The Saffron King’s Persian Kebabs

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Behroush Sharifi is a large man with a small ponytail. His bulk belies his agility on the mountain bike that he races through Manhattan, delivering small packets of Persian saffron to chefs at the city’s elite restaurants. At $88 an ounce, the spice is precious stuff. He was a child émigré who fled Iran with his mother, a nurse, just after the Iranian Revolution, landing first in England and then in Arkansas. In Mr. Sharifi’s mother’s kitchen, like that of most Iranians, saffron played a large role no matter how hard it was to procure.

Now, Mr. Sharifi mixes saffron with butter to finish off the grilled kebabs that are Iran’s most popular fast food or picnic fare, especially during the Sizdah Bedar (13th Day) celebration marking the end of the Iranian New Year festivities that begin on the first day of spring. Although the Sharifi family prefers lean ground beef for their kebabs, a mix of beef and lamb or simply lamb are equally traditional and offer a richer depth of flavor.

4 medium onions
3⁄4 pound 90% lean ground beef (preferably
ground twice)
3⁄4 pound ground lamb (preferably ground twice)
3 large egg yolks
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 long, flat, metal kebab skewers
Pinch of saffron threads
Pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon ground sumac
Pita bread or lavash, for serving

1. Grate the onions on the large holes of a box
grater. Squeeze out excess liquid by hand or press
out in a strainer with a wooden spoon. Transfer the
onions to a medium bowl and add the ground beef
and lamb, egg yolks, salt, and pepper. Using your
hands or an electric mixer, blend the ingredients
until the mixture is sticky. Cover and refrigerate for
4 to 5 hours.

2. Remove the meat mixture from the refrigerator.
Dampen hands, divide the meat into 12 even
portions, and shape into 5-inch cylinders. Slide
them onto flat, metal kebab skewers and flatten
each into a kebab about 8 inches long and ¼ inch
thick. (If the skewers are unavailable, shape each
portion of meat into an 8 x 1 ½-inch rectangle.)

3. In a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron
and sugar together until the saffron threads are
pulverized. Stir into the butter.

4. Heat a grill to high. (If not using skewers, heat
a grill pan over high heat.) Grill the kebabs—or
unskewered portions—for 2 to 3 minutes, brush
with saffron butter, and flip. Grill on the second
side for 2 to 3 minutes more, until the meat is
cooked through.

5. Brush with saffron butter, remove from the
skewers, sprinkle with the sumac, and serve with
the bread.

Serves 6

From ONE BIG TABLE by Molly O’Neill. Copyright © 2010 by Molly O’Neill. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY