Braised Pomegranate Chicken with Walnuts is a Persian dish with a rich creamy nut sauce. This dish is also known as Fesenjan.
Recently, my husband and I were treated to a traditional Georgian feast, and I mean feast! When my husband first told me about this special Georgian get together, I naively thought he meant Georgian as in the state of Georgia. Then, I realized it had to be sometime different, something I had never experienced. And let me tell you, it was definitely one of the most entertaining and fun nights I’ve had in a long time.
Little did I know that it was the Georgian New Year’s Eve that evening, which falls on January 14th of each year. We were seated next to a very long table of local Georgians who entertained us all night singing traditional Georgian songs, performing Georgian dances (the guys can get down really low!), and toasting the night away (Georgians are a happy people who toast a lot and stand on their chairs when they toast). I just love observing the traditions of different cultures.
And the food? Well, let’s just say that when our host, who is Georgian, said he was basically going to order the entire menu, our jaws dropped. The 12 course authentic Georgian feast we were treated to was awe-inspiring, with walnuts playing a major role in practically every dish. There were spinach walnut balls, red kidney beans in walnut sauce, eggplant with walnut, chicken with walnut, dates with walnut, almost anything with walnut. I left that evening so excited and inspired by this magical evening with our generous hosts (the free entertainment from our neighboring table didn’t hurt), that I became obsessed with learning more about Georgian cuisine, and namely, all Georgian dishes made with walnuts.
For those of you who don’t now where Georgia is (I was one of them), Georgia straddles Western Asia and Eastern Europe. To its west is the Black Sea, to the north is Russian, to the south are Turkey and Armenia, and to the east is Azerbaijan. So, Georgian cuisine is influenced by Russian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
What intrigued me about the dishes from that evening was that walnuts were used as an integral part of each dish, not just as a garnish. Sure, I’ve tossed walnuts in with banana bread or on top of muffins. I throw them on top of hot breakfast cereals, salads and soups regularly too. But, I’ve never really cooked with walnuts, where walnuts are the star of the show. I did a little more digging and found that walnut sauces are used in lots of Mediterranean foods, including Turkish Tarator (a walnut and garlic sauce), Italian Sugo alle noci (walnut sauce served with pasta), and a Persian dish called Fesenjan (a pomegranate walnut chicken stew). Given how widespread walnut sauce is used, I can’t believe I’ve never come across it before.
Given my recent obsession with walnuts, I knew I had to try making this Persian Braised Pomegranate Chicken with Walnuts recipe when I spotted it in edible: A Celebration of Local Foods, a cookbook by Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian. Known in Iran as Fesenjan, this Pomegranate Chicken with Walnut dish is considered a special occasion dish and is supposed to be thick and rich, with a sweet and sour flavor. Sometimes made with pomegranate molasses, or this case, pomegranate juice, the gravy relies on ground walnuts for its thickness.
Since I’ve been experimenting a lot with walnuts in savory dishes recently, I was especially curious about the amount of walnuts used in the recipe as the headnote mentions that the sauce is quite thin, and that more walnuts can be added for a thicker sauce. As I researched other recipes for Fesenjan, I found that most recipes use a 1/2 pound or about 2 cups of walnuts, a lot more than the two tablespoons called for in the recipe I was trying. I decided to meet halfway by using 1 cup of walnuts as I felt 2 cups was a lot of walnuts.
When I first photographed this Pomegranate Chicken with Walnuts dish, I plated the chicken as it came out of the pan, but I wasn’t too happy with how liquidy the sauce was, so I decided to reduce the walnut sauce further. The result? I loved how rich, smooth and thick the sauce turned with a bit more cooking time. The sauce actually became darker too.
When the kids asked what was for dinner, I gave them my pat response, “chicken.” “What kind of chicken?” they pressed. “Chicken with kind of a sweet and sour sauce.” I didn’t want to say walnut sauce for fear it might cause eyeballs to roll. Sometimes less information is better until the ultimate taste test…my little guy loved the sauce and asked for extra, and the older boys mopped up the walnut sauce with their rice.
I served this Braised Pomegranate Chicken with Walnut Sauce with Scented Saffron Rice and Roasted Cauliflower “Gratin.” I’ll be sharing the Scented Saffron Rice Recipe soon, and the Roasted Cauliflower “Gratin” was simply my go-to Roasted Cauliflower recipe sprinkled with Mary Gone Cracker’s Gluten-Free Breadcrumbs.
Today, a group of food bloggers is celebrating Tracy Ryder and Carole Topalian among the 50 Women Game Changers in Food. Although I have to confess that I’d never heard of either one of these ladies, I have several of their Edible publications in my possession, including edible Hawaiian Islands, edible Blue Ridge, and edible Nutmeg. Ms. Ryder and Topalian “champion the idea that local seasonal food is good food.” They co-founded Edible Communities Publications, a network of 65 regional food magazines that celebrate a collection of local food throughout the U.S. and Canada. Their first book, Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods, celebrates local food heroes and traditions in North America, highlighting local foods from farmers, artisans, chefs and organizations that make a difference. Their goal is to “transform the way consumers shop for, cook, eat and relate to local food.” I love the concept that these two women have come up with, and the national impact they have had in promoting local foods.
If you like sweet and tangy, you will love this Pomegranate Chicken and Walnut dish. Don’t let the walnut sauce throw you. It is so rich and creamy that you will think it has to have butter and cream in it, but it doesn’t. You must top this dish off with pomegranate seeds – while flavorful on its own, it is a brown dish, so adding some color and pop to it makes it visually much more appealing.
Braised Pomegranate Chicken with Walnuts
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 - 3 1/2 pounds chicken parts my kids like drumsticks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or grapeseed oil
- 1 onion sliced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamon I used black cardamon, but I think green cardamon would be just fine
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup unsalted walnuts toasted, then finely ground in the food processor
- 2 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- a few tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
- lemon zest
Season chicken with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place chicken pieces in pan, single layer, making sure sides of chicken pieces do not touch. You want the chicken to brown, not steam. Brown all sides of chicken pieces nicely, about 4-5 minutes. You may need to do this in two batches depending o the size of your skillet. Remove chicken to a plate.
Add onion to pan and cook on medium-low until golden brown, about 7-8 minutes. Do not burn. Add garlic, cardamon, and cinnamon and cook, stirring continuously, for one minute.
Add ground walnuts and cook, stirring often, until toasted, about 2-3 minutes.
Stir in pomegranate juice, lemon juice and lemon zest. Cook for 2 minutes, scraping up brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Return chicken pieces to the pan and spoon some sauce on top of chicken. Bring to a oil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 30-35 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.
Remove chicken from pan and cover to keep warm. Reduce walnut sauce until it reaches the desired consistency.
Return chicken to pan and coat with sauce.
Before serving, sprinkle chicken with toasted walnuts, pomegranate seeds and lemon zest.
To make a thicker, creamier sauce, I increased the amount of walnuts in the recipe from 2 tablespoons to 1 cup. I also made a few modifications to the cooking technique. The original recipe adds the ground walnuts at the end of the cooking process. I chose to follow the traditional method of cooking the ground walnuts with the onions until browned (deepening the flavor of the walnuts), and letting the nuts braise with the chicken from start to finish. I also took the extra step of reducing the walnut sauce at the very end for a thicker sauce - it's really a matter of preference, depending on whether you like a thick or thin sauce. I ended up with a creamy, thick sauce with no little walnut pieces floating around.
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