Persian Fessenjan with Jewelled Cauliflower ‘Rice’
Living in Toronto for almost 23 years now has meant a regular introduction to faraway lands, via my neighbours, workmates, store owners, and fellow subway patrons! Through the years my neighbours, or roommates have included ones from Jamaica, the Ukraine, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland, Portugal, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and the list goes on. And I was privileged to eat with all of them, or else at least pick their brains for recipes. When you live in an apartment building, you are going to be introduced to all their cooking, just by nature of the hallway! The aromas of curries, cabbage rolls, dal, pelmeni, zigni, pancit etc don’t stop at the door. We all got to enjoy them as we got off the elevator and walked towards our own little space on the floor. So I decided to embrace the aromas, and find out who the makers of said aromas were.
One of my favourite discoveries was Persian or Iranian cuisine. I can still remember the first time I tasted Zereshk Polow. It was at the home of a friend who was helping me with some sewing. She had a sewing machine set up (she was a fabulous seamstress, making suits, even wedding dresses for clients) My machine was packed away, so she graciously allowed me to use hers. While I was busy away at the machine, she was preparing dinner for the family. And that evening the family would include me. At first I didn’t really pay attention to the fragrance drifting over from the kitchen. But then suddenly it was there. Oh my! That perfume of orange water, mint, onions cooking, and even pistachios that were being toasted in the oven. But I had no idea what the meal was. Then we sat down to eat. There was the most beautiful bowl of rice, finely chopped veggies, chicken pieces perfectly browned, the glorious green pistachios peaking out, and something red. I wasn’t sure what that was. Smaller than a cranberry. She served me, and I took a spoonful of the rice. Oooh! The little dried red berries were so pleasingly tart. What a contrast to the warm spiced rice and veggies, and the juicy chicken thighs. What is this? Those are barberries. Where do I find them?? And she gave me a small bag to take home. It would take a while before I would actually attempt to cook with them. Again, the internet wasn’t yet at my disposal. But I was able to get the entire recipe slowly and thoroughly out of dear Shirin.
And then, about 5 years later I was now married, and living in the east end of the city. In a condo building this time. But it still had hallways!!! Eventually I got to know our neighbours. They were also from Iran. Oh I learned so much from them. The way they drink coffee and tea, the way they make rice and couscous. The little delicacies they serve on special occasions. And Fessenjan. This was way out for me. The idea of grinding walnuts, combining them with pomegranate molasses and stock to braise chicken in definitely intrigued and yet made me pause. But when she presented it to me, and I tasted the richness of the sauce, the tartness of the pomegranate coming out, and all of it imbuing the fall-apart chicken was fabulous. She showed me how they layered their special occasion rice in a pot. And how the bottom of the pot where the rice was cooked into a perfect crusty layer was actually the prized part of the preparation!
So now I try to make Fessenjan for company a couple of times a year. It isn’t too complicated, and the end result is festive enough for feeding special friends or family. It may look a little ‘muddy’ but that’s alright. The flavour makes up for it! In fact, it was near impossible to take a decent photo of the stew for this post.
I usually make Jewelled Rice as a side, a simpler form of the rice Aarta showed me, but still has all the components to make it dinner party worthy. But today I’m sharing the Cauliflower version. It’s such an easy, fresh way to have the same flavours. Cauliflower whizzes down into the best ‘rice’ or ‘couscous’. It is such a light accompaniment to this glorious, rich stew.
- 2 1/4 cups walnut halves
- 2 lbs of chicken thighs or drumsticks or mixture of both (you can also use boneless, just adjust cooking times)
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 2 cups of chicken stock
- 5 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 2 tbsp coconut palm sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
- Walnut bitters (optional)
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
- 1/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts
- 1 med head of cauliflower, broken into florets, don't get rid of the stems!
- 1/4 tsp saffron threads
- 2 tbsp boiling water
- 1/2 cup barberries, softened in a cup of water
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/4 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp cardamom
- 1/8 tsp allspice
- 1 bay leaf
- finely julienned rind of one orange
- 1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1/4 cup toasted almonds, chopped
- 1/4 cup toasted pistachios, chopped
- 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
- 2-3 tbsp chopped fresh mint
- Toast the walnuts. Spread walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in a 350F oven until fragrant and browned but not scorched, about 8-10 minutes. Cool. Set aside 1/4 cup of the walnuts. Once cool enough to handle, pulse in a food processor until finely ground.
- Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towel and sprinkle with salt and pepper on all sides.
- In a large skillet, over med-high heat, add 2 tbsp of the butter and 1 tbsp of olive oil. When the butter is just starting to bubble, add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and brown each side until golden brown and crispy. Work in batches, so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove to a plate.
- Drop the heat to medium and add the remaining butter and olive oil to the pan. Add chopped onions and turmeric. Saute until translucent, stirring to release any bits at the bottom of the pan.
- Push the onions to the edges, and return the chicken to the pan. Pour the stock over the chicken and onions. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Then reduce, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Next add the walnuts, pomegranate molasses, sugar and spices and 5 dashes of the walnut bitters if using. Cover and cook on very low setting for 1 hour (45 minutes for boneless chicken pieces) Check every once in a while, stirring to ensure that the walnuts are not sticking to the bottom.
- Remove from the heat and taste to see if you want more sugar or seasoning. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Garnish with pomegranate seeds and crumbled walnut halves.
- Serve with the Jewelled Cauliflower 'Rice' below.
- Pulse the cauliflower florets in a food processor until small, rice-like size. Set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet at med-high pan and saute the fennel and cumin seeds for 5 minutes. Watch to make sure they don't scorch.
- Add the onion and bay leaf, and saute until softened. about 5 minutes. Add the ground spices. Stir to coat the onion well. Reduce heat to medium and cook onion another 10 minutes.
- Add all the cauliflower, and stir to warm through, about 8-10 minutes.
- Add the saffron and soaking water. Cook 1 minute. Remove the bay leaf.
- Add the dried fruit, julienned orange rind, nuts, and drained barberries. Stir to combine.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Transfer to serving bowl. Garnish with the pomegranate seeds and chopped mint.
- Chopped cilantro may replace the mint if so desired.
- I always need to add a touch of heat to my dishes. So to the Fessenjan I add 1/8 tsp hot pepper flakes.