“There are no obvious dishes you must have on your table,” admits chef, recipe writer, and best-selling author of The Cook You Want To Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress, Andy Baraghani. “Your menu doesn't need to be specifically ‘holiday’ in order to bring people together.”
For Baraghani, seasonal gatherings are an exercise in reinstating balance, a finely appointed tapestry of textures, new tastes, and sentimental familial traditions. Platters of fluffy Persian rice make room for buttery sweet potato gratin, a twist on the traditional turkey, and piaz dagh, or fried onions—glossy and glistening, reminiscent of what his father might have made growing up in Berkeley, California.
As a first-generation American of Iranian descent, Baraghani paints a holiday picture many can relate to, one including a modern mix of culture and rituals that look forward rather than backward and speak to the contemporary gathering—coming together around what for many is a post-pandemic table.
Keep It Light
A festive dinner party at Baraghani’s New York home typically starts with “something crisp and slightly acidic,” he says, priming the palate with finesse and never cheese or too many heavy carbs to start. He greets guests with distinctly Persian flavors (think fermented pickles or crunchy crudités) and begins the evening with a fresh take on the traditional whisky sour: tart pomegranate, blood orange, and a splash of The Famous Grouse Smoky Black, strained over a single ice cube and garnished with mint.
When guests begin to trickle in, “one or two cocktails always helps,” shares Baraghani, who abandons the convention of past dinner parties. Instead, chaos be damned, Baraghani pre-prepares his appetizers (“so you’re not so stressed during the evening,” he says), making room for a drink with friends, served neat, on the rocks, or with a single spiral of fresh lemon rind.
“There can be many variations of a traditional recipe, whatever the culture may be,” Baraghani notes. “It’s about having a foundational understanding of it and making sure that stays intact.” Dishes are as eclectic as the flavor profiles Baraghani has become renowned for since his Chez Panisse days; some served hot, some chilled, nothing too fancy—essentially, the same old rules need not apply.
“My go-to is kookoo sabzi. Kookoo are a variation of egg dishes, sometimes cooked on the stovetop, sometimes baked. And sabzi means greens or herbs. So, it’s essentially a tremendous amount of finely chopped herbs and very little eggs, like five eggs,” he shares.
Among the heralded holiday staples that do find their way onto Baraghani’s menu: “I can promise you, there’s always a gourd situation happening on my table,” he emphatically explains. “Sweet potato or squash, always. I think potatoes are essential. Whether you want them creamed, mashed, gratin, boiled or crisped. I always have a potato but it won’t always be cooked the same way.”
“I also love cooking with vegetables, so a lot of my dishes are veggie-based,” he says. Make sure that not all foods on the table are soft and not all foods are crunchy or crispy. You want a range that keeps your palate, your stomach, and your mind happy and nourished in all the ways. To not get people too upset, always make stuffing,” he shares.
In the same vein, Baraghani’s libation of choice is equally versatile. “For me, it’s scotch—neat or with a big ice cube,” he says. “People might get very upset at this, but I like to drink scotch with a big strip of lemon. I find it very satisfying,” he shares. “Depending on the scotch, I’m very into cooking with it. Making caramel, I think that’s delicious. Making a pudding, trying it on its own, or using it as a base and making a variety of cocktails.”
It’s his fresh take on festive feasting that promotes freedom over all else. The choice to merge traditions and to start entirely new ones, all while holding onto the parts that spark nostalgia and warmth, from the inside out.
“For so many people, food is the easiest way to hold onto culture,” explains Baraghani, on fusing his Iranian heritage and Northern California upbringing. For Baraghani, seasonal staples and the Iranian food he was raised on can and should coexist. Neither are strictly reserved for the holiday table. Instead, the chef takes elements of his favorite childhood plates, reimagines flavors, and distills it all down.
And when the dishes are done and the embers are glowing? “I’ll finish the night with scotch,” he smiles. “I like to drink it after a meal. I’m a little more traditional like that.”