Personally, one of the best things about cold weather is that it brings out the true wealth of the home kitchen, the finest examples of comfort cooking.
In North America, you have such richly-flavored gems like Southern-style smothered chicken and beef stew with dumplings. In England, there are stodgy suet or syrup puddings, hearty steak and kidney pies, and plump, succulent sausages served with mashed potatoes (or parsnips, for that matter).
Here in the Philippines, cold weather prompts cooks to whip up savory rice porridges (arroz caldo [rice porridge with chicken and ginger] for Filipino households, congee in all its permutations in Chinese-Filipino homes) or rich tomato-sauced stews such as beef (or goat) caldereta and pochero Madrileno (pork and chicken cooked with potatoes, cabbage, starchy saba bananas, and bits of chorizo in tomato sauce).
And then there’s this little gem from the kitchens of old Persia: abgusht.
For many non-Iranians such as myself, the term is relatively new and is one familiar perhaps only to those who have read Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup. In the novel, abgusht is a delicately-flavored where lamb is cooked with chickpeas and root vegetables. What would sound like an insipid, conventional combination is given a surprising zing by the addition of limuomani or preserved limes.
Despite its delicate flavor, however, abgusht is a dish that carries a serious caveat: it is quite rich, very filling, and bound to induce the need for a nap in even the hardiest of diners. But given the cold weather and the relative lessening of office and house chores, a nap in the afternoon would be most welcome! Small wonder that it is referred to as “the workman’s stew”, given how it is both filling and restorative.
In Mehran’s book, however, abgusht actually has an opposite effect: instead of putting the diner to sleep, the meal actually leads to an awakening – and what an awakening! Fr. Fergal Mahoney, Ballinacroagh’s cheeky and humorous parish priest, gets an unusual wake-up call after a meal of abgusht, lavash, fresh herbs, and tea. The spices infusing the stew awaken the old priest’s talent for comedy and result in his writing a new play.
Persia Grill, given its proximity, is my natural go-to place for Iranian cuisine and they do a pretty good rendition of abgusht. Only, of course due to local sensibilities and tastes, beef is used rather than lamb. The chick peas, white beans, and a single small potato are left whole and kept in the broth as opposed to being mashed and the broth strained clear. The end result is a brown stew chock-full of filling ingredients in a thinnish broth. What keeps it from being a conventional version of a dish like nilaga is the addition of finely chopped limuomani which gives the soup a bright, fresh, tangy flavor.
Traditionally, abgusht is served with lavash (flatbread) and sabzi (mixed fresh herbs). But this version works just as well with hot white rice.
I can’t say that those eating Persia Grill’s abgusht will experience similar epiphanies to those of Fr. Mahoney. But if one is looking for an unusual way to warm up as opposed to standard-issue cold-weather fare, this lemony stew is worth a try.