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Oct 2010 08

I have to get something off my chest. I love my Persian momma, and I love her Persian cooking, but I’ll be frank. Persian food tastes fantastic, but it’s not the most esthetically attractive cuisine in the world. Take one look at some of Iran’s signature dishes and you’ll see what I mean. Ghormeh sabzi, a light and tangy beef and herb stew, looks like this, and check out our prized tender and flavourful kabob. But by far the most un-Martha looking dish happens to also be the most delicious (I’ll spare you the image… Google it if you really want to see). It is the gem of Persian cuisine, koresh fesenjan: duck stew with pomegranate and walnuts.

I love fesenjan, but I had to find a way to make it a little prettier. So I decided to forego the traditional route of simmering the bird forever in the walnut sauce (which results in a big, brown, tasty mess). Instead, the duck is braised in the pomegranate juice alone, then removed while it’s nice and red and shiny. The sauce is then finished with the walnuts to create that famously rich and complex gravy.

Traditionally, pomegranate molasses is used to make fesenjan, but since that may be hard to find kosher, I use bottled pomegranate juice (i.e., Pom Wonderful) instead. Just be careful to get the pomegranate-only version (with the dark red cap), as there are Poms that include a blend of other fruit juices.

This duck deserves to be served with something bright yellow and slightly sweet – mashed butternut squash or a saffron polenta. Or, if you’re more of a purist, serve it alongside a huge, steaming mound of saffron basmati rice.

You will need:

2 ducks, cut up (bone-in, skin on)
1 1/2 c diced onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp pepper
salt, to taste
1/2 tsp ground cloves
5-6 c pomegranate juice (3 bottles of Pom)
1 lb walnuts, lightly toasted
1 heaping tbsp honey
3 tbsp chopped parsley (to garnish)

Heat a large electric wok or dutch oven (add a little oil if substituting chicken; duck doesn’t need the added oil as it own fat will render in the hot pan). Sprinkle the duck pieces with salt. Working in batches, brown the duck on all sides over medium-high heat and remove to a platter. You will end up with a good amount of duck fat in the pan – use a spoon to remove about a third of the fat.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions, stirring constantly, until they begin to brown. Stir in the pepper, cloves and garlic, then deglaze the wok with about 2 cups of the pomegranate juice, using a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Arrange the duck pieces back in the pan, layering the legs on the bottom and the breasts on top (with the wings, if using). Add the rest of the pomegranate juice (it should almost cover the duck). Simmer, covered, about 30 minutes.

Remove the duck pieces and set them aside. Add the walnuts to the pomegranate juice and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. The walnuts will soften and the sauce will reduce. Use an immersion blender to puree the walnuts in the juice, until it is as smooth as you like it. Stir in the honey and season with salt to taste. You will end up with a lot of extra sauce, but c’est la vie.

To serve, reheat the duck in the oven, covered. Spoon the hot walnut sauce into the middle of the plate (or on the bottom of a large serving platter) and arrange the duck on top. Garnish the duck with chopped parsley, and pass the remaining walnut sauce around in a gravy boat.

Serves 6-8.

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Apr 2010 18

I love light, custardy desserts. I love caramel-y desserts. I also love individually plated, pretty “presentation” desserts. Ergo, I love creme caramel – a light, smooth, egg-rich custard bathed in a pool of bittersweet caramel – and it tastes amazing even when “pareved”!

This dessert can be made a day or two in advance and stored in the fridge. I made them in those little disposable aluminum tart shells, but you could just as easily use proper ramekins. I had initially tried this with saffron, but found that the dominant flavour of the caramel cancelled out any saffron taste – a waste if you ask me, considering the fact that saffron is the most expensive spice ever!

Creme caramel ranks about a medium in terms of the level of skill required. The custard part is easy, but making caramel can be tricky. A word of caution. Do not attempt to make the caramel when there are distractions around – curious kids, other things on the stove, etc. ESPECIALLY do not make the caramel with children around! Hot sugar is a gajillion times hotter than boiling water and any contact with skin can leave you scarred for life. (Have I freaked you out yet?)

Don’t be scared, just be organized about it. Clear off your countertops, get your little ramekins lined up. Then, when you are ready to tackle the caramel, put the dog in the basement and stick the kid(s) in the playpen or somewhere else where they can’t escape for 20 minutes. Turn your phones off, pull on some long rubber gloves and make sure your arms aren’t exposed. And NEVER add ANYTHING to the sugar once it has turned into liquid caramel, or it will explode in a very bad way! Hot sugar is scary stuff, you guys! (But when it’s done safely, oh, is it ever worth it!)

While the caramel is cooling, you can get on with the custard (but don’t let the kids roam free again until the caramel is cool).

You will need:

12 ramekins or mini pie shells

1 1/2 c sugar for the caramel

8 eggs
1 c sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
3 c soy milk (vanilla favoured is fine)
3/4 c coconut milk
1/4 c water
1/4 tsp ground cardamom – or 8 whole cardamom pods

To make the caramel, put the sugar into a medium stainless steel pot (preferably one with a long handle) over high heat. Using a long wooden spoon, stir the sugar continuously. After a few minutes, the sugar will start to clump together – that’s how you’ll know it’s working. Keep on stirring, and eventually the sugar will begin to liquify. When the sugar is all liquid, and starts to give off some colour, turn the heat down to meduim and keep stirring until the sugar is a rich golden/light amber colour. Then take the sugar off the heat and pour a little bit – quickly and carefully! – into the bottom of each ramekin, enough to coat the bottoms with caramel.

Then put the pot down, either on the floor or somewhere it won’t be touched or knocked over. After about 15 minutes it will have cooled and you can fill the pot halfway with water and set it on simmer – all of the hard candy will easily dissolve and cleanup will be a cinch!

Hooray, you’ve just made caramel! Give yourself a pat on the back – that was no easy feat! Now you can relax, and leave it all to cool while you get started on the custard.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla. In a pot, whisk together the soy milk, coconut milk, water and cardamom (if you’re using whole pods, bruise them by crushing them a little with the back of a spoon), and place on meduim heat to heat up gently. Keep an eye on it, as soy milk tends to curdle with too much heat.

When the milk begins to steam, remove it from the heat and whisk it into the egg mixture. Then strain this mixture into a large measuring cup, pitcher or bowl. This will ensure that your custard has an even texture and a smooth mouthfeel.

Preheat the oven to 320F. Pour the custard into the ramekins (you can fill them almost to the rim if you have enough).

Prepare a water bath by arranging the ramekins in a large baking/roasting pan (you may need to bake them in batches if your baking pan is not big enough to hold all of them). Then carefully pour water into the pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 25-35 minutes. The custard will still be slightly jiggly when done, but it shouldn’t look liquidy. Allow the custards to cool and chill them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve them.

To serve, loosen the custards by running a knife along the edges. Place a dessert plate upside-down over a ramekin and invert it, then give the ramekin a little jiggle on the plate to release the custard. All you need as garnish is a fresh berry or two – or just serve, as you may prefer, au naturel.

Makes 12.