Saveur (March 2012)
We tweeted about this when it arrived in our mailbox, but we are really loving the March issue of Saveur. It's extremely enjoyable cover-to-cover, from a decadent feature on Southern layer cakes (including a touching coming-out story by the author, Ben Mims), to a delectable tour of Venetian bar bites (called cicheti), to a very cool story on the food of Transylvania (insert blood joke here).
Oh, and on p. 18, there's a screenshot of our very own The Bitten Word, encouraging readers to nominate blogs for Saveur's annual Best Food Blog Awards, one of which we won last year.
But it was the issue's feature on the food of Iran, titled "The Land of Bread and Spice," that drew our eye. It includes a host of wonderful, exotic dishes -- a noodle soup, herb meatballs in a tomato-plum sauce, a dish of lima beans with eggs and dill.
More than anything, though, we wanted to make this Chicken and Walnut Stew. With its mix of walnuts and pomegranate molasses, and the promise of "sweet, sour and bitter notes," it sounded unlike anything we'd ever tried before.
As exotic as this mix of flavors is, all of the ingredients should be familiar, except perhaps the pomegranate molasses. We had a bottle leftover from many moons ago, when a recipe for Roasted Red Onions with Pomegranate, Orange, and Parsley Gremolata called for a quarter-cup of the stuff. We still had most of a bottle, so we were happy at the chance to finally use it up.
If you aren't familiar with pomegranate molasses, don't let the "molasses" part of the name fool you: It isn't sweet. It has the thick texture of molasses, but the flavor on its own is almost unbearably, overpoweringly tart. (Pay attention to that, because, like the gun in Act I of a Chekov play, this fact is going to be important later.)
So anyway, we set about making the soup. It's not hard, but it does take more than three hours, mostly due to the two hours that you simmer the walnuts. That was the single most interesting part of the recipe, actually -- we were so intrigued by the idea of a soup where the entire base is puréed walnuts. The rest of the soup is pretty simple: Sauté the chicken and onions and spinach and then add them to the walnuts and pomegranate and sugar. The end!
So. The flavor.
It's not good. We wanted so badly to like this stew. But we sat down to eat it, took two bites, and declared it inedible. It's not that it tastes bad, exactly. It's that the tartness and sourness of the pomegranate molasses is just so overpowering, it's impossible to eat without grimacing into a pucker face every time you take a spoonful.
Never before have we rechecked a recipe so many times: Two cups of pomegranate molasses? Seriously, two cups? Can that be right?
We also had a major (but less damning) problem with the consistency of our chicken. Following the recipe, we cooked the chicken as instructed and then simmered the walnut butter for two hours. As a result, the sautéed chicken and spinach sat for two hours before we added it back into the soup. Once added to the finished soup, the chicken was dried out and as tough as jerky. It's possible we overcooked it, of course, but we can't imagine we could have overcooked it that much.
Also, the two cups of spinach might as well not exist in this recipe. It gets completely lost in everything else. (Also, and this isn't an indictment of the recipe, but you would not believe how much turmeric we managed to get all over our kitchen. EVERYTHING was stained yellow! All the utensils we used for this stew were yellow, as was our sink, a few cabinet pulls, and the top of our blender somehow, which we didn't even use here. Nothing a good scrubbing couldn't fix, but it was seriously just a comical amount of yellow.)
How can we possibly save this? We're going to try this weekend. Maybe more sugar? (But then you'd just end up with a sweet chicken soup, which doesn't sound appetizing.) We might try salt -- there's none in the recipe. But the idea of salty/tart/sour doesn't seem so great either. Hmm...
A few thoughts for you if you want to try this:
-- Don't start by cooking the chicken. Start by puréeing the walnuts and simmering them in water. Then about 90 minutes later, sauté the chicken, onions and spinach and then add that mixture directly into the walnut/molasses/sugar broth.
-- Be sure not to overcook your chicken when you sauté it. The chicken will continue to cook in the soup.
-- Either omit the 2 cups of spinach or crank it up to 6 cups.
-- Start with a much, much smaller amount of the pomegranate molasses. Like half a cup or maybe 3/4 cup. Taste the soup and add more if you want. But we thought 2 cups made it unbearably tart.
-- When the recipe says to skim off any oil that rises while you're sautéing the walnuts, it's serious. We skimmed off almost a full cup of oil, and we could have gotten more.
We are very glad we tried this. It was an exotic dish that pushed us out of our comfort zone, and it mixed a few ingredients we'd never considered combining before. But we have to give this dish a thumbs down.
If you're familiar with Persian cuisine, care to tell us what went wrong? Or did this turn out right, and our taste buds just aren't attuned? Any thoughts on how we could rescue the stew as it is? Let us know!
1/4 cup canola oil
2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2 1/2 inch pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 tbsp. ground turmeric
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cups finely chopped spinach
1 1/2 lb. walnuts
2 cups pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup sugar
Sliced red onion, to garnish
1. Heat oil in a 12 inch skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, season chicken with salt and pepper, and add to skillet; cook, turning, until browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate; set aside. Add turmeric and onion; cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add spinach, cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, process walnuts in a food processor into a very fine paste, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a 6-quart Dutch oven, and heat over medium-low heat; cook until fragrant, about 15 minutes. Stir in 8 cups water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat; cook, skimming any oil that floats to the surface, until light brown and thickened, about 2 hours. Add molasses and sugar; cook until thickened once more, about 25 minutes. Add reserved chicken and onion-spinach mixture; cook until chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Garnish with onions.