Persian Delight, Easy Turkish Delight/Lokum as Christmas Edible Gifts from the East & a Yalda Celebration

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I. Christmas Flavors from the East

Would a Christmas with Middle Eastern flavors sound outrageous or alternative to you? What if I told you that your Christmas at times — tastes and smells like the feasts and celebrations of the East, and it has been so for centuries? Warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that evoke the spirit of Christmas, form the flavor pallet of so many ancient and modern Middle Eastern recipes. Many roast or braised meats that we serve on Christmas are enriched with dried fruits such as raisins, plums, dates and apricots; a normality in many dishes from the East.

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Winter feasts, regardless of their location or origin, celebrate togetherness in order to survive the dark. There’s often dry fruits and nuts in the festive dishes, mainly because fresh fruit was not available in the cold season. In the medieval ages spices, figs, dates, nuts, turkish delights, and even sugar were luxury goods that were imported to Europe from the Middle and Far East. So naturally, they were consumed in banquets and feasts. The medieval Christmas has left a footprint of Middle Eastern flavors in the Christmas dishes of northern Europe, and consequently, North America and Oceania. As for Italy, apart from Sicily, Naples and other Southern parts where the dominations have permanently inserted some Middle Eastern flavors to many dishes, the rest of the country does Christmas with little or no warm spices.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember that in Iran we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we do celebrate Yalda, a celebration of the Winter Soltice. Although Yalda is a laic festival based on ancient seasonal traditions, it is similar in some ways to Christmas, which I talked about in details here. Eating nuts, dry fruits and Turkish Delights is one of these similarities. 

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One of the sweets that we always serve on the Yalda table along with nuts, pomegranates and —oddly enough— watermelon, is Baslogh. Also known as Lokum, Rahat Lokum (راحة الحلقوم) or more commonly, the Turkish Delights. The Turkish-ness of these sweet, gooey, soft and fragrant candies however can open a never ending debate. They are common in all the Balkan region and the Middle East, and we must admit that choosing the name Turkish Delight has been an incredibly clever marketing tactic, that has opened the way of these festive sweets into the western shops and even literature. 

Turkish Delights are featured in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a sweet temptation of an evil witch that uses them to get information from a boy who loves the candies. The amazing Diana Henry (food writer and author of many books) on a podcast on Channel 4 Food Programme digs deep into the Eastern flavors for Christmas celebrations and a very interesting part of the podcast is dedicated to Turkish Delights. 

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II. Persian Delights: More Delicate, Easy Turkish Delights

No matter the name, these rose scented candies have been present all this Holiday season in my kitchen, beside my tea, all over my apron, in my travels and also in my cooking events! I knew I wanted to make a blog post about them as an edible Christmas Gift (my type of gift, remember this post?), as well as making them for the Christmas Pop up Kitchen we held on December 18th at Latteria Studio. Last weekend I went to Milan to make these Persian Delights with Alice aka A Gipsy in the Kitchen and we filmed it live on Facebook (in Italian). This post is my contribute to the virtual Yalda Celebration of the Persian Food Bloggers, so do check out other Iranian recipes for the festive season at the bottom of this post.

Persian Delights - Rosy Candies for Christmas Edible Gifts | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-8

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There really is something fairy tale-ish about these sweets. They’re incredibly soft, yet they have a satisfying texture too. My version of this recipe is super delicate, as I have reduced the sugar amount. After many tries (including some embarrassing failures), I finally realized how to perfect the gummy effect by using a lot of gelatin sheets. The key is to use the double dose of gelatin for the amount of water in the indications, as we’re making a solid candy, not a jelly to be eaten by the spoon.  Continue reading

The Light after the Longest Night of the Year, Olive Harvest Retreat & Banana Pancakes with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Lab Noon-21

I. Surviving the Long, Dark Night

More than a month has past since I went to the Olive Harvest Retreat at the end of October. I know I should’ve written this post a long time ago, but I didn’t. Yes, I had taken way too many photos (more than 500!), and no, I haven’t really had a moment of free time. But now I know, these were not the reason. I needed time. Time to reflect, to recover, to comprehend. Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-106 Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-77Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-69
I had recently come back from Iran, and I knew it was time for me to take an uncomfortable but necessary step in my life, when I saw that my creative friend Kat from Zero the One has organized this Olive Harvest Retreat with a friend of hers, Susie, the founder of Oreeko. The event took place in the heart of Italy, the province of Umbria, in a 100% organic farm run by mother Lucia and daughter Alina. There would’ve been the stunning Italian nature in its Fall glory, good, real organic food, handpicked and cooked with love, and a bunch talented and creative people to share all this goodness with. As Italians would say “mi inviti a nozze”, or it’d be a wedding feast for me. So how I could I not go? 
Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-110Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-33Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-83Little did I know however, that the slow living weekend would’ve gone far beyond this. Mind you, there was nothing quite slow in the weekend per se. We walked the grounds, we toured the farm, we cooked, we picked olives of course. And most importantly, we gathered around a table, often with a full glass, and we told our stories, upon a shared meal. This must have been the key to the transformation that occurred to me at the end of that weekend. Without me realizing it.

Telling stories during long nights has been therapeutic since ancient times. In the darkest of times, people gather round dear ones, light candles, share a meal, tell stories, communicate, and together they wait for the new day to arrive. Together, they overcome the fear of never seeing the daylight again.

That’s what happens in Yalda, the antique Persian holiday that celebrates the Winter Solstice and . As I said last year, Yalda shares many common roots with Christmas, Chanukah and other Winter celebrations. During the longest darkness, we keep each other company, ready poetry, break a pomegranate or two, go through the stock of dry fruit, and wait for the sun to shine on a new day.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-51

Something similar happened as a result of the Olive Harvest Retreat. New things arrived. I took a new professional course in Social Media and Digital Marketing, I started a new job, I have met so many amazing new people, and closed an old, crippled door behind me. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been fun (all the time), but for the first time in more than a year, I am feeling alright. I am ready for the new day, for the new year, trusting that (yet another time), the dark night is overcome.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-4
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Susie, is a survivor. By changing her lifestyle, she has tamed down a horrible disease that consumed her twenties in numerous surgeries and medications. She went vegetarian, and swears by all things natural, organic, and eco. That’s how she came up with her business Oreeko, a directory of all eco-friendly, green businesses around the world.

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Kat, is an explorer, I would say. She’s a multi-talented creative, who creates videos and has an extraordinary interior and spiritual dimension.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-55Tip, the amazing Australian lady with Chinese and Thai background living in the Netherlands (wow! I know!), is a many things, among which a life coach. There’s some sort of fluidity and weightlessness about her that made me feel extremely comfortable as soon as I met her in Tiburtina station. She’s co-run a quite successful interior design blog  and then just this summer she decided to stop. She not only helps people reorder their spaces, but their lives too.

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Zara, is a physician with a passion for fashion, lifestyle and creativity, who’s trying to find a way for these things to coexist in the rigid world of medicine. She joined us from London.

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Emily and Harrison, an adorable couple from London again, are professionals of the world digital content and video, with a huge enthusiasm about nature and natural living who dream of having their own little farm.

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Agata, is a Polish girl who quit her big corporate job to follow her dream of being an interior design creative and consequently moved to north of Italy.

Ewa, another Polish girl, living in Warsaw runs an interior design blog and online shop.

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Veronique, who flew all the way from New York City to be with us, runs an online green and eco-friendly shop of artisan products.

And Nardia, the Aussie girl of Florence, tells the story of bests of Italy; the food, the wine and the travels.

We were different but we were somehow alike. We retreated ourselves together. We harvested olives, we shared our stories with little or no filters. We lived together, slowly, just for a weekend. That weekend, I left a chapter of my life behind me and moved on.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-94
Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-95

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The love that Alina and her mom put into growing, harvesting and taking care of their olive oil is remarkable; you can actually taste it drop for drop in their incomparable, organic extra virgin olive oil. No wonder they say it’s the best Italian olive oil. They have created a peace of heaven in their farm in Umbria, where you can relax, get in touch with nature and live the real Italian country, slow living. If you ever get to Umbria, you should pay them a visit. You’ll love your stay. 

II. Celebrating the Light of the New Day

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Lab Noon-5
Breakfast. What better way is there than to celebrate a new day with a good breakfast? I made this unbelievably simple recipe one morning during the Olive Harvest Retreat, with whatever I had at disposal. Many eggs and bananas, and excellent extra virgin olive oil. 

There is this belief that pancakes MUST be made with butter. I don’t believe in sacred ingredients. I believe in using local, fresh ingredients. When I am at huge olive farm with fresh olive oil, I don’t use store bought butter. If I was in the Alps where they make incredible fresh butter, I wouldn’t have used olive oil.

So this is not a recipe to celebrate Yalda, the longest night of the year. These banana pancakes, celebrate the rising of the sun in the next morning. Imagine the smell of fresh coffee, early morning light, the mist of winter, looking over a field of olive trees.

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that should be nutrient and fuel for a little nag working day. This is the basic recipe, which is 2 eggs for a banana. You can change it any way you desire. Although the egg whites give a you a fair amount of protein, you can add seeds and nut (better if ground) to enrich the pancakes. Nonetheless I don’t suggest adding sweet elements such as raisins or cranberries. You’ll be surprised how naturally sweet these pancakes are! Mashed banana releases all of its sugar (which is A LOT), And that’s why these pancakes are dark on the surface. They’re not burned, it’s the sugar of the banana that caramelizes quickly.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Lab Noon-9

My only trick is to beat the egg white separately until firm and then gently fold it into the mashed banana and egg yolk mix. A pinch of bicarbonate soda always helps too. In this version I added cardamom and nutmeg to the batter and served the pancakes with different types of apples, diced and dressed with fresh lemon juice and a lot of cinnamon. (Because there should ALWAYS be cinnamon, ya know!). A little acidity goes a long way with these sweet banana pancakes. You can of course serve them with any fresh fruit of the season. Serve them with pomegranates and mince pistachios to add a festive touch and bring in the spirit of Yalda. Continue reading

In Praise of Winter Celebrations & a Festive Chicken Pomegranate

Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon
“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.”

-Rumi

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.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon 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 Hanukkahalso 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. Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon 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.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon 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.Festive Chicken Pomegranate | Pollo al Melograno per le Feste | Lab Noon 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. Continue reading