We all could use a little dinner inspiration — even Ali Slagle, who dreams of dinner. In “Dinner Is Served,” she asks colleagues about one night when they somehow transformed ingredients into dinner with all this life going on.
This month’s installment: Homa Dashtaki founded the White Moustache against all odds. Her new cookbook, Yogurt & Whey, is her entrepreneurial story about recognizing that simple foods can have immense value. Let’s “celebrate things that we take for granted,” Dashtaki urges. And for her, nothing encapsulates that more than yogurt — and rice.
Yogurt and rice is a very quintessential Iranian comfort and combination. It makes me really happy that when a fellow Iranian will read this piece they’ll be like, “Oh my God, this thing that’s so basic and we’ve taken for granted and don’t celebrate — it’s getting celebrated.”
I really love it too because they are two single ingredients. Yogurt is milk and rice is just rice. And they’re both white. The yogurt you can make yourself, as I do in the book, and that’s a true labor of love, but you can also just buy plain yogurt. (Make sure that the only two ingredients in the yogurt are milk and probiotic. Fage is probably my favorite commercial, nationwide yogurt.) Then once you make the rice, it’s just this very simple combination of warm rice and tangy, cool yogurt. It soothes the tummy and is so simple and comforting and enough.
I do about a cup of basmati rice for just myself and that’s just a smidge too much, but I’m fine with that — I’ll have a little bit left over or a really nice big meal. When your day is starting to wind down and you take like a five-minute coffee break, rinse your rice until the water goes clear. Soak the rice, stick the salt in, and then go about the rest of your business. Maybe a tablespoon’s worth of salt — I don’t want to sound like my mother, but add just enough salt, you know? After an hour, I’ll rinse the rice and get a pot to boil with enough water so that the rice will be submerged by at least 1 to 2 inches, but you really can’t go wrong with too much water.
I would add probably another tablespoon of salt to that water and then throw the drained rice in and cook it for about eight minutes. Pluck a grain of rice out around the 6-to-7-minute mark and squish it between your fingers. It creates a little spine and breaks in a bunch of little fragments so it’s still raw but it’s half-cooked. Broken but still intact.
Drain out the rice and put your pot back on the stove. Put in butter or oil or a combination of butter and oil to just cover the entire bottom of the pot. If you want a lot of crispy rice, you can do it in a frying pan, but I actually like to do it in a little 1-to-2-quart pot.
I know that tahdig, the crispy, bottom-of-the-pot rice, is very trendy and very exciting and it is delicious and we all fight over it and it’s totally worth the hype, but I feel like the rice is really missing the action here because the whole point of tahdig is that it is the barrier between the fire and the rice, so it’s your sacrificial level of rice that’s going to get scorched and burned so the rest of your rice can be super-fluffy and light. To get those individual grains, you want a tighter pot so you can create a little pyramid of the fluffy rice. So once that butter is hot, on, like, high or medium-high heat, put the drained rice back in, shape it into a little pyramid, and make a couple pockets with the back of a wooden spoon. Put about a teaspoon of butter in each little pocket, then take a kitchen towel and wrap the lid of the pot with it; this will absorb the moisture from the rice so that it will be fluffy. Secure the fabric on top of the pot with a rubber band.
Put the lid on and turn the heat down to medium-low and just let it go. You can usually smell when it’s done. For one cup of rice, I would say 20 minutes would be good to get that rice really cooked and light and get that water evaporated so the grains are very individual and defined and light and the tahdig falls into place. I flip the whole pot onto a huge plate and scoop out my portion into a bowl, add lots of yogurt on the side, and crack fresh pepper and add salt.
And then your mood just takes you, so if you want to put barberries on top, you can. If you want to put sliced tomatoes on top, you can. If you want to put kimchi on top, you can. Your mood dictates how complicated or simple it gets. But I would love for people to think of the yogurt as a sauce. It’s such a miraculous way to save uninspired leftovers.
I haven’t done this particular combo the way I’m describing it to you since I was single. It’s got this weird sense of nostalgia to it. When I was really, really far away from my family and starting White Moustache, I would have so much extra yogurt and all I had to do was make a pot of rice. This would be dinner two or three times a week.
Now, I get to make it a little bit more elaborate for my girls and my husband — it’s our Sunday-night dish with barberries and a roast chicken. My daughters love, love, love yogurt. I’m trying to be chill about it like, oh, okay cool, no big deal, because the minute I get excited about them liking yogurt, I know they’re going to be over it.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Ali Slagle is a recipe developer, stylist, and — most important of all — home cook. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and her cookbook is called I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To): Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.
Daniela Jordan-Villaveces is a creative director and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá and raised between Colombia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.