Fesenjan is an extraordinarily rich dish that takes some time to prepare, and in Iran is often saved for special occasions, such as weddings and holiday celebrations.
But despite the lush flavor and texture, it's a simple dish as well. It has only a few ingredients; preparing it requires no special tools or techniques. It's something of a surprise that a dish of such complex flavors can be put together so easily.
The only trick is in the seasoning -- getting the correct balance of sugar, lemon and cinnamon -- and that is largely a matter of taste and experimentation.
And the long cooking time -- up to a couple of hours -- is key in developing the flavors. "It has to cook for a very long time, and when it becomes ready for you, it will tell you," says chef Michael Mir. "You cannot just serve it."
All three parts of the dish, the rice, the sauce and the chicken, can be made in advance. The rice and sauce both cook for a fairly long time, and won't be harmed by even longer cooking, as long as they're not allowed to burn. The chicken can be poached in advance, and kept in the refrigerator until ready to use. Warm it up in the microwave before topping it with the sauce.
Here is an adaptation of the fesenjan Mr. Mir serves at the Orchard Market cafe.
FOR THE SAUCE:
3 cups ground walnuts
half a large onion, finely grated
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup pomegranate paste or syrup
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon cinnamon (to taste)
4-5 cups water or fresh chicken stock
2 cups sugar (to taste)
1/4 cup lemon juice (to taste)
FOR THE CHICKEN:
5 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 cup onion, finely grated
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE RICE:
2 cups rice, preferably basmati, though long-grain will do
water (see instructions)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon salt (divided use)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (divided use)
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup boiling water
Start the rice first. In a large bowl, rinse rice very gently in lukewarm water, swirling carefully by hand; don't break the grains. Keep replacing the water as it becomes milky. When water runs off rice fairly clear, pour off the wash water, then add enough fresh water to top rice by 1 inch. Immediately pour on 1/2 cup salt. (The salt helps keep the grains from breaking; it will all be rinsed off later, so don't skimp at this point.) Let sit at least 15 minutes, and as long as an hour, depending on how much time you have.
The longer the rice cooks, the better it will be. Count on at least half an hour; an hour and a half would be better. Time the cooking backward from your desired serving time. When you are ready to put it on, bring a large pot of water to boil; add 1 tablespoon of salt. Cook until rice is half-done -- the longer it has soaked, the more rapidly it will reach that stage. Don't let it get overdone! It should be soft on the outside and just chewy (not hard) on the inside, rather like al dente spaghetti. When it reaches that point, remove it from the heat and pour into a large colander. Rinse with lukewarm water and let drain for a couple of minutes.
Return the pot to the stove and put 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in the bottom. Return the rice to the pot, gently mounding it to the center in a sort of pyramid shape. In a measuring cup or small pitcher, whisk together the 1/4 cup oil and 1/4 cup hot water; immediately "shower" over the rice by pouring it through a slotted spoon. Move the spoon around to distribute the shower evenly.
Wrap pot lid with a clean kitchen towel or several layers of paper towels; it should fit tightly on pot. If it's loose, put something heavy over it -- such as a bowl or another pot -- to hold it down.
Cook the rice over very low heat until ready to serve. Check at intervals to make sure it's not burning.
As the rice cooks, it becomes light and fluffy. If it cooks long enough, the rice on the bottom of the pan becomes transformed into "tadiq" -- a crunchy, golden, roasted layer that is considered a great delicacy. (Persian cooks gently lift out the steamed rice, then turn the pan over a plate and tap the bottom with a spoon. A good tadiq should drop onto the plate in a perfect circle, which can then be sliced like a pie and served with the chelo. If it doesn't come out initially, however, you must scrape it out. It will still be delicious, and if you don't tell them, your diners will never know.)
Just before serving, grind the saffron with the sugar in a small mortar and pestle. Pour ground mixture into a small bowl, pour the 1/4 cup boiling water over it, and stir to blend.
Remove several tablespoons of rice from the pot and place in the bowl, stirring them gently until they are infused with the golden color of the saffron. Top each serving with a little of the saffron rice.