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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Eggplant Caviar and Muhammara

Mom’s broccoli casserole.

Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.

My eggplant caviar.

These are the dishes that will, without fail, provoke at least one or two members of the party to come up and ask “Can I puh-leeze have the recipe for that??”

When it comes to my eggplant caviar, well, for a long time I didn’t have a recipe. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t my recipe. I’d follow different variations of other people’s recipes until I finally just stopped using one. Sesame paste, cumin, salt, garlic, maybe a splash of lemon (or maybe not,) and just keep adjusting until it tastes right. (One time I did try a Greek version: no sesame or cumin, but a dash of red wine vinegar and lots more olive oil. Delicious, but doesn’t hit the same spot on my tongue.)

So after many requests, I finally decided one day to write the whole thing down. My recipe. Here it is:

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant caviar
3 small eggplants (330 grams)
2 Tablespoons tahina (sesame paste)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 Tablespoon olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 Tablespoon toasted pine nuts, optional

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F. Pierce the eggplants a few times with a fork or a sharp knife and place them on to an aluminum lined baking sheet.
Bake them in the oven, turning them over every 20 minutes or so, until the skin is blackened. You’ll know they’re done when the flesh inside feels totally soft and broken down when you prod them with a spoon. This can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 100 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the eggplant, and the room temperature.

Let the eggplants cool – then, cut them lengthwise in half one by one, and scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Combine all other ingredients and blend with a hand blender (or transfer to a food processor and mix until fine.)

This is best prepared a few hours in advance so that the flavors can blend together. Refrigerate it while it’s resting, but take it out 30 minutes before you plan to serve. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and, if you’re feeling fancy, some toasted pine nuts. Serve with pita bread or crackers.

The next-most-popular dip I bring to parties is based on a Persian / Middle Eastern dish, Muhammara. The sweet and savory combination of red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses is a crowd pleaser.

Pomegranate trees in Iran

Muhammara isn’t very photogenic, but this pomegranate trees is.

Muhammara
1.5 cups (120 grams) walnuts
4 roasted red peppers (230 grams) drained
1 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 clove garlic, pressed

Toss all ingredients in a blender or in a bowl with a hand mixer. Blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature with pita bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

A friend of mine told me she’d met a woman who’d asked her to do a reading in a bathtub.

“What do you mean? Like, with water in it? Naked? Or with clothes on?”

“She’s going to host a literary salon in her home and she wants to cover her bathroom in red velvet. She wants me to read from the bathtub, with LOTS OF BUBBLES. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll have anything on underneath.”

“Ok, wow, count me in. But she’s going to have food, right? Does she have anyone preparing food? What about beverages?”

I’d bugged Shannon two or three times to know who was preparing the food for this thing, and let her know that if the author in question needed help preparing the food I’d be happy to lend a hand. Finally, about a week before the first event, I got a phone call from Anne.

“I would love your help preparing the food!”

The food for first salon was fairly low-key, planned only a few days in advance: beet tartare served in endive leaves, polenta topped with roasted peppers and chorizo, deviled eggs, etc.

The Kingdom of Flowers

The Kingdom of Flowers

The second salon I helped to cater would be deemed the Kingdom of Flowers, with big ideas to tantalize guests with flower-inspired treats. Orange blossoms? Lavender? Roses? Acacia flowers? And what to pair with it – chocolate? Almonds? Meringue? Vanilla? Lemon? My mind wandered…

Lavender Meringues

Lavender Meringues

After lots of thinking, lots of testing, lots of feeding of cupcakes to colleagues and friends, I came up with the menu:

  • Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting
  • Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant
  • Lavender Meringues
  • Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake
Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting

Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting

Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake

Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake

I bring you my favorite recipe amongst the bunch, which has become my go-to chocolate dessert (and it’s gluten free!)

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

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Roasted Apricot Caprese with Pomegranate-Chipotle Sauce

Roasted Apricot Caprese with Pomegranate-Chipotle Sauce

Roasted Apricot Caprese with Pomegranate-Chipotle Sauce

An ode to the apricot, part one: savory version

Sometimes inspiration suddenly strikes in the most unlikely of places, for no known reason. Sitting in the metro line 9, riding home from work, I thumbed through the last few chapters of The God Of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, but some back portion of my brain was concentrating on dinner.

My brain silently scanned the pantry as I read on about the escapades of Rahel and Estha in Kerala. Pomegranate molasses, yes… Chipotle perhaps? And isn’t there some mint? Dum dum…

Once home, I emptied the pantry for all the likely culprits who could help enhance my dinner. The vinegars, the oils – the nuts, seeds, dried fruits. The herbs already perched along the countertop watched and waited with anticipation as I threw bits and bobs into the blender.

The meal that evening (already-cooked couscous with turmeric cauliflower,) got lathered in this special sauce with a few additions (chicken drumsticks, roasted apricots, and basil,) and Eurkea! An idea for an excellent starter was born.

I give you this, to relish now while the apricots are abundant and ripe in the Northern hemisphere. If you don’t have a chipotle-peppers-in-adobo-supplier wherever you are, I’m sorry. Try Amazon.

Roasted Apricot Caprese with Pomegranate-Chipotle Sauce

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Picking Pomegranates in Greece

“How does the dip get such a smoky taste? How can you mimic this at home?” I ask, baffled at how delicious simple things like eggplant dip, yogurt, and fried zucchini taste in this country.

“You have to put a couple of pieces of burnt wood in the oven – in the bottom, so that the eggplant gets the flavor of the smoke.”

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Eggplant spread and sesame-honey cheese

Last week, I turned 30 – and one of my birthday gifts was a trip to Thessaloniki to meet family friends and eat our way through town.

The French fries are sprinkled with oregano. The cheeses are all names I’ve never heard of (except, of course, for the feta and halloumi) and are served baked with tomatoes, fried, or covered with sesame seeds and honey (we ordered two of those…) The smoked mackerel with red onions has the same deep wood flavor as the eggplant dip – not like the peppery kind I buy at home in Paris.

“What is this white stuff with the octopus?” thinking it was a sort of a labneh, the Lebanese cheese spread – the waiter looked at me and replied with a simple shrug. “It’s yogurt.” I had imagined I’d be wowed by the yogurt in Greece but this exceeded my expectations.

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

Grilled octopus with seaweed and yogurt

In one of the food markets, a sweet street dog sleeps in front of a stand of salt cod.

In another, fishmongers shout prices of neatly presented octopi – the legs rolled under the bodies so that the carcasses look like sweet seafood flowers.

Lunch in a market fish tavern brings a spare guitar; a bourgeois-looking man who could be a city council member takes up the opportunity to play with an excellent errant accordion player. The other diners sing along to well-known Greek folk songs.

An accordion player at lunch

An accordion player at lunch

Dinner in a rebetika tavern listening to sad folk songs, and a first taste of retsina – a white wine flavored with pine resin. An acquired taste, it goes well with the cold dishes we order first – some perfect tzatziki (“this one is mixed with garlic spread,”), more smoked mackerel, fava bean purée (served with a dash of capers – the perfect addition of salt to the smooth spread.)

Rebetika - Greek folk music - at dinner

Rebetika – Greek folk music – at dinner

Fava bean purée

Fava bean purée

During the day, we climb narrow cobblestone graffiti-ridden streets to the castle at the top of the hill. I admire the pomegranates bursting from trees on small front lawns of colorful urban homes.

Each tree I see, I hope to spy a fruit that I can pick without a ladder. Finally on a small square there is a public tree – with fruits so ripe they’ve burst open on the branch. I climb, grab my prize, and snack on it the rest of the way up the hill.

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

Pomegranate / Grenade / ρόδι

The icing on the cake was a Sunday morning post-hotel-breakfast treat at Hatzis (http://chatzis.gr/), one of the city’s famous pastry shops, for a buffalo milk and rosewater custard. “I can practically taste the grass the buffalo must have eaten,” the flavor is so surprising and unfamiliar to me.

Buffalo milk - rosewater custard

Buffalo milk – rosewater custard