Layers of pleasure
This festive, colorful Persian dish is a worthy candidate for your seder table. You prepare most of the elements in advance, but assemble and cook them on the eve of the holiday.
For some Persian Jewish families, Pesach is not Pesach without baghali polo − and it’s certainly not a holiday. Baghali polo is a festive layered dish that is flipped onto a large brass platter and served as a main course at the Passover seder. Each layer is briefly cooked on its own before being added to the rest. Once assembled, the dish is cooked for a long time in a small amount of liquid, which steams the ingredients, producing tender and juicy results while preserving the unique character of each layer.
The humblest layer of all, but often the favorite, is the tahdig: crispy, brown potato wedges. This is served first to guests who are not family and only afterward to the hosts. As opposed to most Persian rice dishes, here the tahdig is not on the bottom of the pot, but rather serves as the “cover,” on top. After the polo is flipped onto a serving platter, the tahdig absorbs all the flavors from the sauce.
On top of the tahdig is a layer of perfumed rice studded with springtime vegetables, including green fava beans, spring peas and fresh garlic. Then comes a layer of delicately arranged lamb cubes, seasoned with browned onion and ground allspice.
The top layer boasts tiny chicken drumsticks, browned and fragrant, with the meat falling off the bone due to the long, slow cooking. The tender drumsticks are accorded pride of place atop the wealth of ingredients below and form a beautiful flower pattern.
Baghali polo is great to serve at the seder because it offers all the richness this festive occasion requires − in one dish. A single platter contains meat, chicken, rice and spring vegetables. Another advantage is that it can be prepared in advance. You can make the layers the day before the seder, and assemble and cook everything the following day. I recommend cooking it in fresh chicken soup, which in any case is made on the morning of the seder.
If possible, choose fresh fava beans, which are bright green and have a tough, shiny skin. Cooking the pods for a minute in lightly salted boiling water will make them easier to shell. The empty pods can quickly be made into a salad: Trim the ends and cook in a little olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon for an hour, until soft.
The fresh peas should be shelled without blanching. You can also use frozen peas and fava beans to cut down on preparation time. The basmati rice should be rinsed in a bowl of cold water rather than under the tap, since running water might damage the grains. Traditionally the rice is whitened before it is added to the dish; soak it in water with a few drops of lemon juice for half an hour.
For 12-16 servings:
18 chicken drumsticks
1 cinnamon stick
2 fresh garlic heads or 1 dry garlic head, sliced in half lengthwise
3 tablespoons oil
To spice the chicken:
2 teaspoons each of salt, black pepper, cumin and ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
For the lamb:
1.2 kilos leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and bone and diced into 1-centimeter cubes
3 onions, sliced into semi-circles
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon each of salt, black pepper and ground allspice
For the rice:
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed well and soaked for 30 minutes in cold water with 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup fresh or frozen fava beans (200 grams shelled; 1 kilo with shells), outer skins removed
1 cup fresh or defrosted peas (150 grams shelled)
2/3 cup chopped dill
8 chopped scallions (including most of the green part)
1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon each of turmeric, black pepper, cumin and ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon salt
For the tahdig:
7 potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-centimeter slices
1 1/2 cups chicken soup
3 tablespoons oil
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Oil a large pot (35-38 centimeters in diameter) and line the bottom with baking paper.
Place a cinnamon stick and the halved garlic heads in the center of the pot. Mix the chicken spices in a large dish and coat the drumsticks thoroughly.
Heat 3 tablespoons of sunflower oil in a large frying pan and brown the drumsticks for about 2 minutes on each side. Arrange the drumsticks on top of the baking paper in a flower pattern (photo 1).
In the same frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and fry the onions for the lamb until brown. Transfer to a plate.
Briefly saute the diced lamb until browned (without oil, since enough fat will come out of the meat). Season with salt, pepper and allspice. Add the fried onion, mix, and turn off the flame. Top the chicken with the lamb, along with the juices in the pan (photo 2).
Bring 1.5 liters of water to boil in a medium-sized pot, add the rice and cook for 6 minutes. Drain.
Mix the rice with the fava beans, peas, dill, scallions, cilantro and spices. Place on top of the lamb layer (photo 3).
Fry the potato slices in 3 tablespoons oil until browned on one side only. Season with salt and pepper, and closely arrange the potatoes on top of the rice, with the browned side up (photo 4).
Pour the chicken soup into the pot, place an upside-down plate on top of the potatoes to keep everything in place, cover the pot with aluminum foil and put the cover on (the aluminum foil helps create a better seal). Bring the pot to a boil and cook for 3 hours on a low flame.
Before serving, remove the plate and make sure there is no liquid left in the pot. If there is, remove it with a spoon and add it back to the dish only after it has been flipped. Turn the pot over onto the platter and serve immediately.