“TASTE THIS,” said my Persian pal as he stood at the stove lifting a spoon in my direction. Decades later, I can still see his cocked eyebrow as he waited for my reaction. And whoa! Did I have one.
Whatever I was tasting, it was intensely sour, but also spectacularly sweet. And the texture? Nubbly. Nutty? My culinary compass went wacky as I tasted again, trying and failing to determine what I was eating. Raisins? (Nope.) Almonds? (Nah.) But I knew this much: I wanted more.
Vahid had introduced me to khoresh-e fesenjan — a chicken-based stew thickened with ground walnuts and flavored with concentrated pomegranate paste. It’s a dish beloved by Iranians the world over, who this week celebrate their rite of spring: Nowruz, the Iranian New Year.
These days, pomegranate molasses, available at specialty markets and Middle Eastern groceries, is a pantry staple for savvy Seattle chefs and bartenders who use it to add its sweet-and-sour punch and scarlet hue to everything from cocktails (Serafina, on Eastlake) to foie gras panna cotta (Capitol Hill’s Canon) to chocolate budino (Agrodolce, in Fremont).
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But for me, the flavor will always be associated with my first eye-opening taste of fesenjan, a recipe I’ve since made my own by marrying the classic stew with my favorite technique for browning then roasting spice-rubbed chicken thighs over high heat.
A natural cook who was most at home in the kitchen, Vahid taught me to carefully rinse, soak, briefly cook then steam basmati rice into perfectly succinct grains; to grind saffron strands with a pinch of sugar before diluting them; and to make nan-e barbari from scratch, using yogurt to gloss the surface and the side of my index finger to create ridges in the flatbread.
Were he still around today, I’d make him this fesenjan, serve it with rice and barbari and (doing my best impression of a Farsi-speaking Julia Child) say: “Nooshe-jan!”
For the chicken
8 bone-in chicken thighs
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
For the sauce
2 cups walnuts, finely ground
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups diced onion
¼ teaspoon saffron dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
½ cup pomegranate molasses stirred into 2 cups warm water
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Pat the chicken dry. In a small bowl, mix the cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rub the spice mixture over the chicken. Set aside.
2. In a large (dry) pan, toast the ground walnuts over medium-low heat, stirring and keeping a watchful eye until they begin to brown (about 5 minutes). Remove to a bowl and set aside.
3. Wipe out the pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and sauté the onions over medium heat until lightly brown (6 to 8 minutes). Stir in the saffron water and diluted pomegranate molasses. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens substantially (about 20 minutes).
4. In a large ovenproof skillet (I use a 12-incher) heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until hot but not smoking. Arrange the chicken, skin side down, in a single layer and cook over medium-high heat, turning once, until the skin is brown and just beginning to crisp (about 8 minutes total). Carefully spoon the fat from the pan and discard.
5. Pour the sauce over the chicken and place the skillet in the oven. Cook for 25 minutes. Serve with basmati rice.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.