TND – In Which I Abuse the Oxford Comma

October 5, 2011

Some books should come with warning labels.  I don’t mean the kind of warnings that land books on the Banned Books list.  I mean warnings like ‘Do not read this book unless you have time to make cinnamon rolls this weekend’.  Or, ‘Map the route to your nearest Moroccan restaurant before starting this book.’

I’m not talking about the obvious books either.  Anyone who didn’t know that “Like Water for Chocolate” was going to leave them hungry was clearly not paying attention to the cover copy.  I’m talking about books like the one I just finished.  I picked up Girl of Fire and Thorns anticipating nothing more than a YA fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist.  Don’t get me wrong, I got that in spades, but what I also got were such loving descriptions of the food (chicken braised with orange and cumin, lamb seethed with pomegranate, coconut honey scones, and flakey almond glazed pastries) that I had to stop reading to look up directions to the nearest middle eastern bakery and scour the internet for tagine recipes.

(“Girl of Fire & Thorns”, incidentally, is excellent and I highly recommend it if you’re into that sort of thing – that sort of thing being action adventure YA fantasy novels where the heroine gets married off, kidnapped and then returns to her completely undeserving husband at the head of a rebel army to save the day.  And, who isn’t into that kind of thing?)

Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is another good example.  Ostensibly it’s about vampires.  I innocently started it with no idea I was going to have to stop half way through so that I could hunt down a recipe for cinnamon rolls.  I think the last time I reread it (when I knew what I was getting into) I even contemplated getting up at 5am on a Sunday to get to Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline in time to queue up for one of their famous sticky buns to satisfy the craving.  That is how mouth-watering the descriptions of Rae’s cinnamon rolls are, because there’s not much of anything I’m willing to do at 5am on a Sunday morning except roll over and go back to sleep.

The folks at Pop Culture Happy Hour had a segment a few weeks ago about movies/TV that leave you hungry, like Eat Drink Man Woman, or Babette’s Feast.  While watching Twin Peaks certainly sent me out in search of a slice of cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee, and watching Tampopo necessitated a midnight gas station run for instant ramen noodles (seriously, don’t watch this movie without immediate access to a bowl of noodles), I tend to find books more evocative than movies for making me crave food.

I was indoctrinated early on to the connection between food and books by repeated rereading of the Little House on the Prairie series, which, as everyone knows, are basically pioneer food porn.  My mother has also collected children’s book cookbooks for years – the recipe I still use for lemonade comes from the Anne of Green Gables cookbook, and one of the best things about being sick as a child was that my mother would make a honey lemon drink from the Winnie the Pooh cookbook.

Descriptions of food in books can even make me crave food that I suspect in real life I’d find vastly unappealing.  I spent huge portions of my childhood convinced that Turkish Delight was going to be the be all and end all of the dessert world.  I was so disappointed when I actually had it because it wasn’t anything like the description in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.  As it turns out I agree with Lord Peter Wimsey on the suspect character of people who really enjoy Turkish Delight (then again, when do I not agree with Lord Peter Wimsey?).

Detective novels set in the Victorian period always elicit an intense desire for eel pie.  Despite the fact that I don’t like eel under the best of circumstances, there’s something about the description of the detective walking along the Thames in a slightly seedy neighborhood of London munching on a cold jellied eel pie  as he cogitates that makes me crave one against my better judgment (really, there’s a scene like this in every Victorian detective novel – I think it’s publishing requirement).

One of my favorite passages in “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is the sequence in which the hero discovers the horrors of an upper class Victorian English breakfast (kedgeree and devilled kidneys instead of the greasy fry up he was hoping for – apparently only the lower classes ate that).  I actually think kedgeree sounds quite tasty, but admittedly I’m not sure I’d be able to face it for breakfast, and devilled kidneys have never sounded like a good idea at any time of day.

Dinner this week can be blamed entirely on the quasi Moorish Spain/Moroccan setting of “Girl of Fire and Thorns”.  Fesenjen is a traditionally Persian dish, which fits neatly with the origins of the Umayyad Caliphate who ruled the real Al Andalus, and with the descriptions of the food in the book.  Although, if I’m being honest it was mostly about how the ingredient list for Fesenjen includes pomegranate molasses and dried cherries, while the recipe for Pollo Pibil* would have required me to figure out a substitute for banana leaves.  Plus, as my father reminded me, Monday was the 3rd of October and making Spanish food would just have been tacky (best justification for cooking with pomegranate molasses ever, y/y?).

* Yes, I know, Pollo Pibil is a traditional Mexican recipe from the Yucatan peninsula – however, the book specifically name checks Pollo Pibil and it was one of the recipes I went running to the internet to research.  It sounds tasty, but see above about October 3rd and tacky and the ever present allure of pomegranates.

Chicken Fesenjen
Chana Masala
Saffron Rice
Roasted Broccoli & Cauliflower
Apple-Fennel-Lime Slaw
Pomegranate Raita

Chicken Fesenjen
(serves 2 – I made 4x the recipe and actually (surprisingly) managed to have some leftover)

There’s one person who comes to Dinner, and has since more or less the beginning, who is allergic to nuts.  At this point I’ve been cooking for her for so long and so regularly that my eye frequently skips over any recipe in which the walnuts or pecans can’t be replaced with pistachios or peanuts.  Chicken Fesenjen is a recipe I’ve wanted to make for a while, but have never gotten around to trying because it calls for walnuts and not in a way that you could substitute something else – ground pistachios wouldn’t thicken the stew the same way that ground walnuts do.

However!  She has a class on Tuesday nights this semester and will be unable to attend most weeks (we’re moving dinner later this month so that she can have a birthday dinner) until the New Year.  Belatedly it occurred to me that I could take advantage of this and make the Chicken Fesenjen I’ve been eyeing for so long.

2 oz walnuts
2 tsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
1 small clove garlic (or ½ a large clove), minced
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp cinnamon
1.5 oz dried sour cherries*
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3”-4” pieces
3 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
½ – ¾ cup chicken stock (start with ½ cup and add more if you think you need it)
Lemon juice, to taste

Roast the walnuts in a 375 oven for 10-15 minutes until they are starting to color and smoke a little (keep an eye on them, they go from doing nothing to burned really fast).  Remove, allow to cool, and then grind to a fine powder in a blender (or mortar & pestle if you have such a thing).  You want to grind them to a fairly fine powder but not so far that they’re turning into butter.

In the meantime heat the butter and oil in a large pan.  Add the onions and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes with the lid on, stirring occasionally, until they are soft but not browned.  Once they are soft add the garlic and cook for another few minutes.  Add the turmeric, cinnamon and dried cherries.  Cook on medium heat for a minute or so to bloom the spices and plump the cherries.  Turn up the heat slightly and add the chicken.  Cook for about 5 minutes, or until chicken is well coated in spices and no longer looks raw on the outside (inside will still be uncooked at this point).

Add the pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts.  Mix well to coat everything and then stir in the chicken stock and season with salt/pepper.  Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over low for 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally.

If you want a thicker sauce, remove the meat/onions and cook the sauce down for 10-15 minutes, stirring every so often to prevent the sauce from burning (the walnuts in the sauce will make it more prone to sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan).  Return the meat to the pan, stir to coat and continue.  If you like you chicken saucy, you can skip this entire step.  I like my braises/stews to be fairly thick, but it’s a matter of personal preference.

(The dish can be made in advance to this point.  Cool, refrigerate overnight, reheat over a low heat until sauce is bubbling and chicken is heated through – I think it’s better the next day because it gives the chicken thigh meat time to relax, hang out and get groovy with the sauce).

Season to taste, adding some lemon juice if desired.

Serve garnished with pomegranate seeds and chopped parsley or mint.

* I randomly ran across dried tart cherries at Trader Joe’s this week when I was looking for something else entirely, but I think regular dried cherries would work fine, or a mix of dried cherries and dried cranberries if you were looking for some of the sour flavor of tart cherries.

Chana Masala
(serves 4-6)

I had a vegetarian emergency at 9:00am on Monday morning when a friend emailed to ask if her husband could replace her at Dinner this week (she’s out nursing the removal of her wisdom teeth – her husband is in possession of all his teeth (presumably?  I didn’t ask), but is functionally vegetarian outside of a kosher kitchen).  The answer was, obviously, yes, but did require a little imagination to figure out a vegetarian option for which I already had most of the ingredients and would work with the side dishes I already had planned to go with this Dinner.

Chana Masala takes us a little bit away from the “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” Moorish/Northern African influences.  However, chickpeas are a staple of a lot of Mediterranean cuisines, and if this particular iteration is more Indian than Moroccan, I plead convenience.  I know this dish, I had most of the ingredients on hand, it worked well with the rice and roasted veggies I was planning, and it’s really tasty.

The recipe calls for amchoor powder which is powdered sour mangos, and is delicious.  If you have it on hand, or are looking for an excuse to explore your local Indian grocery store, I highly recommend using it.  If you don’t have it to hand, and/or don’t feel like finding/buying an entire bag for the 1 Tbsp this recipe calls for you can substitute a some extra lemon juice in its place.

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 serrano (or jalapeno) pepper, seeded & minced
1 Tbsp ground coriander
3tsp ground cumin
¼ – ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper (depending on how hot you like things)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 Tbsp amchoor powder (if you don’t have this add more lemon juice)
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp garam masala
2 cups tomatoes, chopped (or 15 oz can of whole tomatoes with their juices, chopped small)
1 Tbsp tomato paste (or more to taste)
2/3 cup water
2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained, rinsed & dried
½ tsp salt
Juice of ½ lemon (or whole lemon if not using amchoor powder)

Heat half of the oil in a large skillet, add the well dried chickpeas and sauté until they start to brown a little (about 10 minutes – it’ll take longer than you think it will).  Remove from pan and reserve (this step is optional, but I think it makes the chickpeas more flavorful and creamier).

Heat the remaining oil, add the onion, garlic, ginger and pepper, and sauté over medium heat until browned, about 5 minutes.

Turn heat down to medium-low and add the coriander, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, cumin seeds, amchoor (if using), paprika and garam masala. Cook onion mixture with spices for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes, tomato paste and any accumulated juices, scraping up any bits that have stuck to the pan.

Add the water and chickpeas. Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, then stir in salt and lemon juice to taste.

Eat up or put a lid on it and reheat it when needed (it reheats excellently).

Saffron Rice
(serves 6)

2 cups basmati rice
3 ½ cups chicken stock, or water (or some combination of the two)
Pinch saffron threads, soaked in 2 Tbsp hot water for 10 minutes
Generous pinch of salt
1 Tbsp olive oil (or butter)

Wash and drain the rice.

Bring the water (and/or chicken stock) to a rolling boil.  Season with a generous pinch of salt, then add the rice and saffron + soaking liquid.  Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes (resist the temptation to peek).  Remove pan from the heat, remove pan lid, cover saucepan with a kitchen towel, replace the lid and allow to steam for 5 minutes.  Fluff rice with a fork before serving.

Roasted Broccoli & Cauliflower

Recipe previously given:  It Could Always Be Worse

Apple-Fennel-Lime Slaw
I wanted something acidic and fresh to balance out the richness of the Fesenjen, and the roastedness of the broccoli & cauliflower.

Recipe previously given:  Ant Parade

Pomegranate Raita

Recipe previously given:  Curry Dinner



  1. Wow, that chicken sounds tasty. I look forward to a reappearance at a future Dinner.

  2. I also thought of Tampopo when listening to that Pop Culture Happy Hour episode. (And Babette’s Feast, but he mentioned it almost immediately after I thought of it.)

  3. […] Recipe previously given: In Which I Abuse the Oxford Comma […]

  4. […] Recipe previously given: In Which I Abuse the Oxford Comma […]

  5. […] messed around with my usual recipe for Chana Masala to reduce the amount of tomato I was using (for a dinner guest whose limited in the amount of […]

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