Pomegranates – crimson globes, living ornaments adorning heavy-boughed trees. Symbol of life, fertility and marriage; a healing drink, sumptuous pudding, refreshing salad, vibrant gift of autumn piled high on earthenware plates. Strike the thick leather – really strike it – to reveal tumbles of ruby lozenges. Catch the tart-sweet juice; burst each glittering jewel between your teeth. Scatter, press, fold, savour.
They look nothing special on the outside, do pomegranates. Scratching and sniffing one reveals not a clue to what is contained inside. Likewise pressing one tells you nothing about its ripeness, its readiness to eat.
Confusingly, red doesn’t always mean ripe, and yellow almost never means sour. The seeds too are a contradiction: pale pink often denotes a sweetly flavoured fruit, whilst beads of deepest crimson red, a red that threatens to leap out and attack anything white just for the hell of it, well, these are often more tart than sweet. Both are beautiful. Both are useful. As a general rule, those from Spain are paler and sweeter of seed, with Middle Eastern fruits redder and more tart.
For this recipe – a veganization of the classic Persian chicken dish, fesenjan – either will do. The main flavour of the dish comes from the magical brown sauce of the Arabic world, pomegranate syrup. That and finely chopped walnuts – another autumnal delight.
Pomegranate syrup (pomegranate molasses) is the boiled down juice of the more sour type of pomegranate, and is one condiment I try never to run out of. If this thick and beautifully acidic syrup is difficult to get, then take 500ml of pure pomegranate juice (unsweetened) and slowly simmer it with 4 tablespoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. After an hour you will get a glossy syrup measuring roughly half a cup. Use some for this recipe and store the rest to drizzle on salads, use in marinades, dilute with water for a refreshing drink.
This is a surprisingly easy stew to make and – surprise, surprise for me – requires very little equipment. It is largely a matter of babysitting it with a lazy scrape of a wooden spoon now and again. If you add the grains of spelt or wholegrain couscous as suggested, you don’t even need to bother making anything to accompany this aromatic, rich dish – save a green salad. Traditionalists, use chicken (organic and on the bone) if you like, cooking very slowly for about an hour. If you try this with fish, add the fish at the last gasp, using (sustainable) white fish.
I do hope you enjoy this unusual one-pot meal. The sauce is really quite, quite stunning. I didn’t invent this style of sauce but I have refined it and tweaked it for ease, speed and using all vegan ingredients. A much more luxurious take can be found all over the internet. Elise at Simply Recipes and Sam at the New York Times both have delicious looking, but very rich versions to contemplate.
What traditionally meaty dishes do you frequently – and successfully – make as vegan or vegetarian? I had a delicious veggie moussaka at a Turkish cafe today. I must try and sort my own version soon! xx
Easy Pomegranate and Walnut Stew
This dish – a veganisation of the classic Persian chicken dish, fesenjan – just says autumn comfort to me. At this time of year walnuts are falling from trees and cracking wide to reveal their nutty meat; pomegranates too are falling (in Spain at least), their leather-like red skins splitting, revealing tumbles of beautiful, glass-like ruby lozenges.
Ridiculously easy to make, the sauce itself – really the whole thing minus the tofu and grains – lends itself to being spooned over baked sweet potatoes, griddled aubergine slices or even white fish, to cook further in a hot oven.
Traditionally no grains would be incorporated into the dish, but I was aiming for a true one-pot dish. Leave the grains out if you like, adjusting the liquid, or even just cook further to concentrate the sauce.
2 red onions, (about 175g total weight), finely chopped
1 tbsp vegan butter or dairy butter
1 tbsp olive oil
150g (1 ¾ c) walnuts
2 tsp seaweed flakes – optional (adds the umami that is sometimes missing in vegan dishes)
½ tsp grated, fresh turmeric OR dried turmeric
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground
3 tbsp pomegranate syrup
1 tbsp brown sugar or honey
200ml (7 fl oz) vegetable stock or water
8 tbsp spelt couscous or barley couscous
100g fried tofu puffs, cut in quarters (in Chinese supermarkets) OR 150g plain organic firm tofu, cubed
Parsley, to garnish
1. First of all toast the walnuts in the oven at 180C/350F for eight minutes. Remove from the oven, cool briefly, then crush in a pestle and mortar, food processor, or tumble in a blender (in my blender I just press the “pulse” button 3-4 times). Set aside.
2. Now, heat the butter and oil in a large sauté pan over a low-medium flame. Add the onions and slowly sauté until they are translucent – about five minutes. Stir in the walnuts, seaweed (if using), spices, pomegranate syrup, sugar and stock. Stir and cook this on a low heat for 20 minutes, covered, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes add the couscous and stir. If it already seems like it is quite thick, add about 50ml more of hot water or stock and a teaspoon more of pomegranate molasses and perhaps a pinch of all of the spices. Cover and continue cooking on the lowest heat. You ultimately want a thick stew but not a dry stodgy stew, so do mind the moisture content towards the end and adjust accordingly. Towards the end of cooking time add in the tofu and turn over in the sauce and let the tofu heat through before serving.
3. While the stew is cooking, prepare the pomegranate. This may sound quite violent but I want you to bash the pomegranate quite hard on the countertop, and roll it around – this loosens the seeds. Cut the fruit in half around its equator and – over a wide bowl – hold one half in your hand and bash it with a wooden spoon quite hard. Seeds will rain down into the bowl from between your fingers. If the pomegranate isn’t desperately juicy I tend to partially fill the bowl with water so that it makes it easier to fish out the inedible white membrane that inevitably loosens and falls too. But if it’s juicy I just pick out the white bits from the seeds. It’s not too lousy of a job, but buy the seeds in packs from the fresh produce section if you wish (you will lose some nutrients obviously).
4. Ladle into bowls and top with the pomegranate arils/seeds and washed and torn parsley. If you make this up with water or low-salt stock instead of “full-strength” stock, crumbles of feta cheese is awfully nice – if not at all vegan garnish. Serve with a plain, green salad.
Soft food diet: blend the sauce in a blender, use soft or firm tofu instead of the fried tofu (it is chewy) and leave out the pomegranate seeds. Blitz parsley and dribble it over each serving.