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Welcoming a solstice with pomegranates

  • PHOTO COURTESY NEW YORK TIMES

On Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice, elders take turns reading from a book of poetry by celebrated 14th-century Persian poet Hafez, and interpret the rhyming couplets as a form of fortunetelling. Their families listen and tell stories by candlelight, sing, laugh and fill the house with light and warmth while gathered around the korsi to graze on trays of delicately cracked clusters of pomegranates, sparkling bowls of their ruby red seeds and cool, crisp watermelon slices.

A korsi is a large, low square table that is heated underneath — by coals in the old days and electric heaters now. The table is draped with blankets, to tuck your legs under to keep them warm and cozy, and surrounded by cushions to lean against. While the use of a korsi is not common outside of Iran, Iranians in the diaspora create similarly inviting setups for their own Yalda celebrations. On this longest and darkest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, symbolic foods, pomegranates chief among them, are passed around to welcome back the light and longer days.

The Yalda evening celebrations begin with dinner, but unlike Nowruz meals, there isn’t a set menu. Families typically feast on regional warming stews, rice dishes, ash — thick, hearty Iranian soups — and especially pomegranate-based dishes, such as khoresh morgh naardooni, khoresh-e fesenjoon, and ash-e anar (pomegranate ash).

“Historically, the pomegranate — anar — holds special significance in Persian culture,” said Nader Mehravari, the food research fellow at San Francisco State University’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies. “Pomegranates originated in the region of modern-day Iran. From a religious aspect, the pomegranate is considered a heavenly fruit and perhaps the original forbidden fruit. It is also a sign of fertility, light and goodness, which is why it is so auspicious on Yalda night as a symbolic opposing force of darkness.”

This victory of light and goodness over the forces of darkness has been celebrated by Iranians for more than 5,000 years.

According to Mehravari, the origins of Yalda date back to pre-Zoroastrian Mithraism, the worship of the god of the sun. It is said that Mithra was born on this day, and “Yalda” comes from the Cyrillic word meaning birth or rebirth.

On Yalda, which falls on Dec. 21 this year, it is customary to take refuge from the darkness and remain indoors, and to welcome the new light by staying up as long as possible. It is believed that, with the sun’s triumphant rise, our days will shine brighter and longer with hope and good will.

For his Northern Iranian-inspired dishes at Komaaj, a restaurant and catering company, the Bay Area-based chef Hanif Sadr uses pomegranate in all its forms — seeds, juice and molasses. This year, his Yalda menu will include an interpretation of seerabeh, a traditional Northern Iranian sauce. Seerabeh is tangy, made with walnuts, pomegranate juice (or verjuice), pomegranate seeds, garlic and herbs, and is typically served with fish.

The combination of walnuts and pomegranates is a classic pairing in Iranian cuisine. In this version, Sadr takes the classic preparation of kaale (uncooked) seerabeh and serves it as a dressing for a crisp salad. Romaine hearts, purple carrots, radishes and orange segments provide the chromatic canvas upon which the pinkish sauce is drizzled.

Sadr recommends using a pomegranate juice you like to drink for the sauce and refrigerating the sauce overnight to allow the flavors to meld. Any leftover sauce will keep for five days in the fridge and is great served with fish, chicken or roasted vegetables, or as a dip.

Kaale Seerabeh Salad (Salad With Pomegranate Dressing)

Ingredients for the dressing:

• 1 cup pomegranate juice, plus more as needed

• 1 cup pomegranate seeds

• Heaping 1/4 cup walnut halves

• 2 large garlic cloves, chopped

• 2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more as needed

• 1 teaspoon kosher salt

• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

• 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, packed

• 1 tablespoon mint leaves, coarsely chopped

• 1 tablespoon parsley leaves, chopped

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Sugar, to taste (optional)

Ingredients for assembly:

• 2 romaine lettuce hearts, or 4-6 heads Little Gem lettuce

• 2 large radishes (watermelon, red, white or daikon, or a mixture), thinly sliced into rounds

• 1 large carrot (preferably purple), peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds

• 1 large orange, segmented

Kosher salt

Bread, for serving

Directions:

Prepare the dressing: Place the pomegranate juice, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a blender, and blend until smooth. Add the cilantro, mint and parsley, and blend until smooth.

With the blender running on low, drizzle in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. If the sauce is too sour, sprinkle in a little sugar; if it’s not acidic enough, add a little more pomegranate juice or lemon juice, one tablespoon at a time. Be mindful that the flavors will meld more and pop as the sauce rests. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer, and discard any tiny bits of pomegranate seeds. You should have 1 3/4 cups. Transfer the sauce to a container, cover and refrigerate overnight. The sauce will thicken slightly as it rests, but it’s not a thick sauce.

Assemble the salad: Remove the larger outer leaves of the romaine hearts and set aside for another use. On a serving platter or on individual plates, neatly arrange the lettuce leaves, stacking some on top of one another. Or, chop the lettuce if you’d prefer. Scatter the radishes, carrots and orange segments on top. Sprinkle everything with a little salt. Stir the sauce to combine, and taste for seasoning and acidity. Drizzle over the salad and serve right away. Use as much sauce as desired. Serve with a side of bread to sop up any lingering dressing.

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 24 hours for marinating; serves 6.

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