Sunday, 28 February 2010

Najmieh Batmanglij's chicken fesenjaan

It's been a while since my birthday party, but I've promised a my dear friend Zanmei in Iraq to post the recipe for fesenjaan, that wonderful Persian pomegranate and walnut stew, so that she can try her hand at it with local ingredients.

Fesenjaan (or fesenjoon and various alternative spellings) is perhaps not the prettiest dish in the Persian culinary book, but the lip-smacking tart fruitiness and creamy texture are unrivalled. Not surprising, then, that this is a classic of Iranian cuisine.

It was also this dish that got me to thinking about a possible connection between Persian and Georgian cuisine when I first started reading about the latter. The walnut sauce connection is undeniable. As to which came first, who knows? It has to be said that Georgia does seem to have a larger canon of walnut-based sauces...

For all the stature this particular dish has in Iran, this was actually my first time to make it myself. Walnuts--and pomegranate paste, for that matter--are pricey luxuries here in Japan. But if you can't splurge on your birthday, when can you, eh? You can get both at Tehran Shop in Yokohama, and various shops in Ameyoko in Ueno, Tokyo sell bulk nuts cheaply, if you are making this in Japan.

This recipe comes from Najmieh Batmanglij's New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, the master work of the doyenne of Persian cooking. Najmieh khanom doesn't take shortcuts or spare the wallet. You've been warned (g).

For contrast, I've translated an alternative fesenjaan recipe, taken from the Ajiwai Kitchen segment of the NHK program Asia Crossroads, below Najmieh khanom's. I've not tried this version, but I probably will soon, as I am taking a cooking class with the guest cook on the Ajiwai Kitchen segment, Reza Rahbar. I'll let you know how that goes, shortly!

Pomegranate khoresh with chicken

Serves 6

2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 kg chicken legs or duck breast, skin removed and fut into bite-sized chunks
5 tbsp oil or butter [Saffron: you can get away with less]
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup pomegranate paste dissolved in 2 1/2 cups water, or 4 cups fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice
1 cup peeled and cubed butternut pumpkin (optional)
450 g shelled walnuts, chopped roughly
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water
2 tbsp sugar (optional)
Seeds of a fresh pomegranate, to garnish

1 In a large pot, brown onions and chicken in half the oil or butter. Add 1 tsp salt.

2 Heat 2 tbsp oil in a non-stick frying-pan and brown both sides of the butternut pumpkin, then set aside.

3 In a food processor, finely grind the walnuts, add the diluted pomegranate paste or pomegranate juice, cinnamon and saffron water and mix well to create a creamy paste.

4 Add the nut paste to the pot, stirring gently. If the pomegranate paste is too sour, add 2 tbsp sugar. Cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent the walnuts from sticking, until the oil from the nuts rises to the surface. Add the browned butternut pumpkin and simmer until tender.

5 Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning and thickness. If the stew is too thick, add warm water to thin it. The stew should taste sweet and sour according to your taste. Add pomegranate paste to sour the the taste or sugar to sweeten it.

6 Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with 2 tbsp fresh pomegranate seeds. Serve with steamed saffron rice.

Fesenjaan: Chicken stew with pomegranate and walnut

Serves 4

300 g chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tbsp pomegranate paste
70 g walnuts
1 pinch saffron threads
1 pinch sugar
2 tbsp boiling water
1 onion, sliced thinly
1 tsp plain flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
black pepper
1/3 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
pomegranate seeds, to garnish (optional)

1 Heat oil in a frying pan and fry onions gently until they start to change colour.

2 Add chicken and brown on both sides.

3 Add cinnamon, black pepper, flour and salt and stir.

4 Add walnuts and fry for 1 min. Remove chicken pieces and set aside. Transfer the remainder of the frying pan contents to a pot, add water and simmer over medium heat until the nuts give off their oil.

5 In a blender or food processor, reduce the nut mixture to a paste.

6 Return nut paste to the pot and add the browned chicken pieces. Simmer at a medium heat.

7 Gently grind saffron and sugar with a small mortar and pestle and mix in the boiling water to dissolve. Add the saffron water and pomegranate paste to the chicken and simmer for 20 minutes.

8 Garnish with pomegranate seeds.


Ottolenghi's eggplant kuku

Photo courtesy of my dear friend Malaka at Aloha Mahalo

I've been meaning to give kuku, the Iranian filled omlette/frittata, a go for the looooongest time. Considering I have numerous delectable-sounding recipes in various Iranian cookbooks, it is ironic that it took a recipe from an Israeli chef to get the ball rolling, but there you go...

I first had kuku in Iran while staying with my dear friend Gh's family in Shiraz. Although a family of gourmands, my hosts ate simply in the evening as the midday meal was the main meal of the day. If I remember correctly, we had kuku twice, once a potato version that we had for dinner wrapped in lavash bread. The second time, one that we took with pots of other delicacies, bread and soft drinks to a pretty spot for a night-time picnic!

Featuring saffron and tart zereshk (dried barberries) this Ottolenghi version from the chef's New Vegetarian column in the Guardian contains some of the essence of Iran in one delicious dish.

I made this for my 40th birthday celebration, and it was a big hit with both guests and cook (g). It can be made up in advance (I made it the night before the party) and just reheated in the microwave. It is also lovely at room temperature, so great for a picnic (any time of day).

I used homemade ghee (made by my dear Indian friend S's Mum) instead of oil for the onions and eggplant, and the results were sensational. Really sweet and rich.

Barberries are tiny berries less than half the size of a dried cranberry. They are super tart and feature in quite a few Iranian dishes. I had some dried barberries lying about (the fresh ones I have stashed in the freezer would've been even better), but they may not be so easy to come by. In Japan, Tehran Shop in Yokohama (directions in Japanese here) stocks them, and in Melbourne, Australia, I've seen them at NSM Importers & Wholesalers, just down the road from Brunswick Station. If you can't get them, Ottolenghi recommends substituting 1 tbsp of lime juice. A lot of the other kuku recipes I have also have lime juice in them, so it is quite authentic. Give it a go! I might even add BOTH next time round!!

The recipe calls for a 22 cm spring-form cake tin. I was using mine for the birthday cake (!), so this went in the oven right in the T-fal wokpan the onions and eggplant were cooked in. It came out perfectly without greasing and papering and that's how I will cook it from now on.

My dear friend and fellow foodie Malaka at Aloha Mahalo, who took the photo above, blogged about the food at my party in Japanese here. Thanks Malaka, this one's for you!

Ottolenghi's eggplant kuku

Serves 6

120 ml sunflower oil, plus extra
3 medium onions, peeled and sliced
3 medium aubergines, peeled
5 free-range eggs
2 tbsp plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
25g chopped parsley, plus extra to garnish
1 tsp saffron strands, dissolved in 1 tbsp of hot water
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
½ tsp salt
Black pepper
20g dried barberries, rinsed and dried

1 Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan and sauté the onions over medium heat for seven minutes, until soft but not brown.

2 Meanwhile, cut the aubergines in two widthways, cut each half into 1cm-thick slices, then cut each slice into 1cm-thick strips. Add these to the onion pan and cook on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for around 10 minutes, until the aubergines are completely soft (add a little more oil if needed, but not a lot). Set aside to cool down.

3 In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, flour, baking powder, parsley, the saffron and its water, garlic, salt and a good grind of pepper. Once smooth, fold in the barberries and the aubergine and onion mix.

4 Brush a 22 cm spring-form cake tin with plenty of oil, line with greaseproof paper and brush the paper with more oil. Pour the egg mix into the tin and bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden-brown and cooked through – insert a skewer in the middle to make sure the egg has set.
Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with parsley. It will keep in the fridge for two days.


A 40th birthday celebration

I celebrated my Big 4-0 in February and had the best time cooking up a storm to feed my guests.

As often happens given the month, there were some last minute cancellations.
The trains were also affected due to tsunami warnings after the massive earthquake in Chile. In our rush to get things ready for the party, none at the Saffron household had heard about that terrible tragedy.

I didn't really have a theme in mind for my party this time, but Iranian inspirations featured quite prominently in the end.

Here we have Iran's famed chicken fesenjan, a dish of particular delicacy (if not good looks) made with pomegranate molasses, ground walnuts and saffron.

Another Iranian-inspired delight is Israeli chef Ottolenghi's take on the Persian frittata, kuku. His moreish version is chock- full of caramelised onions, eggplant, little zesty barberries, and all perfumed with saffron. This is perfect party food and will probably go into high rotation.

I doubt any of my guests had had kuku before, but they cleaned it all up!

I decided to make the Bangladeshi curry at the last minute worrying, as always, that there would not be enough food. It was a little lucky that I did, as my dear Iranian friend M, who was to bring a main dish, took ill and wasn't able to make it in the end. M, I'm still looking forward to trying the carrot stew (g). The fact I was able to whip this up on the morning of the party will give you some idea of how easy it is (g).

In the cold corner, I put out two breads and two dips: the Argentinian chimchurri and plain breads, and the Syrian/Lebanese avocado appetizer and hummus with pomegranate molasses dip I've featured here before.

The salad was a brown rice variation on my red-and-green Christmas staple wild rice, pomegranate and parsley salad. I am totally devoted to the dressing in this salad, and this time, with the new Microplane I received from Saffron Papa and Mama as a birthday present, the lime zest grating was laughably easy. What did I do before I had this darling implement??

The piece de resistance was, of course, The Cake. (Or if you count my usual chocolate number, two cakes!) The cream topped cake was baked by my dearest friend, H, as a special order. It was a mighty big project, involving baking the two delicate layers one by one at home in Tokyo, then transporting them and the goodies to decorate the cake all the way to Yokohama for assembling the following day!

Called Persian Love Cake, this is not a true Iranian cake, but a divine cake inspired by the saffron, cardamom and rosewater flavours of the East. I don't think I've tasted anything more heavenly. Thanks, H. It was a spectacular end to what I think was a pretty good meal.

Thanks, also, to my dear friend Malaka at Aloha Mahalo for taking the lovely pictures you see here. If you can read Japanese, she blogged about the party here.


Wednesday, 24 February 2010

One-pan Spanish chicken bake

I am always on the lookout for recipes that don't take too long to make on busy Saturdays when the weekly house clean and grocery shop take place. I imagine that pasta would be the fallback for many in these sorts of circumstances, but just between you and me, I've never really got into the pasta groove. Guess I prefer a higher veggie : carb ratio than you get with pasta.

With no time till hitting the shops, I suddenly remembered this recipe in the September 2009 edition of Sainsbury's Magazine that I picked up when the Young Man and I were in Scotland last year. Only requiring you to fling a few things in a roasting tin and maybe basting them from time to time, it's a real corker for those times when you don't have time but want to eat well.

Not living in the UK where Spanish influences abound, I chorizo and smoked paprika were not to be had (I asked the spice people at Ohtsuya in Ueno about smoked paprika. They hadn't heard of it, but looked intrigued. Maybe they will look into it for me...). I used black pepper sausages and regular paprika instead. You could add a dash of cayenne to the paprika, as well, if you want.

I only had chickpeas in the freezer, so that's what we had. The original recipe called for jarred butter beans. A classier rendition of tinned beans, perhaps? I always think homemade is best, though, which is why I soak and pressure cook beans and store them in the freezer in approximately can-sized portions.

The picture of this dish in the magazine shows what looks to me like bone-in chicken thigh halves. My supermarket here in Yokohama has boned whole thighs only, so I used 3 large ones folded in half. I turned them over partway through cooking so that the skin on both sides crisped up golden and lovely (aided and abetted by the paprika oil, no doubt).

I also basted the chicken and veggies a few times, mainly because I am not used to standing around doing nothing while the dinner cooks itself. It's just not cooking! (g) I skipped the sage as the Young Man is a bit of a non-fan.

And the taste? Superb! I loved the citrusy notes, the creamy garlic and, surprisingly, the baked sausages.

Sainsbury's Everyday Easy one-pan Spanish chicken bake

Serves 4

400 g cooked butter beans or cannellini beans
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into large chunks
3 red peppers, deseeded and cut into large chunks
250 g chorizo or other sausages, cut into bite-size pieces
1 bulb garlic, loose papery skin removed but left whole
200 ml chicken stock
2 large oranges, one juiced and the other cut into wedges
2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
8 chicken pieces
1 tbsp olive oil, plus a little more
a handful of fresh sage leaves
sea salt

1 Preheat the oven to 22 degrees C. Arrange the beans, sweet potatoes, peppers, sausage and garlic in a large roasting tin about 30 x 42 cm.

2 Mix the stock, orange juice and 1 tsp of the smoked paprika Pour into the tin and toss with the vegetables.

3 Put the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables to ensure they crisp up while cooking. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and a good grinding of black pepper.

4 Roast for about 40 min. Mix the oil with the rest of the smoked paprika.

5 After 40 min, brush the chicken with the smoked paprika oil and add the orange wedges to the tin. Dip the sage leaves in a little oil and scatter over. Roast for a further 10-15 min, or until the chicken and vegetables are cooked through. Leave to rest for 10 min. Don't forget to give everyone some of the lovely creamy roast garlic!


Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ottolenghi's harissa-marinated chicken with pink grapefruit salad

The weather's been pretty miserable in Tokyo this February. Clouds, rain, snow! Dull weather always gives me the blahs, and that sometimes that affects the weekly menus I cobble up before doing the weekly shop.

I usually try to limit myself to one cook book when planning the meals for a week. It keeps the cook book clutter to a minimum (g). But I wasn't getting the right vibe from the book I'd chosen for the week. Not enough vavoom. You really need vavoom when the weather's miserable. So it just had to be Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.

Not all of the recipes in Ottolenghi are weeknight friendly, it has to be said. It is, after all, a restaurant cook book. You would probably want to be a bit dedicated (do I hear you say obsessed?!) to attempt this when you don't have a few hours spare. Luckily, February 11 was a national holiday in Japan. Unfortunately, it was also the day that Iran's Green Movement was to gate-crash the hardliners' own revolution anniversary party! I was glued to the computer, with BBC Worldwide playing in the background. Other than making the harissa paste and slathering the chicken in the marinade in the morning (the night before would have been even better!), I had to rush at this like it was a weeknight dinner in order to get back to the action in Iran.

But it was well worth it. This has vavoom and then some! A real harissa marinade (also excellent as a dip; I'll be making more of this very soon!), peppery rocket, mild pink grapefruit and a grapefruit-lemon-honey sauce (lip-smackingly fabulous and very much to be recommended!).

I have a spice grinder, which makes powderising the spice seeds a breeze. You could probably get away with using pre-ground spices, but only if they're really fresh. You'll want to toast them for a shorter time, in that case. Just until they start smelling fragrant. My little grinder cost about 3,000 yen (around US$30) and I wouldn't part with it now.

Since my chilli-averse Young Man was going to have this, I scaled the chilli way back and doubled the coriander, cumin and caraway seeds in the harissa. The original recipe is for 1/4 tsp of each seed, if you want to revert to that.

I used yellow pepper in this, having used up the red in another dish. The tomato puree covered that up very nicely, though. I also substituted honey for the maple syrup. Delicious, either way, I'd say!

Oh, and don't you just love the description of segmenting a grapefruit in this recipe! Or am I sounding a bit too "recent convert" to you...?

Harissa-marinated chicken with pink grapefruit salad

Serves 4

800 g chicken thighs

For the harissa marinade
1 red pepper
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 small red onion, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 mild fresh red chillies, seeded and roughly chopped
1 dried red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 tbsp tomato puree
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp Greek yogurt (or strained plain yogurt)

For the pink grapefruit salad
2 pink grapefruits
120 g peppery wild rocket
1 tsp olive oil
course sea salt and black pepper

For the sauce
150 ml pink grapefruit juice
130o ml lemon juice
150 ml maple syrup (or honey)
1/4 tsp salt
a pinch ground cinnamon
1 star anise

1 First make the marinade for the chicken. Over a gas ring or under a very hot grill, toast the red pepper until blackened on the out side. This should typically take about 8 min on an open flame, 15-20 min under a very hot grill. Place the pepper in a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to cool. Peel the pepper and discard the seeds.

2 Place a dry frying pan on a low heat and lightly toast the coriander, cumin and caraway seeds for 2 min. You should be able to smell the aromas of the spices. Transfer them to a pestle and mortar and grind to a powder.

3 Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the onion, garlic, and fresh and dried chillies and fry until they turn a dark, smoky colour. Blitz together all the marinade ingredients except the yogurt in a food processor or blender; you will have a pure harissa paste.

4 To marinate the chicken, mix the paste with the yogurt and use your hands to rub it all over the chicken thighs. Layer them in a plastic container, seal and refrigerate overnight.

5 The next day, take each grapefruit and use a small, sharp knife to slice off the top and tail. Now cut down its sides, following its natural lines, to remove the skin and white pith. Over a small bowl, cut in between the membranes to remove the individual segments. Squeeze any remaining juice into a bowl and keep to make up the 150 ml juice required for the sauce.

6 Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Lay out the marinated chicken pieces, spaced well apart, on a large baking tray and place in the hot oven. After 5 min, reduce the oven temperature to 180 degrees C and cook for another 12-15 min, until the chicken is almost cooked. Now place the chicken under a hot grill to give it extra colour and cook it through completely.

7 Meanwhile, place all the sauce ingredients in a small pan and bring to a light simmer. Simmer for about 20 min, or until reduced to a third.

8 To serve, toss the rocket and grapefruit segments with the olive oil, salt and pepper, Pile in the centre of 4 serving plates, put the warm chicken on top and drizzle about a tablespoonful of the sauce over each portion.