Food for the Soul

Holiday soul pleasers from beyond the South

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Food for the Soul usually explores an authentic food of the South. A dish, a goodie, that tends to say where we come from. But the true South, of course, is more than one face, one palate. It is a marvelous mix of people whose culinary heritage reaches far and wide. As thoughts begin to turn toward holiday feasts, we thought we would introduce you to two of them.

Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Persian Empire, its cuisine steeped in tradition. Diane Asadi of Columbus learned to prepare Persian dishes under the tutelage of her mother-in-law, who lived in Bandar-e Anzali, a harbor town on the Caspian Sea.

“I learned so much of my cooking from her,” says Diane, who met her husband, Jalal (Joe) Sayed-Asadi, about 35 years ago. They were both taking Western Civilization at East Mississippi Community College, and he was in need of note-taking assistance. “My husband’s parents are both gone now,” Diane continues, “but they used to come visit us every summer.”

The vast majority of Iranians are Muslim and do not celebrate Christmas as we know it, but a growing portion of the population has begun marking the holiday in one way or another, wanting to be part of the global observance.

At the Asadis’, a special Christmas Eve meal with extended family always reflects a Persian heritage.

“Our three children and each person has a dish they want us to make. Some are really labor intensive — that’s why we make them only once or twice a year,” Diane laughs.

A family favorite is a fragrant “zereshk polo” — chicken and rice with barberries. (The Asadis get these small currants at a Middle Eastern market in Birmingham.) And there are visually beautiful dishes, like “jeweled rice.” Some of the recipes date back 500 years. Diane recently shared some of them by teaching a “Foods of the Bible” course at Mississippi University for Women.

As a child poring over picture books about exotic cultures, she once imagined living with a Bedouin tribe, moving tents from place to place. “I always wanted to do that,” Diane says. So it is perhaps no surprise she revels in preparing foods from a distant time and place.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Petra Wesche (pronounced Veesha) remembers her first “big American holiday.” She was 16, an exchange student from Germany celebrating Thanksgiving with her host family in Idaho. Fast forward to November 2010, when Petra relocated to the United States and worked for a time at Mississippi State University.

“I had just gotten here, and someone invited me to Thanksgiving. The table was breaking with food,” she says with dramatic flair.

While Thanksgiving is decidedly a non-German holiday, Christmas — or Weihnachten — is a major occasion there.

“In fact, we have three days of Christmas,” the Starkville resident says. “The 24th is Holy Eve, the 25th is the second day, and the 26th is the third day. And yes, you eat every day of the three days!”

Main courses vary by region. “In some parts, it is goose or duck; but some serve turkey or chicken,” explains this cook who makes German specialties to sell at area farmers’ markets. “But people make a real effort of cooking at home on Holy Eve. They do not order out. It’s usually a time for immediate family.”

Those traditions are dear to Petra. She flies back to Germany every Christmas season to be with family and friends. This winter, she won’t make that flight alone; her new husband, Dwite, will visit her homeland.

He’ll be treated no doubt to the vegetables prevalent in German households — potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, cabbage, most of it homegrown. One thing is certain: There will be plenty. “I come from a family,” Petra says, “where Mom cooks every day.”

Different cultures, different traditions. But similar, all the same. The common threads that bind are family and togetherness, whatever language they come wrapped in.


6-8 chicken thighs or legs
3 onions, chopped
2-4 cups basmati rice
1 cup zereshk (barberries, found at Middle Eastern markets, or substitute dried cranberries, cut into small pieces)
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup slivered almonds
½ cup pistachios
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
Ground cinnamon

• Sauté chopped onions, flavored with saffron, in oil until soft.
• Place chicken over onions and sprinkle with ground cinnamon, salt, pepper and saffron. Cover and cook on low heat until tender. Set aside. (Before serving, add 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice.)
• Cover rice with water to the first joint of your finger and flavor generously with salt. Boil until rice is swollen and round “bee hole” spaces appear in the rice (about 15 minutes). Drain in colander and rinse two to three times with cold water. Drain liquid. Set aside.
• Soak zereshk in water for 10 to 15 minutes, drain and fry in 2 tablespoons of hot oil until puffed.
• In frying pan, add 2 tablespoons butter and toast almonds and pistachios. Set aside.
• In Dutch oven, add enough oil to cover bottom; add saffron steeped in hot water. Place rice in pan, layer with nuts, zereshk and saffron, cover and steam on low to medium heat until steamed (15 to 20 minutes).
• When rice is done, place serving platter over top of Dutch oven and quickly flip. Tahdig (the crispy golden rice at the bottom of the pot) will now be on top. Remove tahdig with knife or spatula to another dish.
• Mound remaining rice and place chicken around edge. Break tahdig into smaller pieces and add to platter; decorate top with additional nuts and zereschk. (According to custom, the eldest man gets first pick of the tahdig.)

(Source: Diane Asadi, Columbus)

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.


For cabbage (Ideally, prepare the day before to enhance flavor.):

2-pound head red cabbage
2 tablespoons duck fat (from inside of duck) or pig lard
1 medium sized onion (finely diced)
2 cooking apples (peeled, finely diced)
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
½ teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
2 cloves
4 tablespoons red wine or water

• Wash cabbage, remove outer leaves, quarter and remove hard core. Slice thinly. Set aside.
• Heat duck fat/lard in cooking pot; add apples, onions and sugar. Sauté to a light brown.
• Add sliced cabbage. Immediately add vinegar to retain color. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
• Add 1 cup of water, spices and wine. Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft.
• Remove cloves and bay leaf.
• Store in fridge overnight, reheat on low, stirring occasionally.

For duck:

About 5 pound (frozen or fresh) whole duck
3 cooking apples
1 tablespoon real butter
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
1 tablespoon orange liqueur
2 oranges
1 cup water
1 sprig rosemary

• If using frozen duck, slowly defrost in fridge overnight.
• Peel and quarter apples and sauté in small pan with the butter. Mix in orange marmalade and orange liqueur and sauté for another one to two minutes. Set aside.
• Prick duck skin with metal skewer (to release some of the fat during cooking process and let marinade penetrate better). Lightly salt and pepper inside and outside. Stuff duck with the apple mixture and sew or use toothpicks to close opening. Marinate for several hours in fridge, if possible.
• Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
• Mix 1 cup water with juice of one large orange, pour into roasting pan. Add sprig of rosemary.
• Place duck onto pan rack or on roasting sheet, breast down. Use middle oven rack. Spoon liquid from the pan over duck about every 15 to 20 minutes (may have to add more water to pan as it cooks). Turn duck after 30 minutes. Roast until meat thermometer inserted into thick part of thigh reads 165 degrees F. (about 2 ½ hours). If duck skin doesn’t feel crispy after two hours, spray with a saltwater solution.
• Remove duck from oven, place on warm serving tray and cover with aluminum foil. Rest for 20 minutes before serving. (Pour liquid from pan into fat separator and retain for sauce.) When ready to serve, slice remaining orange to garnish plate.

For sauce:

4 oranges
1 lemon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon sherry cooking wine

• Prepare two oranges by removing pith and membrane and slicing. Set aside.
• Caramelize brown sugar lightly in pan, add sherry wine and juice of remaining two oranges and lemon. Add duck juice (without the fat) from the separator. Season with orange liqueur, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.

Note: If a thicker consistency sauce is desired, make a roux using 1 tablespoon cornstarch or 2 tablespoons arrowroot per cup of sauce. Adding the ingredient directly to the hot liquid will cause clumping and ruin the sauce, so mix with a bit of cold water first to make a slurry. Add the slurry to the sauce, whisking as you go. Simmering will activate cornstarch/arrowroot and thicken sauce. Simmer until desired consistency is reached.

• Add orange slices.

For the potatoes:

• Peel 2 pounds waxy firm potatoes (such as fingerling or red).
• Bring to a boil in slightly salted water. Depending on size, boil for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain.

(Source: Petra Wesche, Starkville)