Between its crimson shell, jewel-like seeds and darkly alluring juice, it's no wonder that the pomegranate has been called "the fruit of heaven."
Cultivated in Iran since ancient times, it played a major role in the culinary life of my Persian family while I was growing up in northern California. My introduction began when I could barely walk. My father would take his time peeling a pomegranate before delicately removing the fresh seeds. Then he'd add a dash of salt and sprinkle of golpar (angelica powder) and hand me a little teaspoon. All that laborious, thoughtful work—gone in seconds.
My mother, however, would create slightly more elaborate dishes. A favorite that comes to mind is one believed to have originated from the north of Iran in the Gilan province by the Caspian Sea: Called fesenjoon, it's a stew of duck legs braised with walnuts and pomegranate molasses (see the recipe).
My mother celebrated the acidity and bitter character of the fruit by reducing its juice to a molasses (see the recipe). She would then combine the molasses with toasted, ground walnuts, caramelized onions and duck legs and monitor it carefully, cooking it low and slow until the stew became deep maroon in color and the oil from the walnuts gradually released.
Depending on the cook, the walnuts can be roughly chopped to provide texture or ground into a fine powder. My mother went with the latter, which made the stew feel richer and more luscious in the mouth, with the perfect balance between sweet, sour and bitter notes.
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The sauce may be seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon or saffron, but she just added a dash a of turmeric and a touch of sugar so as to not mask the flavors of the pomegranates and earthy walnuts. Served alongside chelo, saffron-scented rice, the stew evokes a flavor memory I'm always honoring by returning to this simple but evocative dish.
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