We dedicated our entire episode Four Persian Cooks to the unique flavors of Persian cuisine, including two ingredients considered key to the Persian pantry, pomegranate molasses and dried limes. These ingredients lend a layer of complexity – think sweet and tart, or funky and acidic – to dishes in which they are used. For a deeper look, Managing Producer Sally Swift talked to Christie Morrison, editor of special projects and on-screen test cook at America’s Test Kitchen. Christie also shared the recipes for homemade Tart Pomegranate Molasses and Pistachio Baklava with Cardamom and Rose Water.
Sally Swift: I want to talk with you about a two specific Persian ingredients, things that I think are amazing ingredients that can really change your cooking. I want to start with pomegranate molasses.
Christie Morrison: Mmmmm. Absolutely.
SS: It is simply sexy!
CM: It is absolutely sexy. It’s like Michael Fassbender sexy. [both laugh]
SS: Tell us what it is.
CM: It’s a reduction of pomegranate juice, which comes from pomegranate arils. Some recipes will have you add a little sugar and lime juice. You cook it down until you have a nice, fairly thick syrup. What’s so wonderful about it is that pomegranates are not that sweet to begin with – it’s more of a sweet-tart flavor – so you can use it in a lot of different things.
SS: And the flavor of pomegranate molasses is so sweet and yet so high. Does that make sense to you? It’s so bright.
CM: It’s really punchy, so it works well in a lot of different things. It reminds me a little bit of the intensity of reduced balsamic vinegar; it has that unctuousness and intensity, but it’s brighter and more sour. It’s a complex flavor that can brighten up different foods.
SS: It’s amazing. I first used it in a vinaigrette, and it totally changed my world. What do you like to do with it?
CM: Because it has that syrupy kind of stickiness to it, it’s great to use as a glaze. We’ve done glazed roasted whole chicken and glazed quail. We also used it on broiled eggplant. And of course, as you mentioned, it’s wonderful in vinaigrettes. We have this great Egyptian barley salad, the dressing for which has pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, cumin, and tastes great on all of these bright ingredients.
SS: What about on green things? Besides the raw salad, have you ever roasted green vegetables with it?
CM: We do actually. We have a pan-roasted Brussels sprout recipe; one of our variations is tossed with cumin and pomegranate molasses, and served with pomegranate seeds or arils on top. It’s a really nice contrast.
SS: It must be beautiful with the pomegranate seeds on it.
CM: It looks very holiday-esque.
SS: I have seen pomegranate molasses more often, but I do live in a big city. Is there an option making your own and approximating it for folks that can’t get their hands on it?
CM: We have, and it’s very easy. We’ve done a couple different versions. I think the simplest version that we’ve done is to take a couple cups of pomegranate juice and little bit of sugar, maybe half a teaspoon, and a pinch of salt. Bring it up to a simmer in a wide skillet, like a 12-inch skillet, so you have lots of surface area. Bring it up to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer until you’ve reduced it to about a one-third of a cup. That reduction will give you a nice glazy consistency.
SS: And, of course, pomegranate juice is just about everywhere these days – thanks to POM.
SS: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about – and I have to warn you that I’m totally obsessed with them – is Persian dried limes.
CM: Oh. Yes, please. I find them fascinating. They look kind of like walnuts. They are not pretty. They’re more the size of Key limes than the limes that we see if most American supermarkets. They’ve been brined or salted and usually dried out in the sun. They have that lime scent, they have tiny bit of sweetness, definitely sour, and this funky fermented flavor. I know you’re with me on this; it sounds like a weird combination but it works so well in a lot of different recipes.
SS: And they’re light; they don’t feel like anything. My favorite thing is to throw them in a pot of white beans, and you have to stab them in order to get the water into them. It is unreal what they do to a pot of beans.
CM: I’ve done them with lentils and I completely agree with you. It’s hard to describe exactly what it brings to the lentils. But I often think that it’s difficult to season lentils to make them taste really flavorful. You have to add a lot of salt. So, the alternative is to add some vinegar at the end of cooking. But if you throw a dried lime in while you’re cooking the lentils, you have that acid worked in there along with that funkiness from the fermentation. It adds this punch of flavor that you’re absolutely not expecting, and I love it.
SS: I love it, too. How else have you used them? What am I missing?
CM: I think it’s an ingredient that’s kind of like using good bay leaves, where it adds this flavor that you didn’t know you were missing, but once it’s there it’s really great. I add dried lime to stews. I keep thinking of roast pork that you might be using for carnitas for tacos.
SS: That would be delicious.
CM: It would add a brightness and an extra oomph of flavor that people would really love.
SS: And this is an exclusively Persian ingredient. You don’t see this anywhere else?
CM: Not a whole lot. I think it’s one of those truly Persian ingredients and I think it’s moved past that because of the natural ebb and flow of people moving into areas nearby. You might find it in some Indian foods, but I think it’s found primarily in Persian foods.
SS: You can find these in a Middle Eastern store, or a Persian store if you’re lucky enough to have one around. You can also order them online. They’re very light, so the shipping is inexpensive.
CM: They feel like ping pong balls.
SS: And I always wonder about if you could steep it for tea. I’ve never gotten around to doing it, and I bet it would be delicious.
CM: I think people do use it for tea. You can also find it in powdered form, which might also lend itself to making teas as well as for making spice rubs.
SS: Yeah. Now you’re talking. That’s a great idea.
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