If you spoke the name in public, I’m certain you’d get people’s attention. The name sounds both exotic and silly. It’s as if you found a new and wonderful new rhyme for that trite, horrible collection of “moon,” “June,” and “swoon”: “Eating fesenjoon under the moon in June will surely, surely make you swoon. Oh yeah…” Fuk that shit. We’re not here to make English Majors cringe. It’s about the good that we can make.
So what is Fesenjoon? Well, to save explanation, you might as well head back, before the Phoebe posts, to the “Back Home Again” post. So here’s the typically verbose recipe:
1 cup shelled pistachio nuts (preferably not salted).
1 cup walnuts
1 cup water
½ tablespoon corn starch or arrowroot powder
½ bottle Pomegranate molasses (or syrup—but not juice!)
Juice of a freshly-squeezed lime.
6 pieces boneless and skinless chicken thighs—sliced somewhat thin and with the grain
1 large onion—slice into very thin ribbons
2 “cups” basmati rice
½ large onion or 4 golf ball-sized stewing onions
1 generous pinch of saffron threads
2 tbls olive oil
¼ cup crushed lightly salted pistachio nuts. If your pistachios
Making The Rice:
If you have a rice cooker, it’s often a good idea to start the rice first. Depending on how much rice you will be making, it could take longer than you think. 2 “cups” generally takes just under 20 minutes. If you do not have a rice cooker, pursue instructions elsewhere and gauge your time accordingly, because you will have to tend it while you work on the main dish.
Half the onion(s) with a longitudinal cut and then slice into paper-thin ribbons. This is best accomplished with latitudinal finishing cuts, across the grain of the onion. Sauté the onions in olive oil. Once thoroughly soft and translucent, crumble in a few pinches of saffron. Stir until the onion is well colored by the saffron. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside.
Prep your rice cooker, having readied it with basmati rice already measured, rinsed, and watered for the amount you wish to serve. When you add the water for the rice, short it by just a hair: The moisture difference will be made up by the saffroned onions you will next add. Be sure to stir and mix in the onions in a bit, to insure that the rice and onion will blend together as they cook.
Once the rice is done cooking, immediately toss the rice about in the cooker with a spatula. That will help keep the basmati grains from getting too sticky—as well as insure that the saffron and onions are well blended with any rice that isn’t coated.
This can be done anytime from the day before, an hour before, or while preparing and cooking the other ingredients. So how well can you juggle? Are you Man or Woman enough?
In a large skillet, lightly toast 1 cup of walnuts over high heat (Use medium heat, if you’re using an electric range. Otherwise, resort to high gas heat and maintain vigilance). Keep the nuts constantly moving, as they will easily burn and turn bitter if left sitting for too long.
When the walnuts become fragrant, pour them off to briefly cool. Next, do the same with the pistachio nuts. Rubbing together a small handful of pistachios at a time together, in your hands before toasting, will remove the bitter skin that tends to cling to the nuts after the shells have been removed. Since pistachios are already roasted to split their shells, they don’t need to be toasted that long. Simply rub your nuts before toasting. Uhh… Umm… Err… Please censor your own skeevy thoughts before continuing.
After toasting the nuts, place them into a food processor and chop them to a medium texture. What you don’t want to do is to create a fine meal of the nuts. Fesenjoon is most enjoyable if the texture and flavor of the nuts can be experienced somewhat separate from the rest of the flavors.
Next, pour a cup of water into a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the cornstarch, and whisk until bubbles form and the liquid just begins to thicken. Add the chopped nuts. Lower the temperature to medium-low and continue stirring with the whisk.
At some point, the oils of the nuts will begin to emerge and separate from the slurry. This may or may not be obvious; however, the sauce will certainly become noticeably fragrant. Something like 2 hours will have elapsed by now. Then again, maybe less. What is important is that the nuts are releasing their essential oils into the sauce. The smell will tell. This is when the pomegranate molasses needs to be added.
With the pomegranate added, the sauce will taste very tart/sour. Add honey to taste. It is up to you to decide how sweet or tart you want your fesenjoon. Between sugar and honey, you need to decide which suits your tongue. The measurements are pretty much the same–so don’t worry anything beyond the taste profile.
Even with the burner at low, heavy bubbling can and will be present as the sauce thickens. Be very careful it doesn’t burn: A thick sauce is desirable—but not a burnt one. Bitterness is not a part of the picture.
Once thick, take the pan off heat. Here, you can cool and refrigerate the sauce for the following day. Otherwise, just move the pan to an unused part of the stovetop and wait for the next stage.
Note on Onions:
I’ve heard/read white onions are preferred. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if a sweet onion might work as well or better. Since I didn’t have white onions on hand, I resorted to half of a sweet onion that I had lying around and half of a yellow. I didn’t notice any problems in the end. It all tasted balanced.
Cutting & Slicing the Onion
Cut your onion of choice longitudinally in half. Do not cut across the belly of the onion. Never do this! There is a reason why: If you split the root knot in half with your cut, the onion will stay together through to the end of your slicing. Also, keeping the root knot present allows the cook to peel back the skin and provide a final handhold when slicing reaches the very end of the onion. This also minimizes onion waste. Why else do you see professional chefs all slice onions in this way? It’s about control over your ingredients. Haphazard preparation yields haphazard flavor.
So, with a very sharp knife, slice the onion into very thin ribbons. Again, this is only possible if you did first half the onion as instructed. Why thin ribbons again? Take note about how the chicken is going to be prepared.
Back to the Chicken
Slice up the boneless and skinless chicken thighs—somewhat thin and with the grain. Strands are what you want. Ultimately, the choice is yours and will be based on the oral and visual texture of the final plate. Always think ahead with your mouth, and taste with your brain. Imagine a tangle of chicken strands and onions ribbons both mopping up and bound together by the sauce.
Many other recipes call for whole pieces of chicken—plus long cooking times. If you do not wish to spend something in the ballpark of three or more hours in the kitchen, go with skinless and boneless chicken. The reason for cutting the meat into strands is for speed of cooking and texture. This surely must be part-and-parcel of the essence of short order cooking.
Start Cooking the Rice:
Push the “cook” button on your rice cooker. Now!
Cooking the Chicken:
Pour two (or even four) tablespoons of olive oil into a large sauté pan over high gas heat (medium to medium-high heat if using an electric range). When the oil is shimmering and not smoking, put in the onion and sauté until translucent. Do not let the onion burn. Once the onion is translucent, add the chicken and lightly brown.
Time to Combine:
Here, you can either bring the Fesenjoon sauce back up to temperature and add the chicken or simply dump the glop in with the browned chicken and onions. Add salt to taste and cook at low to medium-low for 10 to 20 minutes and at a gentle boil. Lower the temperature if needed to keep the boiling soft. This is the point when to make any last minute adjustments in the taste: Check for salt and sweetness. Add more salt or honey, if needed. Finish by stirring in fresh-squeezed lime juice.
Create a nice mound of the saffron basmati rice in the middle of a large plate and nestle an abundant scoop of fesenjoon in the middle. Top with a splash of chopped Italian broad-leafed parsley and some crushed pistachio nuts. Then stand back and admire the contrast between green scatter of parsley and pistachio over the deep brown of the fesenjoon and yellow-orange of the saffron basmati rice. It’s a beautiful thing.