I received a Persian cookbook as a gift a couple of months ago (Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij) and haven’t stopped cooking from it since. I like the way these dishes make my kitchen smell—rich and garlicky and warm, with sweet and earthy spices. They have so much in common with the foods I loved in the Caucasus—delicate combinations of sweet and sour flavors, fruits stewing along with meats in savory dishes, recipes packed with nuts and fresh herbs. This is no surprise—the ancient trade routes brought ingredients and techniques from Central and South Asia west to Iran, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Turkey and back again, forming a culinary continuum that persists to this day.
This swath of Earth Is my gastronomic home. 90% of my most-used cookbooks (including Silk Road Cooking (also by Batmanglij), Plenty, Please to the Table, Classical Turkish Cooking) focus on cuisines in this group. I love tracing how the names for foods made subtle shifts as they made their way across it. For example, eggplant in Hindi is baingan or brinjal, in Farsi bademjan, in Georgian badrijani, in Russian baklazhan, in Turkish patlican, all the way to the (British) English aubergine.
While I already had most of the spices required to make Persian dishes in my pantry and could get most of the ingredients I needed at my local grocery store, there were a few gaps that necessitated a field trip to the Persian store in the ‘burbs. (Sure, I could have filled them online, but that wouldn’t be half the fun!) With a list of items I never knew existed (e.g. verjus (unripe grape juice), dried limes, grape molasses), my intrepid culinary adventure partner Wendy and I set out for Yekta Market, reputedly the best-stocked Persian store in the DC area.
Nuts and dried fruits at a market in Kyrgyzstan, part of the same culinary continuum
It took a few U turns and more than a few curses at the GPS Digital Dolt, but we made it half an hour before close. I walked in and wanted everything: the hummocks of raw nuts—almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts. Heaping mounds of fresh herbs and bulging bags of dried ones: tarragon, mint, lovage, fenugreek. Pomegranate and sour cherry juice. Flatbreads other than pita. The most interesting jams: mulberry, fig, quince, walnut. Huge blocks of feta bathing in brine, waiting to be cut on the spot. Barrels of olives. Pickled turnips. Dried dates, figs, apricots, cherries, prunes, persimmons. The spidery script over everything. The same dusty clutter I remember from the Russian store in Minneapolis. People come here to taste home.
We could have easily stayed another hour to peruse everything on the shelves, but the shop was closing and our stomachs growling. We went to the restaurant next door for dinner, where the star dish of our meal was fesenjan, chicken braised slowly in a thick stew of pomegranate, ground walnuts and spices until it falls off the bone. It was the kind of meal I was tempted to prolong by running my finger along the inside of the bowl when all the flatbread was gone and there were still traces of sauce leftover.
I managed to restrain myself at the restaurant, but made a similar dish from Batmanglij’s cookbook for a potluck dinner party with friends the next week. I’m not the only one who couldn’t get enough of it. I promised to share the recipe and haven’t yet, so here it is:
Pomegranate Khoresh with Chicken (Khoresh-e fesenjan ba jujeh)
From Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij
Makes 4 servings
½ lb. (2 cups) shelled walnuts
5 Tbsp. oil, butter, or ghee
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 lbs. chicken legs, cut up (I used a package of chicken thighs and didn’t bother cutting them up)
1lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-in. cubes
4 cups pure pomegranate juice
2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1 tsp. sea salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground saffron dissolved in 1 Tbsp. rose water (I skipped this)
2 Tbsp. grape molasses or sugar (optional)
Arils of 1 fresh pomegranate
2 Tbsp. toasted walnuts
- To toast the walnuts: Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Spread the walnuts in a sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Set aside.
- In a Dutch oven, heat 3 Tbsp. oil over medium heat until very hot, and sauté the onions. Remove from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add 2 Tbsp. oil and brown the chicken. Add the butternut squash and sauté for a few minutes.
- In a food processor, finely grind the sautéd onions with the toasted walnuts, add 1 cup pomegranate juice, the pomegranate molasses, salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron-rose water (if using), and grape molasses or sugar, and mix well to create a creamy paste.
- Add the creamy walnut paste and remaining pomegranate juice to the chicken in a Dutch oven, stirring gently. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 ½ hours, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent walnuts from burning.
- The khoresh should be sweet and sour and have the consistency of heavy cream. Adjust to taste by adding pomegranate molasses for sourness or grape molasses (or sugar) for sweetness. If the sauce is too thick, thin it with more pomegranate juice.
- Transfer the khoresh from the Dutch oven to a deep, ovenproof casserole. Cover and place in a warm oven until ready to serve with chelow (saffron-steamed rice). Just prior to serving, sprinkle with fresh pomegranate arils and walnuts.