It's no wonder fesenjan -- a Persian sauce for meat made of walnuts and pomegranates -- is among the most popular entrees Michael Mir serves to diners at his Orchard Market cafe: In Persian tradition, it promotes both love and health.
"Fesenjan is a very ancient dish," says Mr. Mir, who is owner and principal chef at the market/cafe tucked away on a side street in Towson. (It's pronounced FESS-in-juhn.) In the north of Iran, where there is a lot of rainfall, walnuts and pomegranates grow in profusion. "The people there are considered to be very healthy," Mr. Mir says, "because their cheeks always glow."
Walnuts and pomegranates are healthful things to eat, Mr. Mir says. Walnuts, even though they have oil, provide "a lot of energy." And pomegranates are believed to purify the lymph system and promote well-being.
Pomegranates, with their rich crimson color and interior full of plump, juicy, bright-red kernels, have a special role in Persian poetry and Persian folklore, Mr. Mir says; the lips of a beautiful woman are said to be "as red as the pomegranate." Babies and young girls are said to be "as beautiful as the pomegranate kernel."
Four main ingredients
As Mr. Mir describes it, fesenjan has just four main ingredients: Pureed or ground walnuts sauteed in a little bit of shaved onions, pomegranate paste, water or chicken stock; and sugar. It is seasoned with tomato paste, lemon juice and cinnamon, and served, elegantly, over poached chicken with basmati rice.
The preparation begins with grinding the walnuts. Mr. Mir uses a huge electric grinder -- he also grinds his own beef for cutlet and kebabs -- but home cooks can use a food processor. (The ground walnuts have a tendency to clump; you can use a spatula to break up the lumps between bursts of processing.) He recruits Naheed Vaszpour, his assistant in the kitchen, to hold the bowl while he pushes the walnuts into the grinder.
"If you want your fesenjan very creamy and very smooth, I recommend that you grind it at least three or four times," he says. "If you want to be able to feel a little bit of roughness in the sauce, twice. . . . We like to have our fesenjan not extremely smooth and silky, so we have only ground it twice.
Dish you should stay with
"Now we're going to get a semi-big pot, and get a couple of onions -- we sliver the onions, so they're small enough to melt away. You wouldn't want to see sliced onions in your sauce. So we have slivered onions, very fine, almost watery. . . . we're going to add just about half a cup oil -- we make sure we take out any big pieces of onions that there might be . . . and it's sauteed until it's golden brown. When it's nice and golden
brown, then we go ahead and pour our walnuts in.
"This is one dish you should definitely stay with; you cannot leave it or it would tend to burn. It becomes dry right away, but eventually you'll see moisture. At this point you shouldn't be scared it's burning . . . when it warms up to a certain point, its own oil will saute it."
The next step is adding the liquid; at the restaurant, Mr. Mir makes the sauce with water, but home cooks sometimes use chicken broth (homemade only; the canned and granulated types have too much salt for it).
A beautiful aroma
The walnut-onion and water mixture has come to a boil now. "See, it's becoming very foamy and very creamy." In goes a bottle of pomegranate paste. "It's becoming darker now . . . now you add cinnamon -- just to give it a beautiful aroma -- and we
think it makes the flavor very pleasant as well . . . and we just let it boil away until it's the perfect consistency."
The sauce should be nice and thick, but pourable, not gloppy.
"But one thing is that we need to stir it now and then," Mr. Mir says. The heavier ingredients tend to "go to the bottom," he says. "It will create a very thin crust and if you ignore it, that small crust will lose all moisture and burn. And if it burns, the aroma will ruin the whole thing.
"Now, what we do here, because this is our recipe -- this is our secret, I would say -- is to add a good spoonful of tomato paste." Walnuts have a rich, heavy taste, he explains, and the hint of tomato lightens the dish and gives a nice consistency.
Mrs. Vaszpour thinks the sauce is still a little too thick, so she adds more water.
"We're going to be cooking this for a long time, so whenever it becomes too thick, we just add water," Mr. Mir explains.
A fine balance
When the fesenjan gets to the right consistency it is time to add the sugar.
You add "a lot of sugar," he says. "Until it becomes not sour anymore. There's a fine balance between sweetness and sourness that you have to achieve."