Spring greens, herbs, lemons, flavor Middle East stew

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A musical tongue called Farsi is often heard among the colorful kebabaries and Middle East grocery shops along Queens Avenue and in the vicinity of Queens College in New York City, where thousands of Iranians have recently settled.

Southern California once was the favorite clime for Iranians in the United States, but many are also settling in New York and around Washington, D.C.

Although often distanced from members of their families, they still retain much of their culture, a proud mantle they do not deny.

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Polite conversation, entertaining, and good food are among the outstanding features of that culture, and the Iranians in New York City are talking about and cooking many of their traditional foods.

One of the dishes they most yearn for when parted from their homeland is a combination of rice with an herb sauce called Gormeh Sabzi, which means literally, ''green meat stew.''

An unusual and subtle dish, it takes on deep green color from the many green vegetables and herbs that are used to make it, and it has a wonderful grassy fragrance.

It is not an overpowering flavor for these sauces are never hot, spicy, or strong. The herbs blend together and enhance each other as in much of the family food of this cuisine. The dishes reflect the refined knowledge and experience of centuries of cooking that make up the exquisite Persian combinations of food.

The herbs used in Gormeh Sabzi are fenugreek, coriander, dill, and parsley - although ingredients often vary according to custom and season.

The dish also has a scattering of beans, bits of fried lamb, and a whole dried lemon that adds an aroma of citron.

Gormeh Sabzi is one of the many khoreshtsm, or sauces, that Iranians serve over rice. It is an everyday dish, however it is often called the ''sayyid''m or lord of khoreshts, sayyidm being the word used for a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, who is traditionally eligible to wear green on his turban.

In summer, when herbs are fresh, the herbs should be bought the day of cooking. But dried herbs are also acceptable, and the Iranian housewife often buys them fresh in large amounts, using some fresh and drying some as well, storing them in huge glass jars in her cellar or pantry.

Gormeh Sabzi is especially savored at the end of winter and around March 2l, New Year's Day, when fresh vegetables are not available and the dried herbs are used.

When Iranians traveled back and forth to Europe and the United States from Iran, they would often bring the khoreshtm greens to friends and family abroad.

These herbs along with gazm, a kind of nougat in metal boxes, and pistachios sewed in muslin bags, were great favorites and popular gifts.

Today many Middle Eastern grocers in the US sell packaged combinations of the herbs and a small, pungent, dried lemon called limu Omanim, and they are probably the nicest prepackaged foods around. A box of dried herbs for Gormeh Sabzi costs about $3.50, plus postage and handling.

Middle Eastern and Indian groceries also sell the small red navy beans, although black-eyed beans are used in some regions of Iran . Our red kidney beans are similiar, but larger than their red navy bean.

The Asia Center in Falls Church, Va., advertises in a preeminently Iranian way in the Iran Times, a Farsi newspaper. In a dozen couplets they boast the goods they can supply for a traditional banquet or family meal.

''If you are poor we have it; If you are rich we have it, If you live in Georgia or California we'll supply you. Wherever you are we'll serve you,'' the ad reads.

According to Mohammad Ali, the manager of Asia Center, personal authenticity for Iranians is bound up with authentic foods.

''They look very hard for familiar foods,'' he said. ''When they find quince or cherry preserves or their spicy pickles or the ingredients for national dishes, they tell all their family and friends.

''Iranians accept America's beverages, but they want to drink them in the narrow, curved glasses called estekansm, so we bring them from Turkey and Iraq,'' he said.

Traditionally Gormeh Sabzi is fine home cooking. It is never seen on the menus of Iran's fancier restaurants and hotels. Only travelers who dine in country hostels, old parts of towns, or in homes can sample it.

My friend, Susan Wertime of Washington, D.C. makes Gormeh Sabzi with a recipe from her great-grandmother's kitchen, which I think is the best. Her husband, an owner of a gallery shop of Oriental rugs and textile art, Trocadero, likes Gormeh Sabzi at least once a week.

An inexpensive and nice way to use the dried herbs, she says, is to mix them with fresh ones that are available, such as fresh dill, coriander, finely chopped parsley, scallion, and leek greens or spinach.

The khoreshtm is slightly liquid and is always served over a fluffy rice, called chelom.

Ingredients are usually sauteed in oil, then water is added and they are left to cook slowly and gently until flavors have blended. Often it is cooked a day in advance of serving. Susan's Gormeh Sabzi 1/3 cup red kidney beans (soak 1 or 2 hours) 1 large onion, chopped 1 tablespoon oil 1 pound stewing beef or lamb 1/3 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon Salt and pepper to taste 3 cups water or to cover 1/3 cup red kidney beans 2 to 3 bunches parsley, finely chopped 1 bunch scallions, green part 1 bunch leeks, chopped 3 tablespoons oil 2 tablespoons dried fenugreek or 12 tablespoons fresh 3 tablespoons Persian limes or fresh lemon juice

Saute onions in oil until soft, add meat and saute until brown. Add tumeric, cinnamon, salt, pepper, and water and cook 20 minutes. Add beans and cook until meat and beans are tender but not soft.

Wash and chop greens and saute briefly, then add fenugreek. Combine everything. Add limes or lemon juice and simmer over low heat 30 minutes or more until well blended. Serve with rice.

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