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Seeing Tomatoes


As kids in a home full of internationals, magical experiences were common. Every day was like a carnival and routine was hard to come by. I relished the excitement of new faces, new foods, new smells and new stories. Let me tell you the story of Mahmoud, a blind Iranian man who lived with us for a while. He had the most impact on my connection to earth, to culture and to food.

(photo: Mahmoud on our front porch telling stories. Learning to make Iranian dishes with Mahmoud's wife.)

In my child’s eye, Mahmoud’s spirit embodied joy. Each day he made it a point to smile, to give comfort and to spread love. He refused to allow his difficult situation to get the better of him or of anyone else around him. He gave the best bear hugs and loved to tell stories. And I loved to listen to his stories. He told stories of princes and princesses, of glorious palaces and mystical places far away. He told stories of dirt and planting, harvest and feasting; beautiful tapestries and happy neighborhoods. He told me stories that he said dated back before time from Persia, his home. And I believed every single word. Mahmoud taught me to see without sight. He taught me to use my other senses, the hairs on my arm, the souls of my feet, the slightest inflection or waiver in someone’s voice and my intuition to “see.” His connection to Iran and to our own human experience was as strong as cast iron and I learned that we all come from somewhere and that somewhere is still deep within us...and will remain...through all generations.
 
He told me that while living in Iran he was successful until he became blind. As was his culture at the time, he was cast out of his home onto the street and his wife wanted a divorce. He was discovered begging in the street and brought to the United States in hopes that some surgeries could restore his sight.

(photo: My mother wrote in everything. And now, her notes help me remember the flavors of our childhood.)

One summer day my mother was picking tomatoes from the garden. Mahmoud was teaching mom to speak Farsi and I sat and listened. We practiced smelling tomatoes, listening to the sound of a fresh tomato being plucked from the vine. We inhaled the moist grassy citrus smell released when tomatoes are first harvested. And I said how good tomatoes tasted… Mahmoud paused for a moment and slowly said…”Yeesss, but you have never eaten a real Persian tomato from Purrrrsszzuuhh. They are called ghojeh Farangi.” …As if the rain and dirt in Mahmoud’s homeland was infused with diamonds and gold! It was too late, I was already enchanted.
 
Mahmoud wrapped a rich tablecloth around my soul that summer. We talked about stuffing tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, salting tomatoes, roasting tomatoes, smashing tomatoes. We practiced saying ghojeh Farangi over and over.

(photo: Yes, that's me stuffing my face!)

I imagined crouching next to Mahmoud in the dust alongside the road in his homeland. Dressed in rags and barefoot… and eating a tomato. As if it were possible, I felt as if I had tasted a real Persian tomato, felt it dribble down my chin and onto my dirty knees. Bursting with sweet and tart juice, I filled with warmth and for a short time, belonged to an ancient line of royal blood draped and bejeweled and eating tomatoes fresh from the vine.
 
Is that what it's like in heaven?
Iranian Eggplant and Tomato Stew (khoresh bademjan)
 
Although usually made with ground beef or chicken, my version is vegan, dairy free, whole food plant based, low carb and made without gluten. Eat for a happy guilt-free belly.
WHAT
1 lb eggplant, cut off the stem and cut into 1 inch cubes with skin on
2 lb tomatoes, rough chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow or white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon safflower threads or a pinch of saffron threads
4 oz water
8 oz pomegranate juice
 
HOW
Place your cubed eggplant into a strainer and salt it lightly. Put the strainer over a bowl and allow to sit for about 20 minutes while the salt draws out any bitterness and excess water.
In the meantime, in a heavy deep pan on medium heat, saute onion in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until translucent, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, ground cumin and cinnamon, turmeric powder and salt and continue to saute for just another minute.
 
Pat the eggplant dry, then add to your onion mixture. Stir well and continue to saute for about 4 to 6 minutes to allow eggplant to begin to break down. Then add your tomatoes, water, pomegranate juice, remaining 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and safflower threads.
 
Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, cover loosely and allow to simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove lid and continue simmering for another 10 minutes or so until liquid has reduced a bit. Stir well from time to time.
Serve over your favorite grain. You could use cous cous or bulgur as I did or make it completely gluten free and serve it over quinoa or rice. Top with chopped herbs like mint, cilantro, dill or tarragon. I just love herb oils so I drizzled a homemade cilantro dill oil. Don't worry...we're making that next week! You could also mix up a quick yogurt sauce with plain greek yogurt, a pinch of sea salt, dill and minced garlic to dollop on that mighty bowl. Enjoy!  Ghojeh Farangeeeee!