tossing so both sides get cooked. If you do not have a large frypan the quince slices can be cooked in batches. Once cooked through, scatter on the sugar, tossing it through a minute or two until it dissolves. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180c. Remove the pot with the meat stew from the stove and give it a good stir. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and if it looks dry, add another half cup of water. Layer the cooked quinces on top of the meat, cover with a lid and place in the oven for an hour, until the meat is cooked through and tender.
Fifteen minutes before the stew is ready, rinse the rice in cold water a couple of times, drain and then put into a small saucepan. Cover the rice with clean tap water until there is about a fingers width of water covering it. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and put on the stove on medium heat until it comes to the boil. Reduce the heat and set the timer to ten minutes.
After ten minutes, there should be no water left in the saucepan with the rice and it should be cooked through. Fluff it up with a fork and remove from the heat. Place the cooked rice in a bowl and stir through the chopped spring onion.
Divide rice in four serving bowls and spoon on the beef and its sauce, then top with slices of quince.