yotam ottolenghi's iranian vegetable stew with dried lime

iranian vegetable stew with dried lime
If you were to look at an old-fashioned atlas, you would see Great Britain as a small island, surrounded by water (and probably the odd sea monster or mermaid, depending on the age of the map). Clearly that is by definition what being an island is all about .But kick it up a notch to something a little more 21st century and let's look at that island map in 3D. Right now I think it would be fair to say that the British Isles are surrounded by water from all directions, not just around our coastline, but all over the land mass too; as if we are being gobbed on by some monstrous Leviathan. If there was a land equivalent of a retractable stadium roof, we'd be begging for it to be closed; anything to get away from the damned rain and storms.

So it's on days like this, drenched, slopping home, head down, panda eyes, that I want comfort food with a hint of sunshine. Since I have almost forgotten what the sun looks like, it would be best if I can just infuse my food with some sunlit flavours.

A few months ago, I had cooked one of
Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes from his column in The Guardian newspaper. I make no secret of my adoration of Mr. O. He is the perfect example of someone who can write delicious prose and recipes that actually work. He can cook and present food television, while being interesting, intelligent and effortlessly charming, if a little self-effacing, without the need for fairy lights or laddish banter. I'll save my rant about the dire state of cooking shows on TV these days, but just suffice it to say, Yotam Ottolenghi has it all in ladles and I rather adore him.

iranian vegetable stew with dried lime
That week's column was about potatoes, the ubiquitous spud. The recipe that caught my eye was Iranian vegetable stew with dried lime. When you see a Middle Eastern recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, you know it is going to be good, because this is the guy that can coax flavours from simple vegetables in ways that you had never thought possible. And these days, if I want Middle Eastern inspiration Yotam Ottolenghi is in my top three of go-to food writers, up there with Claudia Roden and Anissa Helou.

But it was the dried lime part that really caught my eye. Because a few years ago, I had bought a bag of dried limes from my favourite local Middle Eastern supermarket, Phoenicia in Kentish Town. At the time, I had taken a quick glance at what looked like wrinkled and somewhat dishevelled brown ping pong balls and bought a small bag of them on impulse, with no idea of what I was actually going to do with them.

After scouring the internet for some inspiration, I found an article on the New York Times website, in which food writer, John Willoughby inspired me with his irresistible description of dried limes:

Holding one to your nose is a bit like sniffing freshly grated lime rind while standing in the center of a brewery
This is such a perfect description of this dried fruit's taste of Persia; that while smelling almost bright and zesty that they have an undertone of slightly fermented beer flavour too with a hint of smoky bitterness too.

But that chicken and dried lime stew was cooked several years ago, and I still had a few dried limes left. They were still fragrant and aromatic. (Seriously, I suspect that they would survive a post-nuclear apocalypse with their fragrance intact!) So I went to work on Yotam Ottolenghi's Iranian dish of potatoes and butternut squash stewed with the dried limes as well as the usual suspects of the middle eastern spice rack, including turmeric, cumin and chilli, together with fresh coriander, dill and tarragon, together with tomatoes, spinach and dried barberries.

Yotam Ottolenghi includes three dried limes in his recipe. They are something of an acquired taste, so you may decide to just use one lime. Whatever you do, and I am speaking from experience here, fish the dried limes out before the end of cooking as they tend to have a lingering flavour (so that leftovers become inedible!). Do not leave the dried limes in the stew if you are planning on serving later or keeping the leftovers. For some reason, the dried lime is the gift that keeps on giving and infuses your stew with the taste of fragrant liquid soap!

Anyway the resulting stew was delicious. So I went back to The Guardian column in order that I could comment on how much I had enjoyed the recipe. I ended up getting a little bit distracted by many of the comments which seemed to be by people who were somewhat needled by so-called weird ingredients and by The Guardian and Yotam Ottolenghi's London-centric viewpoint. Have these people never heard of adaptation or substitution? I felt like banging a few heads together but as usual, chickened out as I loathe internet spat. Then forgot to tell Yotam Ottolenghi of how good this meal was. But then I am bound to be biased since I am a fan of Yotam Ottolenghi, I am also a Guardian reader (sans corduroy) and I love living in London.

Recently a friend described my cooking style as "cosmopolitan", which made me laugh. A French friend once said to me with an air of smug superiority that only the insular English would have a word such as "cosmopolitan"; no-one else sees the need. Which is what I think of my cooking style; it isn’t cosmopolitan so much as one that just has a broad world view.

I have seen old English recipes from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries that include barberries too. This rather underlines my feeling that there is no such thing as cosmopolitan cooking. You cook with what you can get hold of, (which clearly in my case is a large variety of interesting ingredients, because I live in such a multi-cultural city and have access to the internet. But if you can't get hold of the ingredients in this recipe that seemed to excise and enrage so many of the commenters on the Guardian site, you do what people have been doing for centuries - adapt and enjoy!


  • Apparently dried limes are made by boiling up a fresh lime with sat and then leaving to dry in the sun, which turns the fruit brown, and in some cases, black. I suspect it wouldn't be that easy to make them at home, but if you can't find dried limes, then just use the juice and zest of a couple of limes, or lemons. It won't taste quite the same but it will still be gorgeous.
  • When using the dried limes, they tend to bob around a bit in the liquid. You can pierce them with a sharp knife, but be very careful. While they eventually soften in cooking liquid, it really is like trying to pierce a ping pong ball; which in my case is the sound of A+E beckoning!
  • Can't find barberries? Dried cranberries or sour cherries work pretty well too.
  • If you do get your hands on some dried limes, there are some useful ideas as to what to do with them on the Serious Eats website.


Anonymous said...

I used to live in London - now I live in deepest, darkest rural Suffolk. I have no problem getting hold of unusual ingredients - I just use the internet. Doh. In fact I now have the best of both worlds as I have some fantastic local producers on my doorstep too. There is life after rustication, you just need a computer. :)

Vaughan Thomas said...

The news of your anointing as Home Cook of the Year by the Guardian has just reached the south shores of Java. Very many congratulations and very well deserved.
Selamat tahun baru, Rachel.