Iranian food (or Persian food) is underrepresented in most U.S. cities, even famously multicultural New York—but Sofreh is an excellent example of the vibrant and delicious cuisine traditional to Iran. Our senior video producer, Guillermo Riveros, spent some time with Sofreh owner and chef Nasim Alikhani to learn more about Iranian cuisine, and how to make a vegetarian butter bean stew packed with dill (baghali ghatogh) that’s one of the best things he’s ever eaten.
Note: This piece was originally written last year; we’re giving it a minor refresh in honor of Nowruz (Persian New Year), which coincides with the vernal equinox today—but like other restaurants and businesses, Sofreh is temporarily closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. See small ways to support local restaurants right now, and consider signing this petition to help ensure the restaurant industry survives.
Chef Alikhani grew up in northern Iran. Cooking was a constant of her childhood, and indeed, her life, but she only opened her first restaurant at the age of 59. A two-day New School seminar she took just before that suggested it was a terrible decision (from a risk-reward perspective), but she went with her gut and did it anyway—and we’re very glad she did. Sofreh is a must-visit for the chef’s delicious dishes, but she was also kind enough to share one of her recipes, which we highly suggest making at home.
Iranian Food Is More Than Meat
As chef Alikhani attests, Iranian food, like the country itself, is complex and varied; many people tend to think of Iran as a homogeneous region, all deserts and camels, but in fact it’s a place full of surprises, like lush tropical regions around the Caspian Sea that might make you feel like you’re in Hawaii—and dishes like baghali ghatogh, a simple butter bean stew packed with dill and layers of flavor, which might not be what you imagine when you think Persian food.
Baghali Ghatogh: The Best Thing to Do with Butter Beans
The first step in making baghali ghatogh is to soak your butter beans (also known as lima beans, but don’t let that deter you*!) overnight.
*There is some debate about lima beans vs butter beans. Several sources—The Kitchn, Food52, Food & Wine, Wikipedia, and California Beans, just to name a handful—say that butter beans and lima beans are indeed the same thing, but others debate the truth of that statement. What it really comes down to may be the age and stage of the lima beans that you’re dealing with. Per Leaf.tv: “In the culinary domain, where the distinction between varieties is potentially crucial, lima beans typically refer to the small, green variety. Alternatively, the large, white and slightly creamy bean often is considered a butter bean.”
You definitely need to buy dried beans for this dish, whether they’re labeled lima beans or butter beans—they should be fairly large, ivory-white, and flat in shape. Canned or frozen lima beans are not an acceptable substitute. If you can find dried beans labeled butter beans, buy those. And in either case, soak them overnight.
The next day, drain the beans and cover them with fresh water (this helps aid digestion), then let them sit for 30 minutes or so—which gives you plenty of time to chop the mountain of onions and garlic that go into the dish. Chef Alikhani admits that she uses more onion and garlic than is traditional (“excessive,” even)—almost more onions than beans—but they get cooked down slowly and gently so they taste fantastic and not at all overpowering and practically melt into the dish. The key is to keep stirring and never let them stick or burn, lest they become bitter; you’re looking at about a half hour just to properly cook the aromatics, but it’s absolutely worth it. (Meanwhile, you can cook your beans as well so they’re ready for the finished dish.)
When the onions and garlic are fragrant and golden and starting to stick even despite your stirring, it’s time to add turmeric, a brightly colored, earthy spice crucial to Iranian cooking (and also touted as a super-healthy ingredient for the past few years). Lemon juice deglazes the pan and water is added to make a thick broth; chef Alikhani doesn’t like a soupy texture, so advises you add water slowly—you can always add more, but once you have too much, it’s hard to correct. Similarly, keep tasting your broth and adjust with salt and pepper as needed.
The other key element of this dish is a massive amount of dill—if using fresh herbs, you could be dealing with literal pounds of it, but good-quality dried dill is preferable if the fresh stuff is lacking in flavor. Once you stir your cooked beans into the herby, savory, lemony broth, follow chef Alikhani’s lead and drizzle in a good-quality olive oil to finish the dish. Then, there’s just one final step: adding the eggs.
Traditionally, in northern Iran, raw eggs are gently whisked into the finished dish, but chef Alikhani doesn’t like the resulting texture, so she tops each portion with a runny poached egg instead—an elegant and delicious option. If you need a vegan meal, just leave out the eggs entirely; either way, serve the dish with plenty of saffron-tinted basmati rice and prepare to swoon.
Baghali ghatogh may be one of the best things you’ll ever eat, and will definitely inspire you to seek out even more Iranian food—or make more of it at home.
Nasim Alikhani’s Baghali Ghatogh (Iranian Butter Bean Stew)
Makes 4-5 servings.
Takes: at least one hour for cooking the beans plus additional prep.
- 2 cups dried butter beans, soaked overnight
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup dried dill (Chef Alikhani recommends good quality Persian dill), or 8 ounces of fresh dill, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt plus 2 tablespoons more for cooking the beans
- 1 cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 cups water
- 1 egg per person, poached
- Make sure to soak your butter beans overnight.
- Drain the soaked butter beans, place in a pot and over with plenty of cold water (to cover), and cook on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, then add the 2 tablespoons of salt. Cook for another 20-30 minutes or until soft but still firm.
- While beans are cooking, sauté the onion in the olive oil on medium heat until dark golden; this will likely take at least 20 minutes, but judge by the color (more golden than golden-brown) and the smell, which should be full and fragrant, not acrid or raw. Add garlic and continue stirring because it tends to stick to the bottom. Cook until mellow. Add turmeric, lower the heat, and continue stirring until the turmeric is fragrant, only about 1 minute (don’t let it burn).
- Add lemon juice to the hot pan to deglaze all the onions and garlic; let sit for a moment, then use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape all the browned bits off the bottom and mix them into the broth.
- Add the water and salt and pepper to taste, then cover pan with a close-fitting lid (if you are using fresh dill, you should add it at this point as well). Cook for about 10 minutes. If using dried dill, you should add the dill after 10 minutes.
- Add the cooked and drained butter beans to the onion-herb mixture. Adjust the seasoning and continue cooking on low heat for a few more minutes to warm through.
- Traditionally, eggs are cracked and incorporated into the stew before serving, but if you want to follow chef Alikhani’s lead, top each serving with a poached egg instead—and if you’re keeping the stew vegan, simply skip that step and serve!
- When plating, the chef suggests drizzling the stew with a little more fresh lemon juice and good quality extra virgin olive oil, with some freshly ground pepper to finish.
Noush e Jan!
Dried Butter Beans
When buying dried butter beans, you’re more likely to see them labeled as lima beans, but banish any bad memories of frozen limas or suffering succotash you may have from childhood. Choose high-quality beans that haven’t been sitting on a dusty shelf forever, and remember to soak them overnight.
Rancho Gordo Large White Lima Beans (Dried), $5.95/pound
These new-crop lima beans cook up creamy and savory, with a fresh vegetal nuance that other beans lack.
Fresh or Dried Dill
This dish really depends on good dill, so do not use the mostly full bottle that’s been in your pantry since 2016; buy a new one and a good brand (check out a local spice shop if you have one around)—and feel free to use fresh dill if it’s tasting good.
Simply Organic Dill Weed, $4.20 on Amazon
Otherwise, a dependendable organic brand like this is a good choice.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil to Finish
You’ll want a good-tasting olive oil for sauteing and cooking in general, but save the really expensive, complex stuff for finishing dishes (as well as eating with bread and vinegar, or using on salads). There are tons of options, and plenty of opinions on which of those are best, so if you’re overwhelmed, go to a local specialty market and ask for their recommendations. Below are just two highly rated options on Amazon.