Cook This: Three Christmas recipes from Pomegranates and Artichokes, including savoury stuffed apples

In her cookbook debut, Pomegranates & Artichokes, photographer and food writer Saghar Setareh connects the culinary dots from Iran to Italy

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Our cookbook of the week is Pomegranates and Artichokes by Saghar Setareh.

Jump to the recipes: savoury stuffed apples, pork roast with pears and chestnuts, and little “chestnuts” that are really almond cookies.

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Crostini with lardo, figs and honey, savoury stuffed apples, pork roast with pears and chestnuts, and little “chestnuts” that are really almond cookies: “That’s how I’d like to do Christmas, especially here in Italy,” says Rome-based photographer and food writer Saghar Setareh.

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The dishes all have a celebratory air and look striking on a holiday table. The time that goes into making the stuffed apples alone makes them extraordinary. “A Christmas menu needs to be rich. It needs to be something you don’t normally do, and it also needs to reflect the season.”

Arista (pork roast) is well-loved in Tuscany, where the fruits it nestles in range from wine grapes, quince and apples in fall to apricots, blueberries and prunes in summer. Here, Setareh opts for pears and chestnuts, quintessential Christmas flavours.

“I love meat, especially lamb or pork, with fruit. And this is something that they do especially in central Italy — also in the mountainous area — which reminds me a lot of the dishes of the Middle East, especially Iranian ones, because in Iran we use a lot of fruit. For example, we use a lot of prunes in our savoury stews. We use apples. We use quince in savoury dishes, and also in Syria and deep Turkey — the Anatolia region, which cooking-wise, flavour-wise, is the most similar to Iran.”

One of the first recipe notes Setareh jotted down for her cookbook debut, Pomegranates & Artichokes (Interlink Books, 2023), was guinea hen with pomegranate (faraona alla melagrana). When she learned about the Christmassy meal with peasant roots from a friend whose family is from central and northern Italy, she immediately thought of the similarities with a dish from North Iran, chicken with pomegranate sauce (khoresh-e nārdoon). “Although very distant geographically, they’re basically the same dish: poultry with pomegranate seeds and juice.”

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In general, stuffed foods provided great inspiration for Setareh. Whether the dolmeh of Iran, dolma of Turkey, gemista of Greece, mehshi of Arabic-speaking countries or ripieni of Italy, stuffed vegetables epitomize the culinary connections between her native Iran and Italian home. “In a parallel world, instead of calling this book Pomegranates & Artichokes, I would’ve named it, Oh, the Glorious World of Stuffed Vegetables.”

Setareh wove these culinary threads throughout the book, linking central Asia, the Middle East and the Levant, and the Mediterranean. She begins with a section devoted to recipes from her homeland: nashta (breakfast), comfort food and small dishes, the anatomy of an Iranian feast and sweets to accompany tea. Then comes “In Between” — recipes from the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean — and, finally, Italy, featuring simple dishes, an ode to aperitivo, recipes for celebrations, sweet snacks and desserts.

Pomegranates & Artichokes book cover
Pomegranates & Artichokes is Saghar Setareh’s debut cookbook. Photo by Interlink Books

As Setareh settled into life in Italy after moving from her hometown of Tehran in 2007 as a 22-year-old art student, she began to trace the resemblances.

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“My aim for this book was to not just put the food of these places on the same level — but in general, the life and the people of Iran, of Italy and the Middle East. There is this understanding that one is associated with excellence, romanticism and ‘dolce vita’ (sweet life), but the other parts are considered ‘too exotic’ or ‘too troubled.’ But when you put all of them together next to each other, you can see that, ‘Oh, there are many more similarities than we had ever thought.’ And it raises the question that if the food and the recipes of these places have so many similarities, why are the people from these places treated so differently?”

Setareh strikes a balance between more involved and uncomplicated recipes, highlighting the culinary ties that bind this large geographic area.

For example, there are three upside-down rice recipes in the book — tahchin from Iran (fried eggplant and saffron chicken versions); maqluba, a Palestinian specialty enjoyed throughout the Arab world; and “the pride and glory of high-end Neopolitan cooking,” sartù di riso — and four recipes designed to “recuperate” stale bread: fattah and fattoush from the Levant; panzanella from Tuscany; and doimaj (balls of herbs and flatbreads) from Iran.

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“I get very excited when I find recipes that are, at first glance, from far corners of the world — we’re speaking in this world, in this area of Pomegranates & Artichokes — and then figure out that people in more or less similar geographic conditions, climatic conditions, they have found similar solutions to a common problem.”

When Setareh arrived in Italy, she wasn’t particularly interested in food. She couldn’t afford to dine out, even at small trattorias. “I had to be very careful. So I didn’t really get to live that dolce vita side of Italy, because my struggle was to survive and pass my university exams to keep my visa. If I didn’t, I would have been kicked out. My first concern was survival, and the moment I realized that, OK, maybe that’s not an imminent threat anymore, I started to spread my wings a little bit. And little by little, I thought, ‘Oh, this is very lovely.’”

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Inspired by art history and still life, a passion for food photography came first. Then, with time, she immersed herself in the cultural world of food, influenced by the work of writers such as Rachel Roddy, who left London for Rome in 2005.

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In 2013, Setareh started her blog, Lab Noon, which she initially published in three languages: English, Italian and Persian. The seed for a cookbook was planted in 2015 when she created a prototype as part of her master’s in design and photography. Then, she set her sights on developing a winning idea and writing a proposal.

Since Murdoch Books in the U.K. and Interlink Books in the U.S. published Pomegranates & Artichokes in English in the spring, there have been German and Italian editions. It’s rare for Italian publishers to release foreign cookbooks, says Setareh, so the Italian edition (released by Slow Food Italy’s publishing house, Slow Food Editore) was a pleasant surprise.

As an Iranian immigrant in Italy, Setareh has always felt a duality — “the duality of the identity, the duality of the nationality and the person, of immigrants in general” — that she wanted to reflect in the book’s title. Pomegranates originated in Iran, southwest Pakistan and Afghanistan and carry a strong association with the Middle East. “And then, for me, Rome is the city of artichokes. Romans pride themselves on some of the best artichokes in the world, and they really are,” says Setareh, who is especially fond of twice-fried carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes), which open up like flowers.

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The title Pomegranates & Artichokes captured the essence of this duality. “My wish was always to connect these two worlds.”

SAVOURY STUFFED APPLES

Savoury stuffed apples
Savoury stuffed apples, golden with saffron, are a celebratory addition to a Christmas table. Photo by Saghar Setareh

Dolme-ye sib

Serves: 4-6 as a side or appetizer, 2-3 as a main

For the filling:
3 1/2 tbsp basmati rice
2 tbsp yellow split peas
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp golden onion (recipe follows)
3 tbsp coarsely chopped walnuts
2 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp saffron infusion (recipe follows)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Freshly ground black pepper

For the syrup:
1/3 cup (70 g) sugar
2 tbsp white wine vinegar

For assembling:
6 Red Delicious apples
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp saffron infusion (see note)
1 1/2-2 tbsp butter, melted

Step 1

To make the filling, start by soaking the rice in some water for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, boil the split peas for 20-30 minutes, or until soft but still al dente. Drain.

Step 2

Heat the oil in a pan with the golden onion. Drain the rice, then add to the pan with 2/3 cup (160 mL) water. Cook for 5-10 minutes, so that the rice is not completely raw and a lot of liquid is still left. Take off the heat and add the split peas, walnuts, raisins, saffron infusion, salt, cinnamon, and some black pepper. Set aside.

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Step 3

To make the vinegar syrup, bring the sugar, vinegar, and 2/3 cup (160 mL) water to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2-5 minutes, then remove from the heat. It’s likely that you won’t need all of this syrup; any leftovers will keep indefinitely in a sealed jar in the fridge, and can become the base of sharbat sekanjebin (the recipe is in the book) if you cook some mint in it.

Step 4

Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).

Step 5

Cut the tops off the apples to keep as “lids.” Using a teaspoon, carefully scoop the flesh out of the apples, leaving a 1/4-inch (5-mm) shell. Reserve the scooped-out apple flesh, but discard the cores. Rub the inside of the apple shells and the bottom of the “lids” with lemon juice so they don’t discolour.

Step 6

In a roasting pan large enough to fit all the apples, place the reserved apple flesh, salt, saffron infusion, half the melted butter, and 1/4 cup (60 mL) of the vinegar syrup and mix well.

Step 7

Arrange the apples on top, then stuff each with the filling, leaving a little space for it to swell. Pour 1 tablespoon of the vinegar syrup into each of the apples. Put the “lids” back on, then drizzle the remaining melted butter over the apples.

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Step 8

Cover with foil (or a lid, if your pan has one). Bake for 45-55 minutes, until the apples are a little shrivelled. Remove from the oven, then let the apples cool, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes, before transferring them very gently to a platter.

Step 9

Transfer all the juice and pulp at the bottom of the roasting pan to a blender. Blend into a thick sauce, spoon it around the apples on the platter, and serve.

GOLDEN ONION

Piaz dagh

Makes: 2 tbsp golden onion

Oil, for deep-frying (the quantity will depend on the size of your pan)
2 onions, halved, then sliced 1/4 inch (5 mm) thick
1/4 tsp ground turmeric

Step 1

In a large pan suitable for frying, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Make sure the onion half-rings are separated from each other. When tiny bubbles appear in the oil, add one slice of onion to check the heat. If the oil around the onion bubbles and the onion comes to the surface, the oil is hot enough; otherwise, wait until this happens.

Step 2

Usually, two sliced onions can be fried in two or three batches, in a 9-inch (23-cm) pan. If your pan is smaller, you should fry the onions in more batches. This is actually time-saving, contrary to what you may think, because one layer of onion fries more quickly, and piled-up onions become soggy and take more time to become golden and crunchy.

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Step 3

Fry each batch over medium-high heat for 8-12 minutes, or until the onion has shrunk down and is completely golden. At the last moment for the first batch, add all the turmeric, stir around a bit, then, with a slotted spoon, transfer the onion to a large dish lined with paper towel. The onion will darken once removed from the pan, turning golden brown on the paper. Add another batch of onion to the pan and repeat. For this amount of onion, the turmeric added to the oil at the end of the first batch is enough. (If you’re making more than this amount, add a dash more turmeric each second or third batch.) You can keep the frying oil for a week for frying up more golden onion, or to use in dishes where a hint of onion and turmeric would be welcome.

Step 4

You can keep the golden onion in the fridge in an airtight container for 3-4 days, or freeze for up to 3 months. If using frozen golden onion, you won’t need to thaw it — just break off a piece and add it to the hot pan. It will just take a little longer to cook as it thaws in the pan and the water evaporates.

SAFFRON INFUSION

Za’feran-e dam kardeh

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Makes: 3 tbsp saffron infusion

1/2 tsp saffron threads, very loosely packed
A good pinch of sugar

Step 1

Grind the saffron strands with the sugar in a small mortar. If you don’t have a small mortar, you can put the saffron and sugar on a piece of parchment paper, fold all the sides so the powder won’t escape, then grind with a jam jar or rolling pin until you have a very fine powder.

Step 2

Bring a kettle of water to a boil, then let it sit for a few minutes. Tip the powder very gently into a small glass teacup, then gently pour 3 tablespoons of the hot water over it. (Never use boiling water, or you’ll “kill” the saffron.) Cover the cup with a lid or saucer and let the mixture “brew” for at least 10 minutes without removing the lid, to release the colour and aroma of the saffron. After this time, your saffron infusion is ready to use.

Step 3

If you make a larger batch, store the leftovers in a clean sealed jar in the fridge for 4-5 days. You can also make a refreshing drink called a sharbat with any leftover saffron infusion, or add it to your regular cup of tea.

PORK ROAST WITH PEARS & CHESTNUTS

Pork roast with pears and chestnuts
This pairing of pork with pears, well-loved in Tuscany and well-suited to Christmas, “is one made in heaven,” says Saghar Setareh. Photo by Saghar Setareh

Arrosto di maiale con pere e castagne

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Serves: 4-6

10 1/2 oz (300 g) fresh chestnuts (see note)
1 3/4-3 1/2 oz (50-100 g) pancetta or bacon, thinly sliced
2 lb 4 oz (1 kg) pork loin, with some fat on
3 large beurre bosc or kaiser pears (or any type suitable for baking)
2 French shallots
2 rosemary sprigs
1 1/4 cup (60 mL) white wine
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Step 1

Using a sharp knife, carve an incision in the skin of the chestnuts. Cook them in boiling water for 20-30 minutes. Drain them in a colander, then run them under cold water until cool enough to handle. Peel the chestnuts, discarding the skin, and set aside.

Step 2

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425F (220C). Neatly arrange the pancetta slices crossways over the lean side of the pork loin, so they overlap a bit. Press the pancetta onto the meat; this is where the pork will get its seasoning from. Now carefully tie the meat with butcher’s twine, several times crossways and twice lengthways, to secure the pancetta slices and to keep the roast nice and snug so it will cook evenly. (You may also ask your butcher to prepare the loin for you in this way.)

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Step 3

Core the pears (I like to leave the skin on) and cut each into four wedges. Peel the shallots, leaving the roots intact, and cut each into four wedges as well. In a roasting pan, toss the pear and shallot wedges with the rosemary sprigs, wine, olive oil, salt, and black pepper to taste. Gently roll the pork loin over all the seasonings in the pan, rubbing them into the pork to take up the flavours. Make space for the pork in the middle of the pan, then nestle it into the wedges, pancetta side up. Rub some of the seasoned oil from the pan all over it.

Step 4

Roast for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350F (180C). Baste the pork with the pan juices, toss in the chestnuts, and roast for another 35-45 minutes. Remember that the roasting time here is for a 2 lb, 4 oz (1 kg) pork loin, so adjust the time based on the weight of your pork.

Step 5

Remove the roast from the oven. Cover with foil and leave to rest for 30 minutes before very thinly slicing and serving with the chestnuts, pears, and shallots. Crusty bread to mop up the juices is a must — and so is red wine to sip alongside.

Note: If fresh chestnuts aren’t available, use 7 oz (200 g) frozen or parboiled chestnuts.

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LITTLE ‘CHESTNUTS’ THAT ARE REALLY ALMOND COOKIES

Castagnelle, almond cookies
Saghar Setareh learned how to make these Christmas cookies from her friend Mariangela’s mother from Puglia, a region in southern Italy. Castagnelle means little “chestnuts,” but the cookies are made with almonds. Photo by Saghar Setareh

Castagnelle

Makes: 1 big cookie jar full

1 1/2 cups (200 g) raw almonds (with the skin on)
1 2/3 cups (200 g) all-purpose flour
A pinch of baking powder
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 1/2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Zest of 1 lemon

Step 1

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast them for about 5 minutes, or until they smell fragrant and some of them are cracked, but be careful not to burn them. Remove from the oven and let them cool, then chop them finely on a chopping board, leaving some texture. It’s perfectly fine if the result is coarse and uneven.

Step 2

In a bowl, mix the almonds with the remaining ingredients. Very gradually add very small amounts of water, working it in until you have a thick dough. The total amount of water will be 2-3 tablespoons, depending on your flour.

Step 3

On a work surface, roll small pieces of the dough into sausage shapes, about 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick, then slightly flatten them with your fingers. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough on the diagonal, into diamond shapes.

Step 4

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Carefully transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, leaving some space in between, as the cookies will rise a bit.

Step 5

Bake for 5-8 minutes; don’t be tempted to overbake. The cookies will become slightly whiter and sometimes a bit cracked, and might look uncooked when hot, but will harden as they cool.

Step 6

Leave to cool completely before serving. They will keep in an airtight container for a few weeks.

Recipes and images excerpted from Pomegranates and Artichokes: A Food Journey from Iran to Italy. Text copyright ©2023 by Saghar Setareh. Photography ©2023 by Saghar Setareh. Published by Interlink Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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