One of the benefits of reviewing recipe books is it forces me to stop drooling over the beautiful pictures and actually make the recipes! I (like many other foodies I’m sure!) have a bookshelf groaning with cookery books that I love reading, but sadly many of which have never been used for their intended purpose! I have been really looking forward to reviewing Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour for this very reason. I was given this lovely book for Christmas and have read through it several times, but owing to all the other things I’ve been cooking up, I’ve never actually made any of the recipes! Well, this week I have finally got round to it and I am super pleased that I made the time for this wonderful book. It is awesome. A must buy for anyone who loves Persian / Middle Eastern food and wants to be able to make it at home. Sabrina’s recipes are delicious but totally achievable. She has simplified this delicious cuisine so it is easy to make but still tastes great.
Sabrina Ghayour is a chef, food writer and supper club host specialising in Middle Eastern food. Sabrina grew up in a household where no one really knew how to cook and so, in her teens, she began to teach herself to cook. Growing up in an Iranian family, she originally concentrated on Persian food, but over time has embraced other cuisines such as Turkish, Arab, Armenian and Afghan food and her book, Persiana focuses on these areas. Persiana is Sabrina’s first recipe book and it reflects her approach to food…her aim is to demystify Middle Eastern cookery and make it easy to make and accessible to all. Music to my ears!
This book is gorgeous. I would buy it for the front cover alone, inside is jam packed with beautiful photos of delicious dishes which are not too difficult to make. This is a book all about making cooking Middle Eastern food easy. Sabrina is careful to try and ensure that that none of her recipes are too labour intensive or contain too many ingredients and that the majority of the ingredients she uses can be found in the supermarket. She recognises that if a dish is complicated to make it is unlikely her readers will make it again. A very good point!
Persiana is a wonderful mixture of all the foods you would expect from a book on Middle Eastern cookery: hummus, tagines, koftes, tabbouleh and baklava, all with a generous sprinkling of rose petals, pomegranates and pistachio nuts. But she also includes lots of exciting and unusual twists such as Eastern Mess – a Middle Eastern take on the classic British dessert, or Butternut Squash with Pistachio Pesto and there’s even a Middle Eastern version of rice pudding.
Persiana is divided into 6 sections. First up is Mezze and Sharing Plates, where you will find recipes for dips, koftes and savoury pastries: a lovely section if you wanted to put together a selection of different mezze – for a party for example. She then moves on to Bread and Grains, where you’ll find exciting recipes for Eastern-Style Focaccia, Flatbread (though sadly not an easy peasy version) and numerous different rice dishes. Highlights include Persian Bejewelled Rice and Lamb Biryani. Interestingly there are a number of dishes in this book that are very similar to recipes you’d find in an Indian restaurant, though this hardly surprising given the geographical proximity of India and Iran.
Sabrina then moves on to main courses, which she divides into two sections: Soups, Stews and Tagines and then Roasts and Grills. Soups, Stews and Tagines features a whopping 6 different riffs on a lamb tagine, not to mention 3 chicken tagines. There is only one veggie and one fish dish in this section. Roasts and Grills follows a similar meaty theme: lots of variations on roast lamb and roast chicken, no veggie dishes at all, but there is a pretty good selection of fish dishes in this section as well as one pork and one beef dish. And this section is truly a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. Two that particularly stand out for their visual gorgeousness are Seared Beef with Pomegranate and Balsamic Dressing and Ras el Hanout Chicken Wraps. I have tried the chicken wraps and can assure you that they taste even better than they look.
The next section: Salads and Vegetables is, as you’d expect, much more vegetarian friendly: a feast of gorgeous looking salads, such as Radish Cucumber and Red Onion Salad with Mint and Orange Blossom Dressing and Pomegranate Tabbouleh. A lot of these could be eaten on their own as main meals in their own right and would make great work lunches the next day. They also make great side dishes for the mainly meat-based tagines and roasts.
The final section of Persiana is the dessert section. Sabrina explains that in the Middle East, people don’t really do desserts. So this section is a small selection of dishes she has made up, such as Spiced Carrot, Pistachio and Almond cake together with the sort of things people from the Middle Eastern might have with tea, like Baklava. This is by far the prettiest section with pistachio nuts and rose petals in abundance.
I really love the way Sabrina has divided up her book, but there is one section I really wish she had put in: one which gives you some ideas on how to mix and match these dishes. I love Middle Eastern food but I don’t know it very well and I would have loved a section on what goes with what and how to put together a selection of mezze or a Middle Eastern themed dinner party (which after reading this book I would love to throw – any takers?).
The recipes in Persiana are laid out clearly and include a lovely chatty little blurb about the dish; a clear and usually short list of ingredients; step by step instructions and a beautiful, inspirational photo. My main complaint is that there is no guide to how long the recipes take to make. I would also have liked the steps in the method to be numbered to make it easier to find my place as I am following a recipe.
The recipes are generally easy to follow and don’t contain too many weird and wonderful ingredients. There were a few I found hard to get: rosewater, orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses and preserved lemons were the main troublemakers. I drew a complete blank in Tesco but managed to get the pomegranate molasses from Waitrose and the rest, oddly, from my local village shop (I’m intrigued as to where the customers are for these products – maybe there’s a huge Middle Eastern Cookery fan base in my little village I never knew about – who knows, I’ll just keep quiet and be grateful!)
Timings wise, some of the recipes do take several hours, but most of this is cooking time and the prep time is usually quite short: tagines for example that you can throw together in a matter of minutes and which then sit there blipping away in the oven for a couple of hours getting tender an unctuous. I did get quite into a different way of cooking, while trying out the recipes for this book. I’d start by preparing the main course, chuck it in the oven, then make one of the puddings/cakes and pop that in my other oven (never the same temperatures, sadly!) have a little sit down and then finally, just before my main course was ready, I’d pop on some rice or couscous and throw together a salad. A totally stress free, if slightly long winded, approach to cooking.
There are, however, plenty of recipes that are quick to make if you are in a hurry. A lot of the mezze dishes, things like Lamb Koftes, Ras el Hanout Chicken Wraps and pretty much all the fish dishes. Most of the salads and vegetable dishes can be made in under half an hour and if you want a pudding in a hurry, try that gorgeous Eastern Mess. If you have to eat quickly, don’t go near the tagine and stew section (obviously) and I was also a little disappointed with the rice and bread section. All the rice dishes are quite long-winded and there was no quick version of a flatbread (I have two in my repertoire this one and one which I’ll post soon involving yogurt and self-raising flour.) But you should find a few things in the Roasts and Grills section that are pretty quick to make, if you don’t mind skipping out the hour-long marinating session that most of the recipes suggest.
What I have tried so far…
I have given Persiana a really good going over and so far I’ve tried 14 of Sabrina’s recipes. I have been really impressed by how easy her recipes have been to make and how pared back she has kept the spicing. None of her recipes have a really dauntingly long list of spices and in many she has kept the spicing really simple. My favourites have been the Chicken, Preserved Lemon and Olive Tagine; the Tray-Baked Rose Petal Lamb Chops; the Harissa Roasted Poussins and the Ras el Hanout Chicken Wraps. I haven’t really found any recipes I didn’t like, though there are a few I would adapt if I made them again. I was a bit underwhelmed by a few of her salads, but I think that was mainly due to the time of year: tomatoes, cucumbers etc. are hardly at their best at the moment!
As I mentioned above, I was a little disappointed with the lack of advice on what goes with what so I just made it up. Probably not very authentic but the flavour combinations were mostly good!
Here are a few examples of what I have been making…
Chicken, Preserved Lemon and Olive Tagine
This is the first recipe I tried. A lovely classic chicken tagine with sharp and salty flavours coming from the preserved lemons and olives. The flavours were fabulous, her spicing is gorgeous and I would definitely make this again. However the cooking time was very long…20 minutes prep time and then 2 whole hours cooking time! Because of this I had to adapt the recipe slightly…Sabrina cooks her tagines on the stove top, but I don’t really like to do this as I can’t really go out and leave something chuntering away on a gas stove and I have small children so I sort of feel I can’t really leave the kitchen if I have something on the stove…being cooped up in the kitchen for 2 hours is not really my idea of fun! Consequently, I popped this tagine in the oven and it cooked fine. As you’d expect, the meat was very tender and the flavours had permeated the stew beautifully. BUT I question whether 2 hours cooking time is strictly necessary with chicken. I have done similar things on the stove top in 45 minutes before (see my Mediterranean Chicken Stew, for example) – I will experiment and find out! This stew was also too lemony for me (something I never thought I’d write…I love lemons!) Next time I make it, I will use much less of the preserved lemons. Maybe just 1 or 2 rather than the 6 she suggests!
I served this tagine with basmati rice and a Shirazi Salad: a delicious mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and pomegranate seeds.
Spiced Lamb and Apricot Stew
Another classic tagine combination, but one I’ve never tried…I’ve never really been keen on the idea of apricots with meat, but I have to say the result was a very pleasant surprise. Somehow the apricots are less sweet after stewing with the lamb and the combination is actually quite good (!) As with the chicken tagine, I did this in the oven rather than the stove as Sabina suggests. I cooked it for an 1h15 at 140C and then I let it cook for a further 15 minutes on the stove top to reduce and thicken the sauce – and the result was beautiful tender lamb in a fabulous sauce. I am really looking forward to trying her other lamb tagines. I served this with my own recipe flatbreads and Sabrina’s Radish, Cucumber and Red Onion Salad with Mint and Orange Blossom Dressing…which I have to say I was a little disappointed by…I liked the idea, but the reality, while being perfectly pleasant, was nothing to write home about.
Harissa and Preserved Lemon Roasted Poussins
I have never had poussins before, but I will definitely be having them again – they are awesome! You get to have your very own mini roast chicken ready in well under an hour. The kids loved having a whole “chicken” to themselves (though neither of them could manage more than half a poussin) Sabrina suggests they take 45-50 minutes, but I found in my oven they were already done after 40 minutes…I will check earlier next time. The poussins are slathered in a very simple marinade of preserved lemon, harissa and olive oil and then popped in the oven. Couldn’t be simpler. I did cut down on the marinade ingredients…I made less than half what Sabrina suggests and I still had plenty of marinade. And after my experience with the chicken tagine, I used a lot less preserved lemon and half as much harissa and the quantity was just perfect for 4 poussins.
I served the poussins with Kisir…a bulgur wheat salad very similar to tabbouleh but with added tomato puree, pomegranate molasses and pomegranate seeds (and chilli if you want to)…sounds weird, actually works really well. For pudding we had that wonderful Eastern Mess, which I will definitely be making it again! The only trouble is that it takes about 15 minutes to make and needs to be eaten straight away, so we had to have a 15 minute interlude after lunch!
Saffron and Lemon Chicken
Oh my goodness this is good! If you like saffron, lemon, yogurt and chicken, then you must try this recipe. And it couldn’t be easier to make. The chicken is simply marinated in these 3 wonderful flavours before being popped in the oven for 20 minutes at 220C. The result is deliciously flavoured, wonderfully moist and moreish chicken pieces. So quick and easy! I served these with tortillas (as Sabrina suggests) and tabbouleh. I loved Sabrina’s idea of adding pomegranate seeds to tabbouleh!
For pudding we had Pistachio and Lemon Shortbreads, which the kids helped me make. I love the idea of adding these flavours to shortbread and it really worked well. My only complaint would be that, even though I followed the instructions to the letter, my shortbreads didn’t come out very evenly and they also ended up a bit big! They still tasted good though 🙂
Ras El Hanout Chicken Wraps
This one was probably my favourite tasting recipe and it was probably the easiest one to make. Win win!! The chicken is coated with Ras-el-Hanout (a North African spice blend) before being fried for 15 minutes and is then served with tortillas, rocket, sliced red onions, pomegranate seeds and a simple yogurt and mint sauce. Really simple and really tasty.
For pudding we had Sabrina’s gorgeous Spiced Carrot, Pistachio and Almond Cake (though minus the Rosewater Cream she suggests). A very easy peasy cake to make and totally delicious. And with an added bonus, if you need to follow a gluten free diet, as there is absolutely no flour at all in this cake, which is made from a combination of almonds, pistachios, carrots and desiccated coconut. Yum!
This is a great book for anyone who wants to learn more about Middle Eastern Cookery and wants easy to make recipes that include a few unusual ingredients – but not too many. It’s probably not a great book if you are a vegetarian or vegan as a lot of the main courses are really just meat and a sauce and consequently not even all that easy to adapt. It’s also not a great recipe book if you are looking for lots of meals you can make in under 30 minutes: a lot of the main course recipes take over an hour and / or require some marinating. But if you love the flavours of the Middle East want a beautiful recipe book, full of simplified recipes from that region and especially if you are a big fan of lamb and chicken dishes, tagines, pomegranates, pistachios and rose petals then this is the recipe book for you!
Buy the book
** Disclosure: I was given this book as a Christmas present by a family member. I was not paid to do this review. I am reviewing this book because I genuinely enjoyed reading it and making the recipes and think others might too. All words and opinions are my own. The links to Amazon in this review are affiliate links. This means if you buy the book through any of these links, it doesn’t cost you any more, but I will get a small commission. Thank you in advance 🙂 )**