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In the Kitchen With: Fery Haghighi

It isn’t unusual to see yellow onions caramelizing in Fery Haghighi’s light-filled home kitchen on Spokane’s South Hill.

Under her watchful eyes and wooden spoon, the pale slivers turn a shimmery golden brown, intensifying the flavor of the allium’s natural sugars and releasing a certain rich nuttiness.

Standing at the stove, gently stirring the darkening mixture on a recent afternoon, she said, “This is the base of every Persian food.”

The longtime Spokane caterer fled her homeland of Iran in spring 1980, following the revolution that ousted the shah and established a theocratic, Islamic republic. When she left – with just one suitcase of clothing for three people – she wasn’t worrying about recipes; she was running for her life.

“We went from everything to nothing,” she said. “We left everything.”

Haghighi, 71, grew up in a well-to-do Iranian family that was used to having cooks, nannies and drivers. She attended boarding school in England. Her brother, Manoucher Ganji, was the country’s education minister until 1979. He went from dining at the palace to being hunted. “My uncle was very loyal,” said Haghighi’s daughter, Nelou Fennessy, 46. She fled Iran with her parents around the time of her 12th birthday.

“It was really scary,” she said. “(Members of the new regime) would come to our house, (demanding) ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ ”

Ganji, who stayed in Iran long after many government officials had fled, was hiding in the attic. Eventually, he escaped on foot to Turkey, hidden in a herd of sheep. Today, he lives in Los Angeles.

Haghighi, her husband Ahmad, now 80, and Fennessy, their daughter, fled to Switzerland. They lived there for several months before coming to Spokane, where the Haghighis’ two sons were already living.

With help from another brother, former Spokane physician John Ganji, and family friend Hrair Garabedian, another Spokane doctor, Haghighi and her husband started over, opening the Au Croissant bakery and café shortly after arriving in America.

“We brought the baguette here. We brought the croissant here,” she said. “(Customers) would call my husband Mr. Croissant.”

Sixteen years later, they closed the bakery to focus on catering. Haghighi has owned and operated Fery’s Catering on the lower South Hill since 1996.

“It’s like she’s cooking for family; she really puts her heart and soul into it,” Fennessy said.

But, when she’s cooking at home, Haghighi admits, “I’m so terrible with recipes.”

Her daughter underscores this sentiment: “She doesn’t measure. She just eyeballs.”

In addition to caramelized onions, which build the foundation for many dishes, other hallmarks of Persian cooking include spices like saffron, turmeric and cinnamon.

Plus, “It’s simple,” Haghighi said. “The main dish is rice, and the meat consumption is very small, like Chinese (food). If you buy a pound of meat, seven or eight people will share it. We make a lot of stews.”

A simple saffron mushroom stew is one of her favorites. She serves it with steamed rice and a starter, like a quick spinach and yogurt dip, as well as the traditional staple of the Persian table: a plate of fresh and pickled vegetables and herbs.

Haghighi uses basil, green onions, radishes, tarragon, cilantro – “whatever’s in season” – as well as a hunk of feta cheese.

The greens refresh the palate. “They brighten the food flavor,” Haghighi said.

Then, at the end of the meal, “Everybody takes a bit of cheese to finish up the food.”

Spinach and Yogurt Dip

Spokane caterer Fery Haghighi uses frozen spinach in this recipe because, she said, “It’s much better and easier.” She prefers regular Greek yogurt because of its thickness, but nonfat works, too.

1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon caramelized onions (recipe follows)

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 small box frozen spinach, thawed, liquid strained and reserved, spinach chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, combine yogurt, onion and garlic. Mix in chopped spinach and stir. If the mixture is too thick, thin it by adding 1 tablespoon at a time of reserved spinach liquid. Once the consistency is that of a dip and to your liking, season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with pita or lavosh bread, or as a side with any meal.

Caramelized Onions

3 to 4 tablespoons canola oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

Heat oil in sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and turmeric and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and golden in color. Do not overcook or it will burn. Cool, drain excess oil, and store in freezer for up to 3 months, use as needed.

Persian Mushroom and Saffron Stew

Canola oil or other oil

1 pound white mushrooms, halved (quartered if large)

1/2 recipe caramelized onions recipe (see above.)

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes (can use breast if preferred)

2 cups chicken stock or water

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, finely ground into a powder, and mixed into 3 tablespoons warm water

4 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, divided

Salt and pepper to taste

Add 1 tablespoon canola oil to bottom of saucepan and heat over medium heat. Once oil is warm, add mushrooms and saute 3 to 4 minutes. Once mushrooms have a slight crust on them, remove from pan and set aside on a plate. Add another tablespoon of oil to the bottom of the saucepan over medium heat and add caramelized onions to pan. Heat 1 to 2 minutes until onions are reheated. Add chicken pieces and saute 5 to 7 minutes, making sure onions do not burn. After chicken pieces have been sauteed on all sides, add stock or water, saffron/water mixture, salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. When liquid boils, reduce heat, add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and allow stew to simmer 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, add mushrooms to pan and continue to simmer 5 to 7 minutes longer. Taste for seasonings and lemon juice, and add more to taste.

Serve over Persian Steamed Rice.

Persian Steamed Rice

3 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups basmati rice

Rinse rice thoroughly under cold water. In a nonstick 3-quart saucepan with tight fitting lid, bring water, oil, salt and rice to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes, making sure the liquid does not boil over. After 3 minutes, reduce heat to low, cover pan with lid, and allow rice to cook and steam for 17 to 20 minutes.

Serves: 4