Sabrina Ghayour cooks up simple, Middle Eastern-influenced dishes with a modern twist in her second cookbook, Sirocco. She tells Russ Parsons about the shortcuts she's found to traditional Persian methods (despite some skeptical aunts) and the spices she relies on in her kitchen.

Russ Parsons: Your cookbooks are informed by the flavors of the Middle East, but they're not traditionally Middle Eastern, and that's especially true with Sirocco, as opposed to Persiana. First of all, there's been so much bad fusion cooking. Maybe that's just here in the United States. It almost makes people quiver, but yours works. How do you make yours work, and how do you keep both the tradition in the flavors that you're looking for in mind while still pushing it forward and doing different techniques and making it more accessible?

Sabrina Ghayour Sabrina Ghayour Photo: Liz and Dan Haarala-Hamilton

Sabrina Ghayour: The simple truth is, Russ, I'm a total nerd when it comes to cooking. I cook every day, three times a day if I'm at home, sometimes more than that depending on what I'm doing. I've always done what felt good to me. The food that ends up going into my book, for example with Persiana, happened to be simplified versions of Middle Eastern recipes because I was self-taught. I needed to simplify it.

The great thing was that because I had a Persian family, family from Iraq, family from all over the place, I had the exposure to know what things do taste like when they're made authentically. Then I cut out all the "six hours for this, five hours for that," because I just thought people are never going cook the food of my culture. It's going to die because none of my generation and my family cook.

Sirocco is strictly what I eat at home. I am somebody that throws open the pantry and the spice cupboards and just throws in whatever fresh produce I have. The one thing being that, when I write a recipe, my line is this: If it's "Hmmm, that's nice," it doesn't make it into the book. If it's, "Oh my god, that's so good!" then it makes it into the book. I want simple recipes that are really intense in flavor, not complicated, not expensive, and just incredibly easy to do.

RP: You said that traditional Middle Eastern and traditional Persian cooking is very labor intensive. But in your book, you call yourself a lazy cook who's always looking for shortcut techniques. What are some of your favorite shortcuts?

sirocco Sirocco

SG: With Persiana, that's where I really took the shortcuts, because Sirocco only has a couple of Persian dishes in there. In Persiana there are some controversial shortcut techniques, like what I did to rice. That took a while for the Persian community to digest, and they kept chasing me going, "You know we don't cook rice like that!" I'm like, "I know, I know," but nobody is going to make the six-hour version.

I realized that the reason rice was soaked and washed and soaked and washed for so long was because, in Iran back in the day, rice wasn't commercially washed, so it had husks, it had stones, it had impurities. Now for export, every country demands that it meets a standard, so it's actually clean; therefore, you can actually cut out those processes should you choose to. Is it ever going to be as good as the six-hour soaked rice that you rinse and drain and rinse? No, it's probably not, but it's only just a fraction less good, in my opinion. I've got people from all over the world that are not Persian making it, and it makes me proud because maybe they wouldn't have without that little cheat technique.

For stews, Persians love to use ten different pots and pans. When I'm home, if there's a shortcut, I will take it. I hate dirtying loads and loads of different pots and pans, so I tend to contain everything within a pot. When I started writing different recipes and putting them up on my blog, I'd have all my aunts from all over the world going, "You know, we don't do that," and "You can't do it like this," and "You have to do it in separate pans," and I'd be, "OK, but just try it!" Then they come back to me like, "Oh my god, I can't believe it. I can't believe it worked!" I'm like, "Yes, so just toss it all in and it will be fine."

RP: The flavors in your recipes are so dynamic. What do you consider the essential Middle Eastern toolkit of ingredients? Spices, herbs, other flavors?

Quince-Glazed Chicken Skewers Quince-Glazed Chicken Skewers

RP: The flavors in your recipes are so dynamic. What do you consider the essential Middle Eastern toolkit of ingredients? Spices, herbs, other flavors?

SG: I'm obsessed with harissa, which is a North African chili paste. I love pomegranate molasses which is just 100% reduced pomegranate juice. I love sumac, which is just a little tart berry that is ground down and has a very nice lemon flavor. I love za'atar, which is just basically means "wild thyme." It's wonderful. And then I like what you guys call Aleppo pepper, but it's a Turkish chili flake called "pul biber." It's a milder chili flake and it doesn't have the seeds, so it's not as fiery. I put it on everything.

Quite frankly, if you can't get harissa, just use chili paste. It's the same thing, but it's just a little more fiery. Ultimately, there's nothing that cannot be made at home or replaced with something else, because that's just how I cook. I don't write hard and fast rules for things. There's always a substitute for everything. Preserved lemons you can make at home. It's just salt-packed lemons, and you can just Google a recipe. These are ancient traditions, so it's not particularly difficult to find. Pomegranate molasses, from what I understand, is not everywhere in the States, and if not, get some pomegranate juice and just reduce it in a pan. Maybe za'atar is a little trickier because it's wild thyme, but just use regular thyme. Grind it down to a powder if you don't have raw thyme.

Those are what I use again and again and again, along with the zest of lemons and the zest of oranges, to give things big flavors really effortlessly.

Russ Parsons
Russ Parsons was the food editor and columnist of the Los Angeles Times for more than 25 years. He is the author of the cookbooks How to Read a French Fry and How to Pick a Peach. He is a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and has won awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the Association of Food Journalists and the James Beard Foundation.