The story of Purim, which celebrates the Jews’ narrow escape from mass annihilation in the 4th century B.C., takes place in the ancient Persian empire. Described sometimes as the Jewish Halloween — though many scholars and rabbis push back against the notion — the holiday is celebrated with festive dinners, Purim spiels (plays) and dress-up parades and/or parties where you might be expected to drink as much wine as you can hold. And though most people know only of hamantaschen — triangular filled cookies — as the food directly linked to Purim, the dishes eaten for the holiday are rich and varied, depending on geography.
The holiday falls midweek this year, on the night of March 20, and to honor its origin, I set out to create a dinner menu that draws on Persian flavors and ingredients. I also wanted to imbue the dishes with celebratory symbolism.
As the story goes, the brave Jew named Esther was made queen to Persia’s King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) after he banished or executed his first wife for refusing to show off her beauty to his friends.
It is generally assumed that because Queen Esther kept kosher, and so would not have partaken of meat dishes served at the royal court, she had a vegetarian diet. For this reason, bean dishes are popular at Purim, and a bean-noodle soup starts the meal off nicely. Made with lots of different beans and rich in herbs, the soup gets a nice bright lift from a liberal addition of lemon juice.
The rice, which does take some time despite being pretty straightforward to make, is visually stunning — studded with barberries and dried apricots and garnished with almonds and pistachios.
Speaking of green-tinted nuts, they landed the leading role in my Persian-inspired hamantaschen recipe.
Instead of the typical poppy seed filling, here the three-sided cookies contain a not-too-sweet mixture of ground pistachios, cardamom, orange zest and a touch of rosewater. I have calibrated the amount of the latter ingredient so that it highlights the floral notes of pistachios, instead of turning the cookie into a heavily perfumed confection. But if you are sensitive to its flavor, add half the amount, and taste before adding the rest.
A bit of advance cooking will simplify tremendously preparations for the midweek holiday. Here’s a plan:
● Both the rice and the hamantaschen can be made over the weekend. Garnish the rice — which can be served slightly warmed up (do add a bit of water so the rice steams instead of just drying out) or at room temperature — right before serving.
● Make the soup on Tuesday night, as its flavors will meld and surely improve; just add the noodles during reheating.
● Season the chicken that same night, and make the glaze the next day while you wait for the chicken to come to room temperature.
Massov is a Washington-area food writer. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
When combined, pomegranate molasses, honey, saffron and tangerine produce an aromatic and flavorful glaze.
You can swap in half a teaspoon of ground turmeric in place of saffron, which will maintain the rich golden hue saffron provides. Serve the chicken alongside Jeweled Rice (see recipe at washingtonpost.com/recipes).
MAKE AHEAD: Season the chicken and refrigerate it the night before you plan to roast it.
From food writer and recipe developer Olga Massov.
One (5-pound) whole chicken or bone-in turkey breast
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon loosely packed saffron threads
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons mild honey
2 large garlic cloves, finely grated
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 tangerine
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Olive or grapeseed oil, to coat the pan
Thoroughly pat the chicken or turkey breast dry with paper towels. Stir together the salt and pepper in a small bowl, then rub the seasoning all over the chicken, and inside the cavity. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 4 hours, and up to 24 hours. This will allow the seasoning to penetrate the meat and yield a flavorful bird, as well as make it possible for the glaze to stay put on the skin. Before cooking, let the bird sit at room temperature for 1 hour, to ensure even cooking.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Toast the saffron, shaking the pan a few times, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the saffron to a small bowl, and let cool. Using a mortar and pestle (or the bottom of a soup spoon), grind the saffron into coarse powder.
Combine the pomegranate molasses, honey, garlic, tangerine zest and juice, cumin and the saffron powder in a small bowl. Using your hands, or a pastry brush, apply the mixture all over the chicken, as well as inside the cavity. You will have extra glaze left over; reserve.
Brush a thin slick of oil on the bottom of a heavy large skillet (preferably cast iron), add the chicken and transfer to the oven. About 30 minutes into roasting, brush some of the extra glaze all over the bird, and repeat every 10 minutes. (It will also give you a good opportunity to make sure the glaze isn’t burning too much. The pomegranate-honey mixture can go from beautifully burnished to burned very quickly.)
Roast for 50 to 70 minutes; an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh (away from the bone) should register 165 degrees. The bird should be lacquered and a glossy burgundy-brown.
Let the chicken rest for about 15 minutes before carving.
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