These dishes are part of a meal that I was lucky enough to enjoy last Sunday night. Cooked by Greg Malouf, executive chef at Melbourne's Momo restaurant, and his wife Lucy, it was a feast that I will find very hard to forget – simple, elegant and traditional food from Persia. Greg and Lucy's cookery books are among my favourites – exquisitely photographed, with a rich and fascinating text written by Lucy and pure and authentic recipes cooked by Greg. The icing on the cake was the attendance of Claudia Roden – one of the most important and influential food writers in the past half-century. The evening was both an honour and a joy.
'Saraban: A Chef's Journey Through Persia', by Greg and Lucy Malouf, is published by Hardie Grant Books, priced £30. Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com
This is almost not a recipe but rather a list of popular herbs that feature regularly on the Persian table. I've included two of the more unusual ones – costmary and savory – for those who are keen gardeners, as it's simple enough to grow them for yourself.
The idea is to choose four or five herbs that you fancy and toss them together on a serving platter or in a basket. You'll need about a cup of herbs per person to be really Iranian – and you will be surprised how quickly you want to eat more and more of them. At first it may seem strange, this sort of salad without a dressing, but it really allows the flavours of each herb to shine through.
The way to eat it is to place chunks of soft, creamy feta inside the bread and stuff the herbs in alongside. It is almost always served in Iran as a precursor to the meal that is to follow, but you can serve it on its own as a light meal.
Baby beetroot leaves
Basil (all varieties, including Asian)
Chives (unusual and garlic)
Mint (all varieties)
Fresh feta, to serve
Warm flatbread to serve
Pick the sprigs or leaves from their stalks then gently wash and soak in cold water for 20 minutes to remove any dirt. Drain and air-dry in a colander before wrapping loosely in a clean tea towel and storing in the fridge. This way, the herbs should keep for about a week. Serve a platter of the herbs with a creamy feta and a pile of warm flatbread, which everyone can use to wrap or roll to their heart's content.
Duck Breast with fesenjan sauce
Sweet and sour, fesenjan is a classic Persian sauce. Traditionally, it is a dish served to mark a celebration, most often the arrival of important friends or family. It works particularly well with game birds such as quail, duck or pheasant, but the flavours work equally well with firm-fleshed white fish or chicken.
200g/7oz duck breast per person
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp honey
Generous splash of boiling water
tsp pomegranate molasses
tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp cardamom seeds, crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
Seeds of 1 pomegranate, to garnish
For the sauce
200g/7oz shelled walnuts
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1 tsp ground cinnamon
tsp ground turmeric
tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
150ml/5fl oz pomegranate juice (freshly squeezed if available)
55g/2fl oz sugar
1 bay leaf
400ml/14fl oz good-quality chicken stock
1 tsp salt
Juice of lemon
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. First, make the sauce. Roast the walnuts on a baking tray for 5-10 minutes until a deep golden-brown. Tip the nuts into a tea towel and rub well to remove as much skin as possible, then set aside to cool. Pulse the cooled nuts in a food processor until they are coarsely ground – you want to maintain some texture and a few chunky bits, so be careful not to overdo it.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and fry gently until soft and translucent. Stir in the spices and tomato paste and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the walnuts to the pan with the pomegranate molasses and juice, the sugar, bay leaf and stock. Bring to a boil, then add the salt, lower the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly, until rich, thick and a little oily.
Meanwhile, score the skin of the ducks in a criss-cross pattern with a sharp knife and season generously with salt and pepper. In a small saucepan, warm the honey over a gentle heat with the water and the pomegranate molasses, then stir in the pepper and cardamom seeds to make a glaze.
Heat the oil in a heavy-based roasting pan over a medium-high heat until hot. Add the duck breasts, skin-side down, then lower the heat and cook for about 5 minutes until the skin turns golden-brown and the fat starts to render. Turn the breasts over and cook for a further 4 minutes. Tip the rendered fat from the pan and brush the skin from the glaze. Turn the breasts skin-side down again, and cook over a low-medium heat for a final 4 minutes; at this stage it's really important not to have the heat too high or the glaze will burn. Remove from the heat and rest in a warm place for several minutes – when carved, the duck breasts should be medium-rare.
When ready to serve, add the lemon juice to the sauce, then taste and adjust the seasoning to achieve a good sweet-sour-earthy balance. Spoon a generous amount of sauce on to each plate. Slice each duck breast into chunks and stack on top. Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and serve straight away.
These crunchy fritters with spiced sugar are little whisps of air and tend to be served at the end of the meal. Sweet and crisp, they are best served alongside a sharp pomegranate or blood-orange granita. Or try them with the muddy rich coffee that is served throughout the Middle East.
Makes about 15
For the spiced sugar
120g/4oz icing sugar
50g/2oz ground pistachios
tsp ground cardamom
Vegetable oil for frying
For the batter
175g/6oz plain flour
1 tbsp dried yeast
250ml/8fl oz warm water
75g/3oz thick natural yoghurt
2 tbsp saffron liquid (20 strands of saffron, lightly toasted, ground with pestle and mortar then infused with 2 tbsp boiling water for at least 1 hour)
A pinch of sea salt
Combine the icing sugar, pistachios and cardamom well and store in an airtight jar until ready to use.
To make the batter, sift the flour into a bowl. Sprinkle on the yeast, then whisk in the warm water and yoghurt to form a batter. Stir in the saffron liquid and salt, then cover and leave to stand for at least 2 hours or up to 12 hours.
Pour the vegetable oil into a small, deep, heavy-based saucepan to a depth of 5cm. Heat the oil to 190C/375F. If you don't have a sugar thermometer, the oil will have reached temperature when it is shimmering, and when a blob of batter sizzles up to the surface in a few seconds.
Pour the batter into a piping bag fitted with a narrow nozzle, or into a plastic squeezy bottle. Pipe the batter into the oil, working from the centre outwards in a spiral. Use the size of the saucepan as the template for your fritter size. Don't worry if you do not make a perfect spiral, as a free-form, lacy effect is just as pretty. Cook for 1-2 minutes, moving the fritter in the hot oil so it colours evenly.
Once the fritter has set, turn it over in the oil to colour. Lift the fritter out of the oil with a slatted spoon and drain on paper towels for a moment. Repeat with the remaining batter. Dust the spiced sugar over the fritters and enjoy with a cup of strong coffee or tea.