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Deirdre Bourdet, Offbeat Eats, Nowruz, the Persian New Year makes a fresh start with spring
Offbeat Eats

Deirdre Bourdet, Offbeat Eats, Nowruz, the Persian New Year makes a fresh start with spring

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Nowruz table

A celebratory Nowruz table in Azerbaijan welcomes the Persian New Year on the spring equinox. 

The New Year’s celebration of our Gregorian calendar makes no logical sense. Nothing new happens on January 1 — as January 1, 2021, demonstrated to our collective chagrin.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate the start of the new year at the start of a new season? Preferably one with lots of tasty new foods popping up around the same time? Of course, it would. That’s why people have been celebrating Nowruz (also known as Navroze, Naw-Rúz, Newroz or Navroj), the Persian New Year, on the vernal equinox for thousands of years.

Nowruz means “new day” in Farsi, and though it originated in ancient Persia, the holiday is now celebrated all over the world by hundreds of millions of people — at the same exact time.

The vernal equinox is the moment the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator (making night and day of equal length), and this happens simultaneously for everyone on the planet no matter which time zone you’re in. The start of the new year is a shared, singular moment in time where everyone on earth gets a reset and a fresh start. (This year’s vernal equinox occurs at 2:37:28 a.m. Napa Valley time on March 20, if you’d care to join the synchronized celebration.)

In the days leading up to Nowruz, people make amends, spring clean their houses, and buy new clothes to wear for the first day of the new year. At the moment of the spring equinox, they exchange gifts, set intentions for the year ahead, and feast upon the abundance of spring.

I’ve heard Persian-Americans compare Nowruz feasts to the rapacious gorging of Thanksgiving, except that instead of just one gluttonous weekend, Nowruz extends over two weeks with snack-filled family visits and celebratory meals that conclude with an outdoor picnic on the 13th day of the new year.

Traditionally, Persian Nowruz feasts highlight dishes that celebrate fresh green herbs, particularly ash-e-reshteh, a hearty legume and noodle soup packed with different types of beans and mountains of chopped herbs; kuku sabzi, a fragrant green frittata that’s more herb than egg; sabzi polo ba mahi, fish with herbed rice; and of course the classic nan-o panir-o sabzi khordan — bread, cheese and a platter of fresh herbs.

(For traditional recipes, check out “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies,” Mage Publishers, Inc. 2020, by Najmieh Batmanglij; for more contemporary and vegetarian options, consult “The New Persian Kitchen,” Ten Speed Press 2013, by Louisa Shafia.)

In addition to herb-laden feasts, Nowruz also features a ceremonial table display called the haft-seen. Haft means seven, and seen is the letter for the s-sound in Farsi. At least seven symbolic items beginning with “s” in Farsi should be set out for a proper Nowruz haft-seen, though many more symbolic foods that don’t start with s — eggs, fish, candles, rosewater, and a Persian version of trail mix, among others — are typically included as well.

These haft-seen items are intended to usher in what we want to see more of in the new year: wheat or lentil sprouts for growth and renewal, apples for beauty and health, dried wild olives (Elaeagnus angustifolia) for love, garlic for medicine and good health, sumac for the spice of life, vinegar for graceful aging, coins for prosperity, a selection of sweet cookies for the sweetness of life, and a sprouted wheat pudding called samanu for patience, power, and bravery (all of which are required to make it the traditional way).

Colorfully decorated eggs symbolize new life and fertility, rosewater represents cleansing, a mirror aids self-reflection and wisdom, a fish symbolizes life, and candles bring enlightenment. For spiritual nourishment in the new year, Persians often lay a book of poetry or a religious text next to the other haft-seen items.

Nowruz haft-seen foods are placed on a decorative tablecloth as a display, and generally not eaten. The recipe that follows, however, combines nearly all the edible elements of a Nowruz haft-seen into an ultra-auspicious appetizer to kick off your vernal equinox feasting.

Sprouted wheat breadcrumbs and eggs hold together spinach boulettes loaded with fresh herbs, garlic, nuts, and vinegar-infused apples and dates. A saffron tonnato sauce sprinkled with sumac provides two types of fish with a spicy golden kick. Light a candle, take a good look in the mirror, and read some Hafiz to start the new year off right.

Perhaps the tulip knows the fickleness

Of Fortune’s smile, for on her stalk’s green shaft

She bears a wine-cup through the wilderness.

“Poems from the Divan of Hafiz,” translated by Gertrude Bell

Persian New Year Boulette

These non-traditional boulettes incorporate many traditional elements of Persian New Year celebrations.

Persian New Year Boulettes with Saffron Tonnato Sauce

Makes about 40 boulettes

Saffron Tonnato Sauce

½ teaspoon saffron threads

1½ teaspoons hot water

4 tinned anchovy fillets (or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon capers

1 5-oz can albacore tuna in olive oil, with the oil

¼ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼—½ tsp cayenne, to taste

⅛ tsp ground sumac

freshly ground pepper

Boulettes

4 oz. (about 3 slices) sprouted wheat bread

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons finely chopped dates, dried apricots, or raisins

2 tablespoons finely chopped dried apples

½ teaspoon fennel seeds

5-6 tablespoons olive oil, separated

2 bunches of green onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 lb fresh spinach leaves (or other tender leafy green), chopped

2 cups flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

2 cups fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or pistachios, toasted

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

salt and freshly ground pepper

Make the sauce ahead of time. Grind the saffron threads with a pinch of salt until they are a fine powder. Add the hot water, cover and let steep for at least 10 minutes. Drain the anchovy fillets and chop them crosswise to create a coarse paste. Juice your lemon and measure out 3 tablespoons of juice. Rinse and drain the capers. Put the ground saffron, its water, and all of the other sauce ingredients into a food processor or blender, and blend well. Scrape down the sides a few times to make sure you don’t miss any chunks. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Set aside in the fridge, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Toast the sprouted wheat bread for the boulettes until it’s bone dry; when cool, pulverize to breadcrumbs and set aside. Warm the vinegar and two tablespoons of water in a small bowl in the microwave until hot, then add the chopped dates and apple to soak.

In a large pot on medium heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant (1 min), then add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the green onions and garlic and cook until the onions soften. Stir in the spinach and cook until very tender, then transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Once it has cooled enough, press out excess liquid. Drain the dried fruits from their soaking liquid, then add them to the spinach bowl along with the chopped herbs, nuts, breadcrumbs, beaten egg, and 2 more tablespoons of olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper, and mix well. Shape the mixture into ping pong ball-sized boulettes, and put them in the fridge to chill at least 20 minutes or as long as overnight.

When ready to cook the boulettes, preheat the oven to 425° F and place the balls on a lined baking sheet. Dab the top of each ball with a bit of the remaining olive oil and bake 15 minutes, or until they’re crisping up on the outside. Serve warm with saffron tonnato sauce for dipping.

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Deirdre Bourdet is a food and wine wordsmith, recipe developer and author of the Hedonism Eats cookbook series and blog. For more, visit hedonism-eats.com.

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