Persian Chicken and Walnut Stew

Occasionally as I explore the endless world of culinaria I come across some new ingredient that so piques my curiosity that I have to find a reason to use it for its own sake.  In this instance the ingredient was pomegranate molasses. I found it while browsing the Middle Eastern foods section at Jungle Jim’s International Market, which is the ultimately foodie mecca in the Cincinnati area.  Unable to resist the mystique of this very exotic sounding concoction, I scooped up a bottle to take home – where it spent the next several months in my pantry as I inevitably got distracted by a hundred other culinary enthusiasms in the weeks that followed.  At length I remembered it was there and found a good excuse to use it. Here was the result:

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Today’s dish is of Persian derivation, and goes by the traditional name of Fesenjan chicken stew.  It is extremely easy to put together, but requires at least a little patience due to the slow braising technique that produces fall-apart tender chicken and a bright, tangy sauce that will leave you wanting more.  Here are your ingredients to make 6-8 servings:

  • 3 cups walnuts
  • 2 oz. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 3 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 2 large onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 qt. chicken stock, simmering
  • 1 bottle (10 oz.) pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Sliced green onions for garnish
  • Cooked basmati rice

Start by preheating the oven to 350°.  Line a baking sheet with foil and spread out the walnuts in a single layer.  Roast them for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the oven to cool.  When they are fully cooled, use your food processor to finely chop them, and set them aside for now.  Turn your oven down to 300°.

For the main braise I would recommend a very large, deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid that can safely go into the oven.  I used a 6-quart size, which worked well, but you will need at least 4-quart capacity.  A Dutch oven is also a good option here.  If you have none of those in your kitchen, you can also transfer the food from your skillet to a suitably sized casserole dish.  I prefer to use the same cooking vessel for two reasons:  first, to make sure I’m not leaving behind any flavor; and second, to cut down on dirty dishes.

Start by heating half each of the oil and butter over medium heat.  Using half of the chicken in the first batch, sear the thighs for about 5-8 minutes on each side until lightly browned, then set them aside on a plate.  Add the remaining oil and butter, and sear off the remaining chicken.  Then, using the drippings still in the pan, sauté the onions until caramelized and tender, which should take about 10 minutes.  Don’t be shy about putting some nice rich color in them.

When the onions are finished browning, return the chicken to the skillet.  Deglaze with the hot chicken stock, making sure to scrape all the flavorful stuck-on bits from the bottom of the pan.  Let the stock come up to a boil, then back it down to a simmer, and stir in the walnuts, molasses, brown sugar and salt.  Cover the skillet and pop it into the oven to braise for 2 hours.

When that two hours is nearly over, prepare some basmati rice to serve as the bed underneath your stew.  The finished product will have a thick, rich, intensely flavorful sauce, and the rice will provide a perfect canvas on which to highlight it.  The final result will be brightly acidic, fruity, and subtly sweet, with a rustic, hearty texture and big tender chunks of chicken that literally fall apart at the slightest touch.  The last step is to garnish with the sliced green onions.  We gobbled this down with much enthusiasm, and big happy grins all around.  Pomegranate molasses?  My new best friend – until the next awesome thing catches my fancy. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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