Yalda, the Persian celebration of winter solstice, is around the corner. Hence the occasion for a special food blog entry – something representing red and orange colors of Yalda, something made with passion, and maybe pomegranate, to serve along with sweet-nuts mix, watermelon and persimmon as we get together with friends and family to bring to dawn the longest night of the year – the night before the beginning of winter, or the Yalda night.
And here I am with yet another Yalda recipe. The roast chicken I am about to describe is called Akbar joojeh in Persian. Akbar is a male’s name and joojeh means baby chicken. Originated in the northern province of Mazandaran, Akbar joojeh is named after a restaurant on the road to the Caspian sea whose owner served his then exclusive dish. The dish soon grew so popular the locals took it in to their own hands and made it on the long list of delicious Northern foods. Akbar joojeh is one of a few Persian foods made/served with the very Iranian pomegranate syrup [See below]; it has a rich sweet and sour taste, very simple to prepare and is served with either plain or saffron rice – again made in the simple kateh style, as opposed to the more complicated style of soaking and draining the rice.
Ingredients (serves 2-3)
- Half a baby chicken or a small chicken, cut in 2 or 3 pieces
- 1 medium onion, coarsely sliced lengthwise
- ½ cup freshly squeezed lime
- 2 tbs. oil
- ½ cup pomegranate molasses
- Salt to taste
- For kateh rice: 2 cups Basmati rice, 1 teaspoon good quality ground saffron, 1 tbsp. oil, salt to taste.
Pomegranate syrup, also referred to as pomegranate “paste” and pomegranate “molasses” is basically pomegranate juice that has been thickened ideally without adding sugar. It has a dark mahogany color and should be thick but runny and intensely flavorful. It can be purchased from Iranian and some Middle Eastern supermarkets.
After skinning and washing the chicken’s parts, sprinkle enough salt and marinate them in lime juice in a closed container in the fridge for at least 4 hours (ideally overnight). Make sure all sides are well exposed to the marinate mixture.
In a medium size thick-bottomed pot, heat oil and sauté onions for a couple of minutes. Transfer chicken’s pars to the pot and fry all sides over high heat until the meat changes color. Turn the heat to minimum, cover with a tight lid and slow cook for at least one hour. This is a pot roast style so you will not need to add any water. The chicken will cook itself at the core in the juice produced by onions and the chicken itself. At the end of the cooking process you should have an all-side browned, tender and savory chicken with little juice left in the pot. When serving your chicken (either in a separate dish or on the side of your saffron rice), leave the cooked onions inside the pot. Pour about 2 tbsp. pomegranate syrup on top of the chicken just before taking it to the table.
For the rice, in this case saffron kateh.
First off, prepare your saffron by mixing the saffron and 2 tbsp. warm water in a small teapot and placing it on the top of a steaming kettle for 15 minutes. The idea is to bring the aroma, taste and color out by brewing the saffron, just as we do with Iranian tea.
You already know how to make “the unbeatable Rice, Iranian style” : by soaking the rice in advance boiling it in plenty of water before draining it and so on and so forth. Well, there is a much easier way of making Iranian style rice called kateh, which is by the way very popular in the northern provinces in the Caspian where rice is cultivated. Here is how to do it:
Wash your rice in a pot thoroughly with lukewarm water by raking with fingers and rinsing a few times until the water runs clear.
Top the two cups of washed rice with two cups of lukewarm water. (Equal rice/water ratio is good for most types of Basmati). Add one tbsp. oil and about 1 teaspoon salt and gently stir. Cover the pot with the lid and turn the heat to its highest setting. Once the mix is brought to a boil, tilt the lid half open, turn the heat down to medium and wait till almost all the water is absorbed and/or evaporated and you can see bubbles on the surface of the rice. Add 2 tbsp. brewed saffron and stir gently. With a fork, mound the rice in the middle into a pyramid and make a big hole in the center. Cover the lid in a clean kitchen towel and put it back on tightly while you still have plenty of steam inside. Turn the heat to minimum and let the aromatic rice steam cook for 45 minutes.
You can serve akbar joojeh either in a separate dish or on the side of your saffron rice, – or plain rice for that matter, as dinner or lunch. You would pour some pomegranate syrup on the chicken and take a small bowel of the syrup to the table just in case. Serve hot along with fresh herbs, salad or yogurt.
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