The Persian: The Reveal
Back in December, my friend Serena (who tried my Duck Fat-Roasted Cauliflower Steak with Prosciutto on Lavender Sourdough sammies back in April) took me to her family’s favorite place: Shalezeh on 1420 Third Avenue between East 80th and 81st Streets in Manhattan.
A Persian virgin, I immediately spotted the Meatball Tabrizi on the menu. They were stuffed with fava beans, potatoes and prunes and swimming in a velvety tomato sauce. I also got a choice of rice with my entree. Sour Cherry Basmati Rice, even though that might clash with the tomato sauce? Yes, please!
I remember the cherries not actually being very sour, and the rice being so buttery that it was like dessert for dinner. I was also stunned that a kinda sweet, jammy rice dish paired so perfectly with savory meat and red sauce. “I’d totally eat this every day if I could,” I thought.
I couldn’t serve this concoction to just anyone. But I had just the right adventure-seeking Sandwich Surprisee in mind for The Persian.
Joe DiStefano is the guy behind Chopsticks and Marrow, a food blog that makes you wish there were eight meals in a day and 38 waking hours for eating them. A Queens diehard through and through, Joe has been “crushing Flushing” since his first food blog, World’s Fare for Edible Queens. And he regularly takes food fans on tours of his favorite borough, exploring the regional Chinese, Thai, Tibetan and every other cuisine to be found there.
I’ll admit I was anxious about feeding The Guy Who Ate Queens (his New York mag nickname). But I felt more emboldened when I found out Shalezeh received a Michelin star in 2011. Hell yeah, it’s that good.
Me being able to execute it without their actual recipe? Different story.
My test batch was more faithful to the Saveur version, but the saffron was off-putting. I also tried to include sweet peas in the sauce, a la Shalezeh, but it wasn’t working. So I nixed them both, along with the yellow peas, chives and turmeric — the beef-tarragon-dill-basmati rice egg mix was plenty flavorful enough.
I also subbed in parsley microgreens plus their fennel-looking seed pods for the regular parsley, and added a tablespoon of ghee.
I had to wing the filling. I found fresh fava bean pods at the godsend Manhattan Fruit Exchange in Chelsea Market, along with small yellow potatoes and prunes, and sauteed them in a tablespoon of ghee.
To make the sauce as tomato-y and thick as I’d remembered it, I used five times the amount of tomato paste and used ghee instead of olive oil.
I failed on the sour cherry front, and could only find fresh sweet cherries. So I added the juice of half a lemon to half a pound of the split and seeded fruit, but added some sugar too, because I recalled the Shalezeh version being sweet. After cooking that down for 25 minutes, I mixed in a couple tablespoons of ghee.
I didn’t mix the cherries with rice, because the meatballs already had basmati in them, and with the bread — organic white Artisan rolls with a dusting of cinnamon — that would be too much starch.
We met up in Central Park, by that fountain near the arched catacombs where those dueling, yodelly violinists get down. Joe was wearing a shirt that spells Queens out phonetically in Korean.
“This sammy might be a little weird,” I warned him. “Should I tell you what’s in it now as I’m assembling it?”
“You’re going to make it right here?” said Joe.
“Yeah, I like to McDLT-style it,” I said.
“Wow, no, I want to be surprised right before I eat it,” he said.
I put together the sammy making a pocket with the rolls and scooping out the insides, and described Shalezeh to him.
“Oh, it’s Persian?” he said. “I was wondering if it was going to be Cambodian, because you mentioned it was an underrepresented cuisine.”
And as I suspected, Joe wasn’t fazed at all by the idea of sweet cherries with tomato sauce. “I haven’t had it yet, but what’s weird about that?”
He took a bite, quietly chewing, his face betraying nothing. Pretty much all of my Sandwich Surprisees have had immediate reactions, so his blank look and deliberate analysis of flavors was new to me. I eyed him intently.
“It’s good,” he said after several moments. “I see what you mean about the combination. It’s hard because I didn’t have the original meal, so I’m trying to place it. Is it a breakfast sandwich? Is it a spin on peanut butter and jelly? But it’s very good.”
After a few more bites, I asked him if there was anything he didn’t like or would change.
“I’d like a little acidity,” he said. “I thought the cherries would be more sour.”
“Yeah, I looked for sour cherries,” I said ruefully. “But I could only find sweet ones. I should have added more lemon and skipped the sugar.”
Game for a second one, he didn’t want the bread scooped out of the middle this time, and assembled it himself like a regular sammy with the cinnamon boule roll split in half. I thought he might try it without the cherries, but he got right in there with a couple more scoops.
“Now that I’ve had it and know what it’s about, it’s growing on me,” he said.
I stopped pacing and made myself a sammy too. We talked about his three different food tours in Queens (great birthday gift), Yuji Ramen (delicious) and Andy Ricker‘s take on ordering meals “Thai spicy” (unnecessary).
Then Joe brightened as he realized something. “It’s like a tagine in a sandwich,” he said.
“So, what’s your final verdict?” I asked. (Mine? I didn’t get it to the must-eat level of Shalezeh, but there’s something strangely craveable about it anyway.)
“I’ve never had a sandwich like that before,” Joe said. “It definitely was a surprise. And it was great. Thanks so much!”
Sandwich Surprise is all about me running with my sammy ideas and springing them on friends, family, friends of friends, friends of family, and you get the idea. I’m always up for expanding my circle of food adventurers.