Chosen Eats: Fesenjan, a New (To Me) Shabbat Dinner

This year, two of my resolutions are to spend more time with friends and try to stay out of a cooking rut, in which I prepare things I’m familiar with without trying new ones. After thinking about it, I found a way to take care of both at the same time: organize more Shabbat dinners! I got a jumpstart on this at the end of 2015, when some friends and I got together one Friday night and served a dish called fesenjan, which none of us had ever tried.

Fesenjan is a rich Iranian stew—called a khoresh in Persian cuisine—flavored with pomegranates and ground walnuts and served on special occasions. Since this was our first time cooking it, we wanted a recipe worth making. A friend put me in touch with Samin Nosrat, a West Coast-based chef, teacher and soon-to-be cookbook author, who recommended Najmieh Batmanglij’s recipe in Batmanglij’s beautiful book “A Taste of Persia” (and reprinted here, with cooking tips from the author).

At first glance, this chicken braise doesn’t look like much with its deep brown color and thick sauce. (The garnishes are important for making the presentation more appealing.) But its flavor—a balance of sour and sweet, warm and sharp—makes this recipe worth trying and permanently adding to your cooking arsenal.

Fesenjan (Pomegranate Khoresh)
From “A Taste of Persia” by Najmieh Batmanglij

Serves 4

Serve this khoresh hot, with steamed rice.

Saffron, made from the dried stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower and the world’s most expensive spice, is optional in this recipe. You can find saffron threads at specialty spice stores, Whole Foods Market or online. For this recipe, grind 1/4 teaspoon threads along with 3/4 teaspoon sugar in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and then dilute it in 1 tablespoon water.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, butter or ghee
2 small onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken or duck breast cut into thin strips
2 large carrots or 1 pound butternut squash, peeled and cut into thin strips
½ pound shelled walnuts, toasted
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup pomegranate paste diluted in 2½ cups water or 4 cups fresh pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water (optional)

1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
¼ cup walnuts, toasted

1. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir-fry 5
minutes, until translucent. Add the chicken and fry for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the carrot strips and stir-fry 2 minutes longer.

2. Finely grind the toasted walnuts in a food processor. Add the salt, diluted pomegranate paste, sugar, cinnamon and saffron water, if using, and mix well to create a smooth, creamy sauce. Transfer the sauce to the pot, cover and simmer for 40 minutes over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent the nuts from burning.

3. Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning and thickness. This khoresh should be sweet and sour, and the consistency of heavy cream. Add diluted pomegranate paste for sourness or sugar for sweetness. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with warm water.

4. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve.

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