Khoresh-e fesenjoon (Persian chicken stew with pomegranate and walnuts)

Khoresh-e fesenjoon, or Persian chicken stew with pomegranate and walnuts.
Khoresh-e fesenjoon, or Persian chicken stew with pomegranate and walnuts. Photo: Con Poulos/The New York Times

Fesenjoon, or fesenjan, hails from the verdant northern Iranian hills and coast, where pomegranate and walnut trees grow. The sweet and sour flavours of the pomegranate juice and molasses, along with the silky texture the walnuts bring to the stew, make it one of the most elegant dishes in Persian cuisine. I had an aversion to fesenjoon when I was a child, but in my teenage years it became my favourite dish. I begged my mum to prepare it for me nonstop.

Ingredients

4 cups walnut halves

6 to 8 bone-in chicken thighs (about 1kg)

1 tsp ground turmeric

fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

4 cups pomegranate juice

¼  cup good-quality pomegranate molasses, plus more as needed

¼  tsp crumbled saffron threads

1 to 2 tsp sugar (optional)

pomegranate seeds, for garnish

Method

1. Heat oven to 180C. Spread walnuts out on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown inside, about 12 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. Remove chicken skin and discard or save for another use. In a large bowl, season the chicken with turmeric, two teaspoons salt and half a teaspoon of pepper. Set aside.

3. Set a large Dutch oven or similar heavy pot over medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add oil and carefully lay chicken thighs into the pot in a single layer. It is crucial to leave space between the pieces to allow steam to escape, so brown chicken in batches if necessary. Cook until browned on both sides, flipping halfway through, three to four minutes per side. Remove chicken from pot and set aside. Add onion to pot with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring regularly, until soft and golden brown, 16-18 minutes.

4. In a food processor, grind the cooled walnuts as finely as possible without turning them into a paste. (Alternatively, you can chop the walnuts as finely as possible by hand.) Add two cups pomegranate juice and quarter of a cup of molasses to the walnuts and continue blending until you have a very smooth paste.

5. Add the walnut paste and remaining pomegranate juice to the pot. Season with salt and partly cover with a lid. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for about two hours. If the sauce begins to stick, stir in quarter of a cup of water. The sauce will thicken and change colour as it cooks, turning a deep, dark brown.

6. Add the saffron, and taste the sauce. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and pomegranate molasses as needed. The sauce should be delightfully sweet and sour, so add up to two teaspoons sugar, if needed, if it's too tart.

7. Add the chicken to the sauce and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, or until chicken is falling off the bone. Keep stirring regularly – the sauce should be thick, but not so thick that it sticks to the bottom of the pot, so add a splash of water as needed to prevent burning. Use a large spoon to skim away any walnut oil that has pooled on top of the stew. Taste and adjust seasoning, transfer to a serving dish and garnish with a sprinkling of fresh pomegranate seeds. Serve hot, with Persian rice, mast-o khiar and salad-e Shirazi if you like.

This is one of Samin Nosrat's 10 essential Persian recipes.

Samin Nosrat is the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and star of the related Netflix show. This recipe originally appeared in The New York Times.