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A Mother's Touch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While many other mothers will be relaxing this Sunday, Nahid Vaezpour will be in the kitchen as usual. She'll be overseeing the making of aromatic Persian sauces, deftly chopping feathery herbs and nurturing a huge vessel of aash, a lush soup from her native Iran.

Her day will start early. Sunday is not just Mother's Day. It's buffet day at the Orchard Market and Cafe in Towson, where she is chef, and Vaezpour must be ready to feed the dozens of patrons who find their way to the pretty restaurant in a string of unimposing shops off Joppa Road.

She's a relaxed cook, wearing a plain, white apron over a feminine floral dress, while tending her food. A pinch of curry. A handful of parsley. A mound of sizzling onions. It's a task she's well-suited for.

After all, the 60-year-old mother of 13 -- ages 21 to 42 -- started cooking at age 6 in her hometown of Tabriz, where she made such exotic entrees as dilled rice with lamb and shirin polo, a saffron-scented chicken dish with currants and raisins, over an open fire. There was no oven.

Her early training under the watchful eye of a mother and grandmother sustained her well. Widowed at 39 when her husband, Habib Kamouei, died of a heart attack, Vaezpour had a boisterous brood of seven boys and six girls, the youngest 6 months, to care for. As if there weren't enough mouths to feed, the clan often led a parade of playmates to their home in Tehran for a meal.

"We would always bring friends," recalls daughter Shiva Ghahremani, 23, with a laugh. "My mother would always say, 'My house is always open to guests.' "

The family lived a middle-class life, managing financially with money from Kamouei's estate and contributions from the older children, who worked part-time jobs after school. Vaezpour stayed home to care for the little ones.

As the children grew into adulthood and began relocating to other countries, including the United States, Vaezpour followed suit. Ten years ago, she settled in Baltimore with the youngest four children because a cousin lived here.

The Persian community welcomed the family, and Michael Mir, then owner-chef of the Orchard Market, hired Vaezpour as a sous-chef, even though she had never worked in a restaurant. Later, in a letter to a reviewer at The Sun, Mir wrote about himself and Vaezpour, stating, "We can cook classic and nouvelle Persian food for you, the real way with home-style touches."

He told another daughter, Sharareh Bulkeley, 30, about Vaezpour's cooking skills, "I feel an angel has rescued me."

When Mir decided to move to Naples, Fla., three years ago, Vaezpour, Bulkeley and her husband, Jason Bulkeley, 35, bought the 50-seat restaurant.

Today, Vaezpour speaks little English, content to rely on animated conversations in Farsi with her children. But her lively eyes and expressive hand movements speak in a universal language.

She relays through her daughter that, when the children were younger, she would no sooner dish out food to all of them, seated in a traditional circle, when the first ones fed would be ready for more. Ghahremani, No. 12 in the group and who now lives in New York, remembers a never-ending pot of soup, spanning four stove burners, always simmering in the Iranian kitchen.

Recently, Vaezpour, an attractive woman with mahogany hair and a Madonna-like smile who never remarried, cooed and kissed the air over 4-month-old Sarah Lilla Bulkeley, her newest grandchild of 15, who was visiting the restaurant. "She loves children," Sharareh says.

It's a maternal instinct Vaezpour shares with restaurant customers through food. "She cooks like these are her children," says daughter Shabnam Kamouei, 21, a vivacious Towson University student who often helps out at the restaurant. "She chides them good-naturedly if they don't finish their food. She says no dessert."

Visitors certainly don't want to miss dessert. Creme caramel, Persian tiramisu, coconut napoleons and rosewater and saffron ice cream, all made in house, are just some of the temptations. Other dishes also are prepared from scratch, ensuring colorful presentations and piquant flavors.

Persian cuisine often is a tantalizing blend of sweet and tart, much like life. For Vaezpour, raising 13 children also reflects this intricate balance. The siblings often would ask her, "Who do you love the most?" Shiva says. Her answer? "She would say, 'Whoever needs me the most at that moment.' "

Vaezpour also taught her children about love, says Shiva, who married Saman Ghahremani, an ophthalmologist, five years ago.

"We owe it all to my mom. I respect and admire her," she says. "She has been a role model for all of us."

Shiva and her mother often talk about compiling a Persian cookbook to record Vaezpour's recipes. These recipes are representative of the native dishes Vaezpour prepares at the restaurant.

Fillet Kabab (Kabab-e barg)

Serves 4

2 pounds boned lean loin or sirloin (beef or veal)

8 cherry tomatoes or 4 large tomatoes halved

MARINADE:

juice of 2 large onions (see note)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1/4 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water (optional)

BASTING:

2 tablespoons melted butter

juice of 2 limes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

GARNISH: fresh scallions, fresh basil

Cut the meat lengthwise into 3-inch-by-4-inch-by- 1/4 -inch pieces and place it in a large glass dish.

Add the onion juice, pepper, lime juice, salt, olive oil, yogurt and saffron water (if using) to the meat and mix well. Cover the meat and marinate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 48 hours in refrigerator. Turn the meat in the marinade during this period.

Start a bed of charcoal at least 30 minutes before you want to cook and let it burn until the coals glow.

Meanwhile, thread each piece of meat onto a flat,

-inch-wide, sword-like skewer, leaving a few inches free on both ends. Pound the meat with the edge of another skewer to tenderize it. Spear the tomatoes on separate skewers.

For basting, combine the butter, lime juice, salt and pepper in a small saucepan. Keep warm over very low heat.

When the coals are glowing, brush the tomatoes and meat lightly with the basting mixture. Place the tomatoes on the grill; then 1 minute later place the skewered meat on the grill. Cook 3 to 4 minutes on each side, turning the skewers frequently. The total cooking time should be 6 to 8 minutes. The meat should be seared on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside.

When meat is done, pull the skewer out. Brush the meat with remaining basting mixture. Garnish with grilled tomatoes, scallions and basil.

Note: To make onion juice, puree 2 large, peeled yellow onions in a food processor. Strain the puree through a fine-mesh sieve or food mill into a bowl, pressing to extract all the juice.

-- From "A Taste of Persia" (Mage, 1999) by Najmieh K. Batmanglij

Yogurt and Cucumber Salad (Mast-o khiar)

Serves 4

1 long seedless or seeded cucumber, peeled and diced

3 cups plain low-fat or whole yogurt

1/4 cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried

4 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup raisins, washed and drained

GARNISH: sprigs fresh mint, sprigs fresh dill, 3 tablespoons dried rose petals, 2 tablespoons raisins, 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, 1 radish (diced)

In a serving bowl, combine all the ingredients except the raisins. Mix thoroughly and adjust seasoning.

Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes, or up to 4 hours, before serving. If the salad is refrigerated for more than an hour, remove it from the refrigerator 10 minutes before serving. Just before serving, add the raisins and mix thoroughly.

Garnish with the mint, dill, rose petals, raisins, walnuts and radish.

-- From "A Taste of Persia" (Mage, 1999) by Najmieh K. Batmanglij

Fresh Herb Khoresh (Khoresh-e qormeh sabzi)

Serves 4

6 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter, divided use

2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 pound skinless, boneless chicken leg or meat (lamb, veal, beef), cut into thin strips

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water

4 whole dried Persian limes, pierced (see note)

1/2 cup dried kidney beans soaked in 2 cups water for at least 2 hours and drained

4 cups finely chopped fresh parsley

1 cup finely chopped fresh leeks, garlic chives or scallions

1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander

1 cup chopped fresh fenugreek leaves or 3 tablespoons dried fenugreek sprinkled with water

2 tablespoons dried Persian lime powder (see note) or 4 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

In a medium pot, heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir-fry 5 minutes, until translucent.

Add the garlic and meat, and fry 20 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until golden brown.

Add the salt, pepper, turmeric, saffron water, whole dried Persian limes and kidney beans, and stir-fry 2 minutes longer.

Pour in 4 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat.

Add the chopped parsley, leeks, coriander and fenugreek and fry for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the aroma of frying herbs rises. (This stage is very important to the taste of the stew.)

Add the sauteed herbs and lime powder or juice to the pot. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes to 40 minutes longer, until the beans and meat are tender, stirring occasionally.

Check to see whether the meat and kidney beans are tender. Taste the stew and adjust the seasoning.

Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

Note: Dried Persian limes and powder usually are available at ethnic groceries.

-- From "A Taste of Persia" (Mage, 1999) by Najmieh K. Batmanglij

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