Friday, March 27, 2015

Ruth Reichl's (Very Comforting) Sunny Buttery Saffron Rice Pudding (Sholeh Zard) for Cook the Books: "Comfort Me With Apples"

I am hosting the February/March round of Cook The Books, our bi-monthly virtual foodie book club with Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl. Comfort Me With Apples covers Ruth's life from 1978 through the late 1980s and her journey from chef to food writer and restaurant critic.

It's a memoir that balances Ruth's passion for food and describing it in vivid detail, with tales of her (at times almost soap-opera-ish) life. It is her incredible food writing that pulls me into her books--although I greatly admire her ability to write so directly about her personal life and drama with such honesty--despite how it might make her come across. I was at a writing workshop last weekend and the author who instructed the afternoon creative non-fiction session said that her editor once told her that in writing her memoir, she should write "like everyone you know is dead"--as if it's 100 years from now, so you can be completely and brutally honest. That to me describes Ruth Reichl's style to a T. While never deliberately unkind to herself and others--whether reviewing a chef/restaurant or describing family or a lover, she doesn't pull any punches. Coupled with her ability to put food to words in such a way that you feel as if you are dining with her, as well as including some of the recipes most meaningful to her experiences at end of each chapter, it makes for an engrossing read.     

One would think that being the host, having selected the book ages ago and having finished (re-reading) it last month, that I could manage to be early with this Cook the Books round but no. It hasn't been an easy couple of months for a variety of reasons and time just seems to slip away, so I find myself slinking in a few days before the deadline as usual. That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about my entry though. As I was going through the book, none of the recipes or mentions called to me particularly, or if they did, someone else had already made them. I definitely wanted comfort food. Had I not already made it last year for a book review, Ruth's Matzoh Brei would have certainly been a contender. There's also the Massaged Kale Salad with Currants, Pine Nuts & Parmesan inspired by a mention in Ruth's novel Delicious! that has become a healthy-ish comfort dish for me as I make it on a regular basis. 

Wanting to try a different Ruth recipe, I went to her blog. I get my fix of Ruth's writing by periodically cruising through Ruth's Words on her website where she reviews restaurants and talks about dinner parties, various dishes she cooks, and other foodie things. I definitely go there for her words and not the food photography which always makes me smile because well..., it just isn't great. But, do you know what? She is Ruth freaken Reichl!--her words paint the picture of what she eats better than any picture could. ;-) I found a few recipes that I intend on making someday, but it was the recipe for Persian Rice Pudding or Sholeh Zard that most called to me. I agree with Ruth that rice pudding is the ultimate in comfort food (OK, maybe right next to soup), so it seemed perfect for the book.    

Ruth's recipe serves twelve and although I have been in need of serious comfort lately, I didn't need that many servings of sweet rice pudding. I made a small batch--about three servings worth, by adjusting and (mostly) quartering the recipe quantities. I have written the recipe as I have adjusted it below. If you are feeding a crowd, follow the link to the original recipe. 

Ruth says, "Rice pudding is the chicken soup of desserts. Ultimate comfort food, it's an international dish that changes its style as it travels the world. Once again perusing my stack of Time-Life books I came upon another recipe I couldn’t resist: sholeh-zard, or Persian saffron rice pudding. A goldenrod smear on the page suggests I once made this, but I have no memory of it. Intrigued by the saffron - and the fact that this rice pudding contains no milk - I decided to try it. Unlike the two previous recipes I’ve written about here, this one was so sweet and so strongly redolent of rose water that I made a few serious modifications. Trolling around on the internet I found that sholeh-zard is traditionally incredibly sweet; one recipe I found called for three cups of sugar to one cup of rice. And the classic version is so strongly perfumed with rosewater that some recipes call for as much as a cup. But I've made this to my own taste, so it's less sweet and less perfumed. It is also, in my opinion, very delicious." 

Sunny Buttery Saffron Rice Pudding (Sholeh Zard)
Adapted from Ruth  
(Ruth's Recipe Serves 12 -- Reduced Below to Serve 3)
2 cups water
1/4 cup basmati rice, rinsed and soaked
pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 pinch saffron threads, pulverized with a mortar and pestle or the back of a spoon, and dissolved in 1 Tbsp water
1 scant Tbsp rose water, or to taste
2 Tbsp slivered blanched almonds
1 Tbsp slivered or finely chopped unsalted pistachios
1 tsp cinnamon (garnish)

In a heavy saucepan, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Pour in the rice and salt and stir. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible point and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. The rice will still be quite watery. Stir in the sugar, then add the butter and the saffron mixture and continue stirring over low heat until the sugar has dissolved, the butter has melted, and the rice is bright yellow. 

Stir in the slivered almonds, and about 1/2 tablespoon of the pistachios and, stirring occasionally, cook for 30 minutes longer until the mixture is thick enough to hold its shape almost solidly in the spoon.

Stir in the rose water according to taste. Ladle into a bowl or several small ramekins. Let cool at room temperature, and then refrigerate for at least two hours. 

Traditionally, this pudding is decorated with lines of cinnamon and nuts laid out in your own personal design.

Notes/Results: Besides not needing the sugar, butter and calories from twelve servings of sholeh zard, I also was concerned that it might be too aromatic, sweet and floral for my tastes however, Ruth's tastes mirrored my own and I really enjoyed the flavor. It was just about right in terms of sweetness, rose and saffron flavor and is really quite delicious. A bit more "solid" and less creamy than some rice puddings I have made (the no-milk aspect, non-dairy if you use a butter alternative) and the nuts add a nice little crunch. I think some dried fruit would be great in here as well. Since it's a cold rice pudding, it would be a fabulous summer dessert--although the bright sunny color does make it warm up a dark and dreary day. Noting that Ruth said sholeh zard is traditionally decorated with lines of cinnamon and nuts in designs and patterns, I looked it up in Google Images and it was fun to see the different and very creative variations. Since I was serving mine in ramekins and I like things simple, I just made a single flower pattern to top the small bowls. A great way to use some exotic pantry items I had stocked up on, pretty, and delicious, this was a fun recipe to add to my rice pudding collection. (I think this is #7 on the blog according to the rice pudding label on my sidebar.) I will happily make it again.

I'll be rounding up all of the dishes that Comfort Me with Apples inspired shortly after the deadline on the Cook the Books site. If you missed out this round and like food, books and foodie books, consider joining us for April/May with our pick; The Feast Nearby: How I Lost my Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (All on Forty Dollars a Week) by Robin Mather, hosted by Deborah of Eliot's Eats



  1. Rice pudding is definitely a comfort food for me! Having a dairy-free one is a good idea.

  2. Indeed, that is serious comfort for dessert. Speaking of sweet, there was a funny recipe in the book for soy sauce chicken, calls for 8 cups of sugar - serves 2-4!! I was stunned. I've never added any (well maybe occasionally 2 tablespoons) sugar when making shoyu chicken.

  3. Oh my! That is a ginormous amount of sugar. I didn't even notice since I don't eat meat or poultry anymore and have a tendency to skip through those recipes. Too funny! ;-)

  4. Well technically I guess you have to remove the butter to make it truly dairy free but easy enough with veggie 'butter' sticks. ;-)

  5. It was Kat! ;-)

  6. gorgeous rice pudding - interesting you use basmati as I always use arborio - I must check out these sholeh zard designs

  7. Thanks so much for hosting, Deb. I enjoyed this selection very much...the only thing that would have made it better was eating a bowl of this rice pudding while reading it.

  8. Hi Deb -- and thanks for hosting this time! I also think that rice pudding is a world class comfort food. Your version looks tasty too though

  9. Amy CookingAdventuresApril 2, 2015 at 6:27 PM

    Yum!! This sounds delicious! Thank you so much for hosting! It was a wonderful read that I never would have picked up on my own!

  10. Lovely choice and quite tempting for one with no sweet tooth like me. I like the bright yellow color. Thank you again for hosting :)

  11. Delaware Girl EatsApril 5, 2015 at 5:53 AM

    Hi Deb -- and thanks for hosting this time! I also think that rice
    pudding is a world class comfort food. Your version looks tasty too


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