Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Walnut and Pomegranate Khoresht-e Fesenjān

As a health-nut and fitness enthusiast, I can be as basic as they come. From my well-curated wardrobe of Lululemon activewear, to the "workout vitamins" I blindly purchase from my gym's health shop, I am guilty of sometimes buying into the latest health and lifestyle trends. If by nothing more than placebo effect, my diet rich in ultra-organic, non-GMO, cage-free, space-traveling, but at the same time, local and responsibly procured "superfoods" makes me feel energetic and deliriously healthy. However, as a physician and food blogger, there's no role for such Bro Science or "gym-lore" in the recipes that I share.

On the contrary, I strongly value evidence-based medicine and want to provide reliable, proven recommendations for maintaining a heart-healthy, and, of course, insanely delicious lifestyle. (Side note, the CDC ban on the term "evidence-based" is outrageous).

That's why I am so excited to finally share my recipe for Fesenjān, a traditional Iranian khoresh (or stew) made from ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. This magical stew is typically accompanied by chicken or duck and served over saffron rice. As it simmers for hours, the oil begins to render out of the walnuts while the sauce thickens and darkens, taking on rich, complex flavors. The harmony of tangy and sweet ingredients gives this dish a brilliant depth of flavor. (It's even more delicious than it sounds).

I've made the dish for friends, family, and even my Medicine team (basically an extension of my family) and I guarantee that it will be all the rage at your next dinner party.

This recipe is a winner based on taste alone, but it also happens to be good for you. And sure, you can probably find walnuts and pomegranates listed as "superfoods" on a Google search, but honestly, does anyone actually know what that even means? I certainly don't...What we do know, however, is that Fesenjān is heart-healthy as part of a Mediterranean style diet, which can help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke!

*Insert generic, charming backstory about Fesenjān here* ...Or not...

I love tying my food together with personal anecdotes, but unfortunately, I don't have any cute stories to share about my grandma sweating over a hot stove all day making Fesenjān. The actual backstory behind this recipe is a lot less romantic...

It was back in November, during a busy ICU rotation, that I unknowingly embarked on this cultural immersion when a colleague recommended that I try Fesenjān. In general, I love the bold and distinctive flavors characteristic of Persian food, so I was quite eager to try out her recommendation.

Hmmm, perhaps "eager" was a bit of an understatement...

I had just completed a 30 hour MICU call, but instead of driving home and going to bed, I stayed in the hospital, manically researching the dish before stopping at the market to gather all the necessary ingredients. And later that evening...I enjoyed the first of many Fesenjān.

Over the next five months, I have tweaked and perfected my recipe, and in an attempt to give my version some credibility, I have become a (self-proclaimed) honorary Persian. Honestly, between my Iranian neighbors (the Zehavis), my childhood best friend (Abe), my college roommate (Mohammad) and med school roommate (Jakob), my transformation was inevitable. I now regularly drink rose water, cook with an abundance of Saffron, fight with my siblings over the last piece of tahdiq (scorched, crispy layer of rice), and add "-Joon" to the end of names.

Tips/Tricks to the Perfect Fesenjān

  • Different brands of pom molasses have different levels of sourness, so be sure to add ingredients slowly and adjust to taste
    • My friend Ladan swears by Zarrin brand
  • Replace the protein with 2 pounds of butternut squash for a great vegetarian option
    • Peal and cube squash, roast with olive oil, kosher salt and pepper at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes
    • Add the squash to the stew when the chicken would have been added
    • Other veggie options are beets, quinces, carrots, or prunes
  • You can also try changing up the protein with duck breast, meatballs flavored with cinnamon and turmeric, or even fish
  • Saffron can either be dissolved in water or rose water
  • Don't be hasty when it comes to cooking time. You'll be pleasantly surprised by how the flavor matures over time
  • Especially at the beginning, the nuts are a high scorch risk. Mix frequently!
  • Serve with saffron-steamed rice

Fesenjān Ingredients

  • 4 cups walnuts (1 pound)
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (7-9 pieces)
  • 4-5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, steeped in 3 tablespoons boiling water
  • 2 cups chicken stock or water
  • 1/5 - 2 cups pomegranate molasses
  • 1 cup pure pomegranate juice
  • 1/2 tablespoon Muscovado or brown sugar
  • Arils of 1 fresh pomegranate (optional, for garnish)

Fesenjān Recipe

Roast and grind the walnuts:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Spread the walnuts in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Roast in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until nicely browned, mixing once or twice. Allow to cool slightly. Working in batches, place walnuts inside a kitchen towel, close the towel, and rub together between your palms to remove some of the outer skins. Transfer the walnuts to a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Set aside.

Brown the chicken:
Dry chicken pieces and season both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy bottomed braising pan or dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken pieces in batches for about 3 minutes per side, until browned. Set aside.

Create walnut paste:
Over medium heat, add the remaining 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Add the onions and sauté for about 10-12 minutes, until browned. Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and cardamom to the onions during the last 2 minutes.

Add the ground walnuts. If additional roasting is desired, reduce heat to low and cook walnut-onion mixture for 3-5 minutes, mixing frequently to avoid burning.

Add 2 cups of water or chicken stock to the walnut-onion mixture. Bring to a gentle boil, then simmer on low heat, partly covered, for about 30 minutes until the oil begins to separate from the walnuts. Mix occasionally and monitor closely to avoid burning. Add more water if needed.

Balance sweet/tangy flavors and slow cook:
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.

Add saffron-water, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar, 1 cup of pure pomegranate juice, and 1 cup of pomegranate molasses.

Add remaining 1/2 to 1 cup pomegranate molasses to taste until desired tartness is reached. If stew is too tart, add more sugar. If too sweet, add more pomegranate juice.

Once the desired sweet/tangy ratio is reached, add the chicken pieces into the sauce. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat, covered, for about 60 minutes, until the stew develops a rich brown color and chicken softens. Stir occasionally, about every 30 minutes, to avoid burning.

Transfer the stew to the preheated oven, and cook for at least 2-3 hours, but preferably longer, allowing the chicken to tenderize and the sauce to mature.