Francesca is a very picky eater. She’d be happy to eat “yellow pasta,” penne with a little bit of kosher salt and olive oil, practically everyday. But like every kid, she can be unpredictable. Her eyes light up when I open the lid of the Dutch oven and she sees we’re having “fesenjoonie,” as she calls it. The actual name of this ridiculously delicious Persian khoresh (stew in Farsi) is fesenjan, and it is also one of favorite dishes of all time.
We had the privilege of visiting Iran 10 years ago with when hubby Mark was invited to give a talk in Tehran. I foolishly thought before visiting that I had tasted all the great cuisines of the world, so I gave little thought to Persian food and spent most of the time reading about the great sites, such as the ruins of Persepolis and ancient city of Esfahan.
Dumb dumb me should have thought about the food. I probably had never tasted real Persian cuisine before and just assumed it would be in line with more familiar Middle Eastern foods, such as hummus and pita bread. I was so very wrong.
We arrived in Tehran in the middle of the night, and almost instantly a whole world of spices, nuts, and fruits opened up to us. We stayed with relatives of our dear friends Vahid and Shahla Mohsenin and were greeted by mounds of perfect pistachios, dried apricots, and dates. This 3 a.m. greeting party was considered just a little nibble. The food essentially never stopped coming for the two weeks we visited this beautiful and baffling country.
You will no doubt hear a lot about Persian food from Gabrielle and me. Persians are famous for their hospitality and it seemed there was a lavish dinner party every night once the word got out that there were Americans in town (fewer than 500 Americans were allowed to visit Iran at the time). Many dishes combine the same ingredients – saffron, rose water, orange water, nuts, pomegranates and dried fruits –in countless ways to create unforgettable dishes. Fesenjan, for me, combines all of my favorite Persian flavors. The blend of slow-cooked pureed walnuts, saffron, pomegranates, and onions with chicken creates an earth, nutty, exotic taste you can’t imagine until you’ve taken your first bite.
I’m not sure how Persian households eat this way all the time (and they seem to), because some Persian dishes take a little while to prepare. Not only is the investment worth it, but also keep in mind that any Khoresh, like most stews, usually tastes better a day or two later so they are perfect do-ahead company food.
I became a fesenjan connoisseur while we were in Iran, and sampled many interpretations of this extraordinary dish all from Teheran to Yazd. When we arrived home, I immediately bought the classic Persian cookbook available in English by Najmieh Batmanglij titled, Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. Her version of fesenjan inspired my own, which is quite different. I’ve substituted some of the traditional pomegranate juice, God help me, with wine! Alcohol is forbidden in Iran, but I think wine adds a lovely fruitiness to this exquisite dish. Before the Islamic revolution in 1979 very fine Syrah was produced in Shiraz, and so I’ve used a full-bodied Syrah in this dish. (Sadly the vines are now used to only to produce grapes.)
Here is the recipe, and do let us know if your taste buds are as tickled as ours by this very unique dish:
Khoresh-e Fesenjan Ba Jujeh (Chicken Pomegranate Stew)
- ½ pound (2 cups) walnuts finely chopped
- 5 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- 2 large onions peeled and thinly sliced
- 12 chicken thighs, bone-in (approximately 5 to 5 ½ pounds)
- 2 cups pomegranate juice
- 2 cups Syrah wine
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- 1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 ½ teaspoons saffron dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
- 2 tablespoons grape molasses or sugar (optional)
- ¼ cup pomegranate seeds (optional)
- 3 tablespoons toasted walnuts (optional)
- Toast the walnuts at 350 degrees for 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
- Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a large pot or Dutch oven (8 quarts is ideal) over medium heat until very hot. Sauté the onions until they are glassy and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and let cool in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides. Add 1-2 tablespoons of additional oil and brown the chicken (you will need to do this in two batches).
- Remove the chicken from the pot into a medium bowl and set aside.
- Puree the onions and the walnuts in a food processor. Add 1 cup of pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, saffron water and grape molasses (or sugar) and mix well to a creamy paste.
- Pour the mixture into a medium size bowl and add the remaining pomegranate juice and wine.
- Add the onion-walnut mixture to the Dutch oven and stir well. Add the chicken and gently mix again (if stirred to aggressively, the skin will come off the chicken).
- Bring Mixture to a boil and give the stew a good stir. If you are cooking the stew in an oven-safe Dutch oven or pot, cover and cook in the middle of the oven at 350 for one hour, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. You may also cook the stew on the stove top on low for an hour.
- Taste the khoresh sauce after the first hour. It should be sweet and sour and have the consistency of heavy cream. Adjust the taste by adding more pomegranate molasses for sour, and more grape molasses (or sugar) for sweetness.
- Stir the stew well again and place back in the oven until the chicken is thoroughly cooked the sauce is the thickness of heavy cream.
- Remove from the oven and let cool uncovered before refrigerating (covered) overnight. When ready to serve, re-heat in the Dutch oven at 350 degrees. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, heat on stovetop with a low-medium flame, stirring occasionally.
- Serve over basmati rice or, if you’re feeling ambitious, Chelow, a saffron steamed rice with a golden crust. You may also add sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts (optional).