Somewhere between 10,000 and 8000 BCE, humans began to settle. The grueling hunter-gatherer lifestyle flew out the (stone) door the moment we realised that we could, in fact, grow our food. It was a thought both revelatory and revolutionary. This, quite naturally, led to the rise of civilization as we know it - albeit an ancient, more earth-worshipping and animal-sacrificing version. Civilised societies began to spring up all over the planet and, freed from the constant search for food, the social, intellectual human was born. Mesopotamia, that feminine curve of land known as the Fertile Crescent (part of the modern day Middle East) was just one of the birthplaces of, well, us.
A few millenia later, the travelling bug bit. Trade routes were established and international diplomacy began to take shape. More excitingly, new foods, spices, herbs and seasoning, styles of cooking and stories - yes, ever the obsessive - were introduced by travellers upon their return. Incredibly creative and prosperous times to have lived in. The journey itself must have opened eyes and minds.
Rather fancifully named, a dish called 'Elam Kidney Bean and Lime Braise' needed, for my taste, some adjustment. It comes via Najmieh Batmanglij's romantically-titled 'Silk Road Cooking', a book that's, sadly, just a fraction too big to balance on my knees when propped up in bed. Sad because it's the kind of reading that transports. Quite apart from the fact that the intricacies of the Elamite language have been lost in antiquity and that kidney beans (named not terribly imaginatively for their colour and curve) were introduced to European shores about 2000 years after Elam had been well and truly crushed, I'd have to say that Persia would be a better empire on which to hang this recipe. Sort of. That and the fact that the Persian Empire took up a sizable chunk of The Silk Road. But who am I to quibble? This is a very fine thing to eat.
Kidney beans with herbs and limes - feeds 4
Really let these flavours develop and do, please, take your time. The greens here need a little coaxing to shine. Patience rewards richly. Adapted from Silk Road Cooking.
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small red chilli, deseeded and chopped
2 bunches of spring onions, chopped
1 bunch of parsley, stalks too, chopped
2 bunches of coriander (cilantro), stalks too, chopped
3 tablespoons of dried fenugreek leaves (or 1tsp ground fenugreek seeds)
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
4 dried limes (loomi)*
2 x 400g (15oz) tins of kidney beans, drained and rinsed well
4 cups of water
3 fresh limes
Basmati rice, to serve
Gently warm the butter and oil together in a deep, heavy-based saucepan. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to turn gold. Take your time and let them caramelise slowly. Add the garlic, chilli, spring onions and herbs and continue to cook slowly, slowly and stirring from time to time for 20 minutes. It should smell aromatic and very, very good.
Add a teaspoon of salt, the turmeric and the cumin to the saucepan. Pierce each dried lime with a skewer and add these next. Tip in the drained and rinsed kidney beans and cook for 2 minutes.
Pour in the water, followed by the juice of the fresh limes. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Partially cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes.
Discard the dried limes - they will freak the uninitiated out, I promise - and season to taste. Serve hot, over Basmati rice.
*Loomi are whole dried limes, black and elephantine, an exotic ingredient purchased, on a whim, months (okay, years) ago. You'll find them in Middle Eastern Grocers. Traditionally used in Iranian and Kuwaiti dishes (Persia sounds far more exotic), once you've sampled them, I'm confident you'll find uses beyond the traditional. I certainly have.
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