Iran, part two: Fesenjan

It should be no surprise that I have a thing for pomegranates.

Pomegranate

Pomegranate

One of the first times I ever organized a dinner party, in a tiny apartment in the 17th where I cohabited with a then-boyfriend, I wanted to make something with pomegranates. This was in 2008, I thought I was so clever when I googled the ingredients I wanted to use in order to find a suitable recipe.

The recipe that I found and ended up making was from a Persian cookbook writer I hadn’t heard of yet, and was for a dish I had never tasted. Khoresh-e-fesenjan, or Pomegranate Khoresh.

The dish was delicious, however the sauce was a bit thin. I would forget about it over time, and years later while preparing for my trip to Iran, I would re-learn about fesenjan: the magical pomegranate and walnut stew.

In Kashan, the mother of one of our CouchSurfing hosts had just finished making her yearly batch of pomegranate molasses, from her husband’s pomegranate trees cultivated on a small farming plot outside the city. She sells most of it to neighbors, keeping a few jars for the family’s yearly consumption.

Upon learning about this, my jaw dropped to the bottom limit of my hijab. “Could I try some?” Of course. Her mother appeared with a dollop of thick burgundy substance on a plate with a coffee spoon.

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Its taste is unlike anything else I’ve tried – it doesn’t have the same syrupy consistency as most of the Lebanese or Turkish pomegranate molasses I can find here in Paris, and it almost tastes as if it has vinegar added to it. (It doesn’t.) The secret is that she cooks the juice down for six hours, so the liquid evaporates and the natural sugars in the juice act as a thickening agent on the rest.

I sheepishly asked if, perhaps, there was enough leftover for me to purchase a kilo myself – and bring back home to Paris. Of course there was!

Pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate molasses

Her mother was touched that a foreigner was so interested in her cooking, and we had an exciting conversation about recipes translated through patient Fatema. What follows is the word-by-word verbatim, noted down in my journal, about how to make a proper fesenjan.

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A Tale of Two Courgettes

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Courgettes, waiting to be stuffed

Two courgettes walk into a bar.

One of them is standing upright, bowtie properly affixed; white oxford shirt tucked into his pleated khaki pants. The other looks like he had a rough night. Slooping slightly to the side, his hair is slick and syrupy. He’s got some kind of lanyard tied around his waist like a belt. His shoes are grimy, the leather well-worn, the soles falling off. His smell is a bit more pungent than the first courgette. Maybe a hint of musk?

“Man, what’d you get up to?” says the first courgette to the second.

In a refined Received Pronounciation accent, he raises his jaw line, straightens his posture, and says to the first courgette: “I spent the evening in a marvelous warm bath with a lovely cocktail of organic vegetable broth, sweet pomegranate molasses, plenty of dried mint, and heaps of freshly ground allspice.”

The first courgette begins to feel a bit intimated. Despite his sleek exterior, he knows deep down in his soul that he can’t hold a candle to this eloquent mess.

“Oh yeah, dried mint, I’ve got some of that too!”

“What a sweet elixir with crushed garlic cloves, and fresh cilantro finely chopped blended with the rice that fills my insides…”

The second courgette undoes his soiled white bowtie and sits on a stool. Raising his voice, he calls down the bar “Waitress, could I please have some Greek yogurt drizzled with blend of mint leaves and olive oil?”

“Uhh, and a sprinkling of parsley for me please!”

**********

I realized last week that there were recipes for stuffed courgettes in both Plenty and Plenty More, by Yotam Ottolenghi (for whom I have already proclaimed my fangirldom.) I’m unsure of why it took me so long to try either of them, but I decided to make them both back to back, a few days apart.

Stuffed Courgettes from Ottolenghi's Plenty (The First Courgette)

Stuffed Courgettes from Ottolenghi’s Plenty (The First Courgette)

Despite my narration above, I should insist that both recipes have merit. The first one is an excellent weeknight main dish, prepared in under an hour (simmer time: 40 minutes.) It is flavorful and healthy and not that complicated.

Stuffed Courgettes from Ottolenghi's Plenty More (The Second Courgette), just before cooking

Stuffed Courgettes from Ottolenghi’s Plenty More (The Second Courgette), just before cooking

The second one, however, takes the whole idea of a “bastardized version of a Turkish original” (as Ottolenghi so proclaims in Plenty) to a whole new level. More ground allspice, more dried mint, plus a tomato, cumin, some garlic, tons of chopped cilantro, and perhaps my most favorite ingredient in any sauce – pomegranate molasses. With a simmer time of at least 1 hour and a half, this is more suited to a weekend afternoon cooking project in advance of a dinner party. (He suggests you serve them the next day, cold or at room temp.)

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Stuffed Courgette from Plenty More – the Second Courgette, ready to be served

For the recipes: I’ll leave you to find the first here, on The Guardian.

For the second one, well, you’re just going to have to pick up a copy of the book.

One particularity to these recipes is that you’re not instructed to use the scooped-out courgette flesh in the stuffing. In order to do something with the flesh of the nine courgettes I stuffed last weekend, I made a simple cold vegetable soup.

First: sauté a chopped onion in some neutral-tasting vegetable oil. Once soft, add the courgette insides (and one more fully chopped courgette, if you have one – because the addition of some courgette skin will give the soup a nice color.) After about 3-5 minutes, cover the veg with broth (vegetable or chicken) and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and add one large skinned, seeded, chopped cucumber, and one or two avocados, cubed. Mix with a hand blender, allow to cool, and adjust seasonings (salt, pepper, lemon or lime juice, as you wish.) Makes for a delicious cold summer soup, even picnic-worthy if you have a clean empty juice jar lying around. (Made about six servings.)