I’ve slowly become a very large fan of Persian food over the last year or so. I’ve become somewhat entranced by the complex flavours and playful way that flavours and aromas are layered and melded in ways that Western food would never dare attempt. I have a couple of wonderful Persian cookbooks and one recipe had always stood out but had never been attempted – Fesenjan. Fesenjan is an intoxicatingly delicious and heady sauce/stew made from spices, walnuts and pomegranates. Fesenjan is scrumptious. Fesenjan is intriguing. Fesenjan is exotic. Fesenjan is ugly. I mean really ugly. The kind of ugly that makes you wonder if you’ve messed it up whilst cooking and should just throw it in. The kind of ugly that makes you think, “what instagram filter could make this work…maybe really dark?”. The kind of ugly that makes you know that if someone is raving about it, it must taste good!
In fact I’ve been on a bit of an ugly food kick recently. Having watched Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s bbc documentary on food waste and watched all those perfectly edible but ugly parsnips be thrown away I was a bit appalled. I mean, ignoring the misguided economics of the show, it does seem absurd to me that food has become as much about how it looks as it how it tastes, feels and smells. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s long been known that how food looks affects how people perceive it but somehow it seems sad that we throw away many perfectly good parsnips because they’re a bit wonky or short (heck I’m a bit wonky and short!). I mean if people think wonky parsnips are ugly, they should see Jerusalem Artichokes. Or Fesenjan.
Fesenjan in it’s traditional form is almost like the Persian version of coq au vin. In that it’s a slow braise of chicken in a rich yet subtle sauce. Because it’s Persian, Fesenjan obviously doesn’t have any wine in it, but pomegranate juice serves a similar purpose, adding astringency and sweetness in equal measure. However, unlike coq au vin it’s thick and textured from the walnuts with a flavour that defies description through Western flavour words. However, when I cooked it the first time I couldn’t help thinking the chicken wasn’t adding much. Braised chicken is soft and tender but not as tender as other braised meats. And so if your going for that, then Fesenjan with 72 hour slow cooked shortrib is fan-freaking-tastic. Braised chicken also doesn’t have much flavour, it adds a slight chickeny note but that was already there from chicken stock in the Fesenjan. So I thought how about paring it with roast duck breast (Here’s my guide to cooking duck breast). Duck breast with a honey, orange and pomegranate molasses glaze has enough punch to stand up to the Fesenjan. Also, it has just enough prettiness, especially when dotted with pomegranate seeds, that you forget, just for a second, how ugly fesenjan really is!
The best bit about trialling different meats is it forced me to think, what if fesenjan wasn’t a stew. What if it was simply a sauce that could go with any meal – or even, dare I say it, vegetables. Charred leeks with fesenjan sauce is actually really nice, especially when paired with some buttery potatoes and a little sourdough. I mean it’s not quite as good as roast duck breast with duck confit and cranberry pastillas and fesenjan but it’s pretty close.
Ingredients: (This is enough for four people, I normally make double and freeze some)
- 200g shelled walnuts
- 3 banana shallots finely diced (or 1 large onion)
- 1.5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 0.5 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 300ml pomegranate juice (about 4 pomegranates if squeezing by hand, three if you have a press juicer)
- 55g caster sugar
- 1 bay leaf
- 400ml good quality chicken stock (if using store bought and it’s a bit thin bloom two sheets of gelatin in the stock and add once hot)
- Half a lemon
- Roast the walnuts until golden brown. This can be done in a 180 Celsius oven for about ten minutes or in a dry pan over a low-medium heat. Then rub as much of the skin off as possible. Once the skin is removed I give them another blast for a couple of minutes to really get them golden. Set aside to cool.
- Pulse the walnuts in a food processor (or chop by hand) until coarsely chopped. You want some texture but you don’t want great big gnarly pieces. It’s better to have a bit too much texture in your fesenjan than for it to be a paste though.
- Heat some olive oil over a medium heat and add the onions. Cook until soft and translucent without colouring (about ten minutes). Stir in 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and the turmeric along with the tomato paste and cook for a couple of minutes.
- Add the walnuts, pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, sugar, bay leaf and stock to the pan. Stir to combine, season well with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Once boiling reduce heat to very low and simmer for about an hour stirring regularly. It should go thick and a little oily, remove the bay leaf.
- Before serving the fesenjan, adjust seasoning, add the remaining ground cinnamon and lemon juice to taste
- The whole fesenjan can be made ahead and will keep in the fridge for over a week. Don’t add the final cinnamon and lemon juice until serving
- It freezes very well, especially if frozen in a flat layer in a freezer safe bag for easy reheating
- To reheat, simply add a small amount of water (1 tablespoon) to a pan and add the fesenjan. Reheat over a gentle heat. Adjust seasoning and acidity and add the cinnamon as stated in the recipe.
- For the duck breast, ensure everything is trimmed in advance. You can salt either just before adding to the pan or you can salt up to a day in advance – dry brining actually improves flavour greatly. If interested, here’s the TimedEating guide to cooking duck breast.