The Light, The Darkness & Winter Celebrations
Days have been getting shorter, and the nights longer and longer. The wind has been growing colder and sharper. Morning light comes up late and lasts only for few hours. It’s the journey of Earth through the seasons, the alchemy of mother nature. We keep our hectic work-shop-work-shop Christmas rhythm as if nothing was happening. But we’re wrong. We have been dwelling in darker days since the beginning of Summer and in a short time, on December 21st to be precise, the night will be the longest of the year. And just as it always happens in life, after the longest time of darkness, light is born. The cold season arrives but there will be an instant of more daylight and then sun will set later and later, just until the first day of Summer. The eternal cycle of life and death, the light and the darkness. The dance of the Earth and the Sun.The Winter Solstice has been an ancient feast in many pagan cultures and has influenced many other winter celebrations during time. It marks the birthday of The Light, Mehr or Mithra, the Zoroastrian deity of light. In Iran, it has been celebrated for thousands of years, by the name of Yalda, the longest night of the year, in which people stayed up late, gather friends and family, brought the fresh and dry fruit and grains they had stored since harvest, lit many candles and read poetry or told stories to chase away the demon (the darkness) and welcome the light of the new day. Most winter celebrations have deep roots in this seasonal change and the battle of light and dark. The Roman Mithra was born on December 25th, and so was Sol Invictus (The Unconquerable Sun), marking the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, a festival to celebrate the sun. The Jewish Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights falls around the same period. And last but definitely not least the most popularly celebrated winter celebrations of all, Christmas is also celebrated on the same December 25th.
All these winter celebrations, as distant and different as they seem to each other now, have been influenced by the birth (nativity?) of the new light and have left their finger prints on one another. I am madly fascinated by finding the similarities and the common roots of ancient customs around the world. The human race has imaginatively managed to interpret the nature’s unceasing-yet-constant changes into many many beautiful local or global celebrations.
As I told you, I haven’t grown up with Christmas, as it’s not celebrated in Iran. However I have grown up with Yalda. The usual celebration in modern-day Iran is not that complicated. The essential elements are dry or fresh fruit. The dry fruit or Ajil consists of unsalted nuts, raisins, dry apricots and/or peaches. Fresh fruit must absolutely include pomegranate (it symbolizes light!) and don’t-ask-me-how, watermelon! I have no idea how the summer fruit has made its way all through winter (it is said people stored in cold basements to keep it for the winter), but in this period since I can remember grocery stores in Iran burst up with pomegranates and watermelons. Traditionally friends and family gathered and sat around Korsi (a low table with a heater beneath and covered with a large blanket) and topped it with sweets and fruits. They read poetries and told stories to pass this long night. (I will be holding a Yalda storytelling workshop for chidlren, in Maxxi muesum of Rome on December 20th & 21st, in the occasion of the exhibition Unedited History, Iran 1960 – 2014 in the same museum. If you happen to be in Rome by March 29th don’t miss it.)
The Food & Persian Food Bloggers Recipe Round-Up
Since Yalda is a major Persian feast and winter celebration that is really little known around the world, we (some of Iranian food bloggers) have decided to make another recipe round-up just as we did in the beginning of Autumn to celebrate Mehregan. Please check out the beautiful Persian-inspired recipes by these talented people at the bottom of this post. I’m sure you will find great ideas for this festive season, no matter which of these feasts you celebrated. You can find and tag our content for Yalda in the social media by #PersianFoodBloggers and #PFBshabehYalda hashtags.I won’t be surprised if I find pomegranate in many of these recipes since it’s the main protagonist of this celebration. My recipe definitely does. We have some great recipes containing pomegranate molasses which is a heavenly ingredient. As great as it tastes, I have found out that the commercial product whether in Iran or outside is full of chemical agents, additives, preservatives and way too many ingredients. So thanks to a tip from Jamie Oliver I decided to make my own. All you need is 100% pomegranate juice (it’s worth the search, trust me), a couple of tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt.
This recipe of chicken pomegranate is simple, healthy (though not quite light, as it’s the holidays season) and undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. The sauce is sweet and sour to right point and freshened up by the pomegranate seeds. The chicken is crispy on the outside and tender inside, wrapped in the aroma of saffron. And last but definitely not least, the texture and richness created by chopped almonds and pistachios turns it from a normal chicken pomegranate to a real holiday dish. It would be great to be served with Persian steam-cooked Basmati rice, but it’s not necessary. We ate it with some homemade sourdough bread and it was just as fine.A word on chicken: On normal days I avoid supermarket chicken all together as industrially produced chicken is pure cruelty and also unhealthy. If I do have to buy chicken though, my options would be 1. get free-range chicken directly from the farmer (which is very very difficult where I live), 2. look for free-range chicken in organic shops, 3. look for free-range chicken in normal supermarkets. Fortunately here in Italy you can usually find pollo ruspante, or free-range chicken in big supermarkets. The color of the chicken is a live yellow, unlike the pale industrial chicken.
I have been inspired by a recipe from the north of Iran called the pomegranate stew. Not to be confused with the classic and world famous Persian chicken pomegranate stew with walnuts called Fesenjan.
- 700g free-range chicken (in large pieces, or even whole)
- 2 shallots
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt to taste
- 300ml 100% pure pomegranate juice
- 3 tbsp muscovado sugar
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1/2 tsp good quality saffron powder
- seeds of one pomegranate
- 30g unsalted unshelled pistachios
- 30g unsalted (possibly) peeled almonds
- Brew your saffron. Melt it in half an espresso cup of hot water, cover and let it rest.
- Preheat the oven at 180°C/300°F.
- Chop the shallots lengthwise into quarters without cutting the end. Crush the garlic cloves. Heat the oil in a large and tall pan and add the garlic and the shallot.
- Once the shallot is golden, add the chicken and brown well on each side for a maximum 10 minutes. This is very important because it will determine the crispiness of the chicken.
- When the chicken is sufficiently browned add about 2 cups of cold water, together with the bay leaves & some salt, cover and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes.
- Delicately remove the chicken from the pan (possibly with tongs, and never with a fork as it would make holes in the meat that would let the juice out) to a baking pan and with a help of a ladle pour about one cup of the broth from the pan to tray. The humidity wouldn't let the chicken dry out in the oven, but it should cover just the base of the pan.
- In a small bowl, melt the butter in a couple of tbsp of the broth, add the brewed saffron and a little more salt. Brush this sauce to the surface of chicken very well.
- Cook the chicken in the oven for about half an hour, keeping an eye it. It should be tender but the meat should fall off the bone. Every once in a while brush the chicken with sauce in its baking pan.
- While the chicken cooks in oven, prepare the pomegranate sauce. Transfer the remaining broth (should be less than a cup) to a saucepan, add the pomegranate juice and the sugar and bring to simmer. Turn the heat down and let it simmer until the color becomes quite dark and the taste very rich. It should take at least half an hour. When ready add 3/4 pomegranate seeds and turn off the heat.
- Chop pistachios and almonds lengthwise and put them in the oven in small tray only for the last five minutes of cooking of the chicken only to heat them a little. They shouldn't bake.
- Choose a deep pretty serving dish and pour the sauce in the bottom. It shouldn't be too high. Place the chicken on top of the pomegranate sauce and pour a couple of tbsp of the broth in the baking pan (NOT the pomegranate) on top.
- Sprinkle the chopped pistachios, almonds and pomegranate on top and garnish with the rest of the pomegranate seeds.
- Serve with steam-cooked basmati rice, cous cous, millet or good quality sourdough bread.
Coming from Iran, she mostly develops her recipes by combining the aromas of the middle east with the flavors of the Mediterranean, specially Italy, where she has found her second home.
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