Fruits of Paradise

18 Jan

I didn’t go to high school at one of those places you’ve seen in American teen films or TV. There were no long hallways with ranks of lockers, no cheerleaders, no dire cafeteria food. Before it became a high school, the land where it was built was an orange ranch. Ranks of trees stretched out around campus, and in early spring the scent of orange blossoms in the early morning drifted thickly through the air. This being southern California, there were also avocado trees, and scattered randomly, a few pomegranate trees.

One warm Friday afternoon in Spanish class, my classmates and I were getting fidgety. The weekend was so close, and our minds just couldn’t hold on to the poem we were meant to analyse. So my teacher, bless her, stood up and said (in Spanish) “We’re not getting any work done here. What would you guys like to do instead?” We clamoured to go outside and walk around, and she agreed, with the condition that if we spoke, it had to be in Spanish. So we all grabbed our things and trotted into the open air.

After a short walk, one of my classmates pointed to a tree and said “Los…pomegranates son listos!” My Spanish teacher corrected him “Esas llamamos granadas en español. (We call those granadas in Spanish). Having learned their new names, we picked the ripe fruit.

I’d never eaten a whole pomegranate before, and I was mystified at first. They looked impenetrable, at least without a knife. But I saw my classmates pry theirs apart, and followed suit. Inside was a cream-coloured membrane, studded with glowing garnet seeds. I munched each seed, marveling at the small sweet-sour explosions. The juices stained my fingertips bright red.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live in southern California to get the incredible taste of pomegranates. You can buy the fruit in supermarkets, or alternately you can try pomegranate molasses, which is just pomegranate juice reduced to a syrup. It packs a real tangy-sweet punch, and is great in salad dressings, and I’d imagine would make a nice variation on a kir.

Pom Molasses

But the molasses’ most famous culinary use is in a Persian chicken and walnut stew called fesenjan. The sourness of the fruit combines with the richness of walnuts and onion to make a warming and well-balanced stew. I accidentally put in too much chicken stock when I made it, so yours should not be as soupy!

I found my bottle of pomegranate molasses at Sainsbury’s, but if you don’t have any luck at a supermarket, you can find it at any store which stocks Middle Eastern ingredients.

Fesenjan (via Stewed! by Alan Rosenthal)

Serves 2

65g walnuts, toasted and finely ground (a blender or food processor will work best, but you can also use a pestle and mortar)
10g unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
0.25 teaspoon turmeric
0.25 teaspoon cinnamon
40g dried sour cherries
500g boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3-4cm pieces
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
250ml chicken stock
salt and pepper

Heat the butter and oil over a medium-low flame in a large sauté pan with lid or a casserole dish. Add the onion, cover and cook slowly for about 20 minutes, until the onions are soft and slippery but not brown.

Silky-soft onions.

Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. Then add the spices and the dried cherries, raise the heat to medium, and cook for another minute. Add the chicken to the pan and turn up the flame to medium-high, and fry the chicken until you can’t see any pink, around 5-6 minutes.

Add the pomegranate molasses and the ground walnuts to the pan. Stir, then add the stock and season. Heat to a simmer, then turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Dig in!

At the end, taste for seasoning, then serve over your starch of choice. I used quinoa, but you could also use pilaf or brown rice.

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