Cheap Eats:
Khoresh Karafs
 Lamb and Celery Stew

If pepper was viewed as the spice of life, then salt was life itself. Cassiodorus, a Goth administrator in the 5th century AD, wrote, "It may be that some seek not gold, but there lives not a man who does not need salt." Every cell and all the fluids of the body contain salt. All neural activity requires sodium, and salt is essential to muscle movement. In arid lands, salt was and is as important as water for survival.

Anything that means life usually means wealth, too. To show his generosity to the Jews as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem, Artaxerxes (465 BC) proclaimed that he would provide Ezra the priest with "up to 3¾ tons of silver, and salt without limit." Salt is still used as money in some parts of the world. It has also often meant power, and rulers from the ancient Egyptians down to present-day despots have used the control of salt as a way to control people.

In the early days of the Empire, Roman soldiers received salarium—salt rations. When they were given money to buy their own salt, they still called it salarium, or salary. The expression that someone is "not worth his salt," which is still used today, was originally penned by Gaius Petronius in the 1st century AD One of the oldest roads in Italy is the Via Salaria (Salt Route), an important trade route, over which Roman salt was carried.

The importance of salt is reflected in the names of town: Saltcoats, Salzburg, Salinas—and even in less obvious names like Prestonpans, where the pans in question were for boiling salt. Actually, salt is important in modern, industrialized nations, too, since more than 14,000 processes in industry and manufacture require salt or salt derivatives.

Because of its vital preservative qualities, salt became a symbol of incorruptibility. In Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper, Judas Iscariot is easily identified as the one whose arm has just knocked over the saltcellar. Jews, Greeks, and Romans viewed salt as an emblem of purity. Romans believed that salt could make dangerous or tainted food safe, hence, anything suspicious was "taken with a grain of salt." A prescription to take something (in this case, an antidote to poison) cum grano salis was first recorded by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) in his Natural History.

The preservative qualities of salt also made it a fitting symbol of honor, esteem, and an enduring compact. When an Arab says "there is salt between us," he is referring to the tradition that to eat a man's salt creates a sacred bond, and no one who has eaten another's salt should do him an ill turn or speak ill of him. In Persia, even today, "untrue to salt" means disloyal, ungrateful. The expression "salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13) still describes a person held in high esteem. And in Russia, the word for hospitality—khleb-sol—literally translates "bread-salt."

In Sanskrit, lavanya, which expresses grace, beauty, and charm, is derived from lavana— salt. In Latin and Greek, salt's sharp savoriness made it a term for wit, and the connotation lasted for centuries. In Les Femmes Savantes, Molière wrote, "It is seasoned throughout with Attic salt." "Attic salt" means wit, particularly elegant wit, and sparkling thought well expressed (Attica being the region of Greece which includes Athens, and ancient Athenians being famous for their wit).

Of course, not all salt facts are fun. In this century, salt blockades and salt shortages have caused political upheaval and mass migrations. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s, the appearance of salt in the markets of Kampala triggered riots. Salt is still life and wealth and power in much of the world.

The Seleucids of Persia were among the many governments for whom control of salt was an essential part of the administration. Today, Persia is called Iran, and that is where this lamb and celery stew had its origins.

Khoresh Karafs
(Lamb and Celery Stew)

½ cup olive oil

2 medium-size onions, peeled and thinly sliced

2½ lb. lamb stew meat, bone-in

2 cups water

1 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. salt

6 large, leafy stalks of celery

¼ cup lemon juice

Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet, then add the onions and fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown (about 10 minutes). With a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a 3- to 4-quart casserole (or any pot with lid).

Trim excess fat off lamb then, within the constraints imposed by the bones, cut lamb into bite-sized cubes. Brown lamb and bones in the oil remaining in the skillet. When lamb and bones are brown, transfer them to the casserole. Pour the water into the skillet and bring to a boil, scrapping in any brown particles clinging to the bottom or sides of the pan. Stir in salt and turmeric, then pour over the lamb and onions in the casserole. Set skillet aside. Bring casserole to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, tightly covered, for 1 hour.

Wash celery, trim off root ends and scrape heavy strings from the back of each stalk. Cut away the leaves and chop them finely (if you don't have about 1 cup of chopped leaves, or couldn't find leafy celery, you can use parsley here). Cut the stalks crosswise into 3-inch pieces, then lengthwise into strips about ¼ inch wide.

Place ¼ cup olive oil in the skillet and add strips of celery. Stirring frequently, cook until they begin to turn delicate brown, about 10-15 minutes. Add them to the casserole at the end of its initial 1 hour. Stir in celery leaves and lemon juice, cover and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Serves 4.

This can be served over plain, white rice, but to be more traditional, serve it with Chelo. For Chelo, prepare 4 servings of white rice according to package directions. Melt 2 Tbs. of butter in a Dutch oven, or other pan with a lid. Add 1 Tbs. of water to the butter, and heap the rice into the pan, mounding it into a roughly conical shape, but not so high that you can't put the lid on the pan. Drizzle 2 Tbs. melted butter over the mound, then cover the pan. Cook for 15 minutes over medium heat, then reduce heat and cook for an additional 15-20 minutes. This gives you buttery rice with a crispy, golden crust—an Iranian specialty.

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