The winter solstice, December 21, may be the darkest day of the year, but things only get brighter from here, and that’s a reason to rejoice. In Iran, Šab-e Yaldā has long been one of the biggest celebrations of the year, when friends and family gather to eat and drink into the wee hours. Pomegranates and walnuts are native to the country, and wintry, deeply flavored chicken Fesenjān is a classic of Persian cuisine.
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads (or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric)
- 2 cups walnut pieces, plus additional pieces for garnish
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 large onion, finely minced
- ²⁄₃ cup pomegranate syrup (available in better supermarkets and specialty stores), plus more to taste
- ½ cup finely grated carrot
- 1 tablespoon sugar, plus more to taste
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
Grind saffron and dissolve in 1 tablespoon hot water (skip this step if using ground turmeric). Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350˚F. Spread walnuts in single layer on baking sheet and bake until toasted, 8–10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then rub in a dish towel to remove some skin. Grind walnuts to fine powder in a food processor.
In heavy pot, heat 2 tablespoons oil over high heat. Season chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and brown on all sides. Set aside.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pot. Reduce heat to medium low, and add onions. Cook slowly until deep brown, about 20 minutes.
Add 1 cup water, and scrape up browned bits. Add walnut powder, carrot, cinnamon, sugar, saffron water and ½ teaspoon salt. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes. (Mixture will be very thick. Scrape bottom and add water, if necessary, to avoid burning.)
Add chicken, pomegranate syrup and ½ cup water. Cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until sauce becomes deep brown and texture of thick gravy, 1 hour. (Add water if too thick, or boil longer if too thin.) Season to taste with additional sugar, salt or pomegranate syrup. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and parsley. Serve with rice. Serves 4.
Darioush 2012 Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley); $62, 94 points. Stephen Kaplan of Rumi’s Kitchen in Atlanta, one of the few Persian restaurants in the U.S. to offer an extensive wine list, likes this offering from Napa’s Darioush Vineyards, owned by Iranian couple Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi. “It has bold dark-fruit flavors and a nutty earthiness, which pair perfectly with the thick pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts that make up the base of the Fesenjān,” he says. “The wine is blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, as well, for a touch of extra body to stand up to the weight of the dish without getting lost.”