The first time I had this dish it was prepared by a co-worker for a class at the cooking school where we worked. I had been teaching a different class that night, and once all the students left and it was time to relax, have a bite to eat, and clean up, all that was left of her delicious Fesenjan was the chicken fat-rich gravy laced with ground walnuts and a few pomegranate seeds. We were both starving and so we split the dregs between us, eating them with the crusty basmati rice that was left stuck to the pot. Needless to say, even the remnants of the meal were delectable.
This time around, I used flavorful wild rice as a base and lightened the dish ever so slightly by substituting pomegranate juice for the pomegranate molasses. While this molasses is a wonderfully flavorful ingredient, it can be hard to find, even in Chicago! The pom juice is not only lower in sugar, but as the dish simmers, it reduces to become more concentrated in flavor, much like the syrup itself.
For the Fesenjan:
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken legs and thighs, washed, patted dry, and seasoned with S & P
1 large or 2 small white onions, thinly sliced
2 C. pure pomegranate juice (Lakewood and Pom brands seem easy to find)
5 cardamom pods
1 tsp. cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
1 1/2 C. walnuts, chopped finely by hand or in a food processor
1 large, firm eggplant OR 10-15 small Indian or Thai eggplants, cut into large pieces
Chicken broth (1 box is ample)
Seeds of 1 pomegranate for garnish
Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro for garnish
Start by heating a wide pan, large enough to hold all 4 pieces of chicken in a single layer, over medium high heat. Add the oil and swirl, then place the seasoned chicken pieces, skin side down, in the oil. Let brown thoroughly on the skin side, turning only when they are easily released from the pan and quite brown. Treat the other side in the same way, and then remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
Add the onion to the same pan and season with S & P. Saute for 5-10 minutes, until golden brown. (Some bits may be stuck to the bottom of the pan, but this is what you want….just don’t let them burn) Deglaze the pan with the pomegranate juice and stir, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the cardamom and cinnamon. Let the liquid come to a strong simmer and reduce for a few minutes, until thickened. Place the browned chicken back into the pan in a single layer, nestling it down into the onions. Pour the chicken broth in until it reaches up the sides of the chicken about 2/3 of the way (this will vary considerably depending on the size of your pan). Sprinkle with the walnuts, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat for 25-30 minutes. Start a pot of rice at this time to serve with the Fesenjan. After 30 minutes, uncover the chicken and turn each piece over, again nestling them down in the liquid.
Add the eggplant at this time and cover again for another 25-30 minutes. Once the cooking of the second side is complete, remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Increase the heat under the remaining liquid to medium high and simmer for 5-8 minutes, stirring regularly, until sauce has reduced and the eggplant is quite soft. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Serve chicken over a mound of rice, topped with several generous spoonfuls of sauce, and garnished with pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs.