Khoresh Karafs: Persian Celery Stew
The first time, I didn’t REALLY want to try it. I was at my friend Sooli‘s house as her mother bustled away in the kitchen (“No, Ma, that doesn’t go there — MA, I said SIT DOWN for god’s sake!”) and large aluminum platters of food were already starting to haphazardly blanket her lovely oversize dining room table. Despite the profusion of appetizers and platters that were strewn around in other rooms, we all started to circle the dining room like ravenous dingos who spied a limping wallaby in the thrush. Truth be told, we know that Sooli is a sparkling and effusive host and we’re lucky to be invited to her parties. But we also know that we’re even luckier when her mother makes an appearance with vats of inordinately fluffy basmati with that perfect golden crust, and salvers of shrimp and meats in tow.
Mike and I generously piled our plates high with rice, braised lamb, stewed beans, some strange but delicious dish made from potato, raisin and egg in a creamy sauce, and then we got to this. The mottled grayish green celery stew. Now look, I’ve never been one to back down from a new culinary experience, and it’s not that I have any aversion to what I could see of the ingredients (celery, meat, something leafy and almost pureed that used to be green…) but it’s just that given the chance, with the volume that was already on my plate, I had to pick and choose and frankly whatever this dish was just didn’t make the cut.
One of Sooli’s friends, a stunning and only moderately unfriendly Persian girl, breezed by us, elbowing me in my well-padded ribs and hissed, “You have to try the celery stew.”
Huh. Celery stew. I poked at it, rather morosely. As quietly as he could, out of the corner of his mouth, Mike pleadingly asked me, “Did she say celery stew? Do we…do I….maybe we can just NOT try it….?” We edged away, ready to retreat to the back of the room and chow down on our heaping portions.
Just then, Sooli burst into the room with another round of drinks and was about to charge by when she snaked a look at my plate and stopped cold. “TINA,” she said with a look of alarm, “You don’t have any of the celery stew. You have to try the celery stew. It’s everybody’s favorite.”
So. It looked like I had to try the celery stew. Sigh. I grudgingly turned back and portioned out as little of the stew as I could onto my already groaning plate, and Mike followed suit.
I don’t know about you, but I have kind of an illogical strategy when it comes to massive portions of food. Rather than filling up on the things that I know I like, I covet those, pushing them over to the side to save them for later, and plow my way through the less preferred food first so that I can use things like braised lamb as a well earned reward. Ergo, I started with the celery stew. I took a bite and got confused. This wasn’t bad at all. With my second bite, I was convinced that it was delicious. Obviously this means that my next step was to distract Mike, steal the celery stew from off his plate and replace it with a few mouthfuls of rice from my own. Because, hey, that’s just how I roll.
It was clear why this dish was a wild favorite at Sooli’s house. Humble ingredients like celery and stewing beef were slow braised with aromatics and spices until everything was tender and succulent. The flavor was deceivingly complex, with herbal undertones and a surprisingly pleasant sour note. As Sooli was flitting out of the room, I called her over to ask what was in there. She shrugged and said, “Uh, there’s some celery. Meat. Stew…….”
Minutes later, I heard someone wail, “WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE CELERY STEW???” Rather than snickering like I normally would, thinking that this comment was ironic, I now knew the keening cry of one who had tasted celery stew and longed for just another bite more.
Khoresh Karafs: Persian Celery Stew
- 2 lb (~ 1 kg) stewing beef *
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large Spanish or yellow onion
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp turmeric
- 1 lime (1.5 tsp zest + juice of whole) **
- 1 head of celery (~ 4 cups cut)
- 4 cups water, approximately
- 1.5 tbsp pomegranate molasses ***
- small bunch parsley (1 cup finely chopped)
- handful fresh dill (1/3 cup finely chopped)
- 6 green onions
- 1/2 cup dried mint ****
- salt and pepper to taste
* I like to buy a cheap and cheerful beef chuck or small shoulder roast and cut it into cubes myself, but the pre-cut “stewing beef” that you find in the supermarket is fine.
** Khoresh Karafs is frequently stewed with one or two dried limes in the pot. Dried limes can be found in specialty shops, or some Middle Eastern grocery stores. However, I find that they also have a tendency to add quite a bit of bitterness to the stew. Using fresh lime juice and bright zest instead will mitigate the potential bitterness of the stew while still adding that green citrus hit. As an added bonus, limes are plentiful and easy to come by, so they just make sense.
*** Pomegranate molasses adds a slightly sweet and sour high note to the stew. If you can’t find pomegranate molasses, substitute with 1 tbsp of mild white wine vinegar mixed with 2 tsp of granulated sugar and squeeze of lemon juice.
**** Yup. Dried mint. You read that correctly. Dried mint is very common in Persian and Middle Eastern cuisine, and it is easy to buy a nice big bag of the stuff from a Middle Eastern grocery store. However, if you do not have such a store in your area you have a few options. If you plan in advance, buy a nice big bunch of fresh mint and hang it to dry in your kitchen for a week. Or, if you’re a bit more last minute about things, you can spread the mint out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put it in your oven on the lowest possible setting (220ºF, or thereabouts) until it dries out in the oven…which it should have time to do while the beef and celery are stewing.
Finely dice the onion and mince the garlic. In a fairly large, heavy bottomed pot (or Dutch oven) heat the oil on a medium heat. Add the aromatics and let them saute for 5-7 minutes or until the onions are golden. Stir regularly and watch to make sure that they do not brown or burn.
While the onions cook, trim most of the excess fat off of the meat and cut it into stew sized cubes, each about 1-1.5″ or thereabout. Remember that you’re not training for surgery when you trim the fat off the meat, because a little bit of fat will yield an excellent amount of flavor. A lot of fat, however, will merely yield a greasy celery stew which sounds rather less than appetizing.
Add the meat to the onions.
Let the meat cook, stirring regularly, for 3-5 minutes or until the flesh is sealed. It will not brown in the caramelized way that we know and love, because there simply is not enough room in the pan for it to do so. I love brown meat, but believe me when I say that you won’t be lacking in flavor at the end of the day.
When the meat is sealed, sprinkle on top the turmeric and add the grated or rasped lime zest. To get 1.5 tsp of lime zest you can approximate by zesting about 3/4 of the lime. Stir the spice and zest into the meat.
Clean the celery well and chop the stalks into squat lengths of about 3-4″ each. This is about the length of an index finger if you have squat and chubby potato picking hands like I do. If you are a pianist you might want to opt for the pinky instead….
Pour the water into your pot and it should just reach the rim of the beef and celery. You want the meat to be submerged so that it can slowly braise. If you need a splash or two more, so be it. Don’t add more than an additional cup (again, only if you must) or it will take you a dog’s age to reduce it over the low heat.
Turn the heat down to low. Put a lid on the pot for the next hour and a half and let it stew, stew away!
When the meat starts to cook, at first the fibers will seize and get shoe-leather tough. After slowly simmering for an hour and a half though, the tough connective tissue will break down and the meat will start to tenderize. When the meat is tender, but not falling apart, ready the rest of the ingredients.
Mince the parsley and dill as finely as possible. Slice your scallions (white and green parts) into small rounds about 1/8″ thick.
Add the herbs to the pot. Crumble in the dried mint, discarding any woody stem bits, and give it a stir.
Let the pot simmer, uncovered, for another 30-40 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced from a soup to a nice stew. Squeeze in the juice of your half naked lime (the full lime, or to taste) as well as the pomegranate molasses. If you like the stew to be a bit less tart, you can always cut back on both as you see fit. Season generously with salt and pepper, because you know what isn’t a party in your mouth? Bland and under-seasoned celery stew, that’s what.
Celery stew is great garnished with a smattering of fresh chopped or whole grilled tomato (I’m far too lazy for that), and a sprinkle of fresh parsley or mint if you are so inclined.
Serve the stew alongside fluffy basmati rice to soak up all the flavor. If you have a high quality basmati and feel inclined to make chelow rice with that deliciously golden crust (called tahdig, and inordinately delicious), by all means don’t hold yourself back.
When we order wings I normally hoard the celery and leave Mike to polish off all the carrots, which frankly he doesn’t really mind, and it’s because I love the slightly sweet but, well, CONFIDENT grassy flavor of celery and the watery crunch. Combine that with meltingly tender beef, a bright and barely sour broth, and loads of verdant mint and parsley, and you can start to understand why Khoresh Karaf is like a Persian cult classic.
From meagre and common ingredients, something soulful and exotic this way comes. The moral of this story is, obviously, don’t be afraid to try something new, humble though it might appear. Oh yes, and if someone’s Persian mother is making dinner, JUST SAY YES. You will never be sorry.