In celebration of Vegan MoFo, I’m doing a month of themed dinner party ideas! The theme for this week is a holiday mash-up!
Every New Year, we all come at the day with visions of how things are going to be. We are going to exercise more. We’re going to eat better. We’re going to stop bad habits, and we’re going to let go of old grudges. Like putting fresh sheets on the bed, we’re starting the year off fresh. While many of us think of the New Year starting on January 1st, the Persian New Year, Nowruz, starts on the first day of spring and lasts 13 days. It is celebrated in Iran and throughout Central Asia. In the same way that the earth seems to come alive during spring with flowers popping and green grass sprouting, Nowruz (which literally means new day) is a time when people are encouraged to clean their homes, buy a new outfit, forget old enemies, renew friendships, and literally start a new season in their lives.
While I’ve never visited Iran, I have attended one of the biggest Nowruz celebrations in the world in Southern California. Many Iranian transplants live in Southern California, and for a number of years I had a pen pal in Iran. We wrote each other letters often and shared the details of our day-to-day worlds. I told her about going on auditions, working catering jobs, and living with my boyfriend. She wrote to me about going to college, working a government mandated job, and meeting boys through their parents for a possible arranged marriage. She sent me mementos from her daily life, like a turbah, which is an imprinted piece of mud used during daily prayers. We talked about religion, family, and holidays.
When each important day came around, I told her stories about our traditions, and she clued me in to hers. She also shared with me how Christian holidays played a part in an Iranian world, taking pictures of Christmas displays and sending them to me. She was particularly interested in Native Americans, and so I went to a powwow, bought crafts for her there, and watched traditional dances. And as I mentioned, I went to a Nowruz festival to experience it for myself, take pictures, meander the pond where the festival took place and people set grass in red ribbons to drift on the water. I saw families picnicking together, dancing, and noticed the haft sin displays on tables and blankets.
The haft sin, which is set up on a cloth in homes and at celebrations has various items on it symbolizing health, good fortune, and longevity that all start with the letter S. Some of the items included are sprouts representing rebirth, apples for health and beauty, garlic representing medicine, pudding representing new life, berries symbolizing conquering evil, and vinegar to represent age and patience.
While the internet was around at the time that we were pen pals, our friendship grew almost entirely from letters and packages. There’s something so simple and lovely about getting a letter in the mail with its thin paper and foreign stamps, knowing a person on the other side of the globe wrote those words in her home, with her own hands.
For the holiday mash-up dinner party, the next dish I’m making is from Amey at Vegan Eats & Treats, Spinach in Orange Sauce. Amey celebrates Nowruz every year with a big dinner that she documents on her blog. It’s not a holiday she grew up celebrating. She fell in love with it as an adult, which I think is wonderful. Why not co-opt joyful traditions and holidays as our own?
The Spinach in Orange Sauce is not one that she served at a Nowruz celebration, but it is a Persian dish that she veganized from In a Persian Kitchen. The dish is alive with the colors of spring – green spinach and parsley and the bright flavors of orange and lemon. (I think it would also be wonderful with spinach traded out for slow-cooked collard greens.) It tastes like a mouthful of sunshine. Amey used white beans in her version of the dish, but I went with chickpeas instead.
While the dish would traditionally be served with Persian rice made with a crispy bottom called tah digh, I made a simplified saffron herbed rice, pulling from the flavors and herbs that were prominent in the Persian rice Amey recommended. Served in layers with the Spinach in Orange Sauce, the cheerful colors and flavors make you feel almost as if spring is at hand.
Makes 3 cups rice
- 1 1/2 cups long-grain brown rice, rinsed
- 3 cups water
- Pinch of saffron
- 2 young green onions, finely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
- 1 Tablespoon minced fresh dill
- Salt & pepper, to taste
In a medium-sized pot, bring rice & water to a simmer. When a simmer has been reached, remove a few spoonfuls of hot water from the pot and put them into a small bowl. Add a pinch of saffron to the bowl to let it steep. While the saffron steeps, turn the heat on the rice to low and cover the pot with a lid. Once the steeping water is bright yellow, move it back into the pot of rice and cover again. Continue cooking the rice on low for 35 minutes, until all of the water is fully absorbed. Once the rice is done, turn the heat off, and fluff the rice with a fork. Add the young green onions, cilantro, dill, salt, and pepper to the rice, fully combine, and serve.
For this holiday mash-up dinner party, I’m also including dolmas for appetizers. (These aren’t homemade. Maybe someday! For now, I just picked them up at the grocery store.) Stuffed grape leaves are served at Nowruz, and these tiny little packages are said to make wishes come true.
I haven’t gotten a letter from my old pen pal in many years now. There was a time when we were writing many times a week that I hoped relations between our countries would get better and we could visit each other someday. I thought things could only improve. Sadly, in the years following things have only gone downhill. I don’t know if the day will come that we’ll ever meet each other in real life, but I do know that for many years my life was made richer and fuller by knowing her.