There are two types of walnut sauce; those that are made and served separately, or introduced at the end of cooking, for example, salsa di noci, the Italian pasta sauce of pounded walnut, garlic, cheese and butter, or the similar French rendition, sauce al/lode, which accompanies poached chicken. To achieve a homogenous sauce, the firmest ingredients are pounded first, then liquids and oils are introduced to lighten and bind. The second are integral sauces, made with pounded or finely chopped nuts, plenty of liquid and cooked with various ingredients, as in the Turkish dish, Circassian chicken and the quail recipe below. Claudia Roden notes in her book, New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Penguin), that in the Middle East, you can tell the origin of the cook by their choice of nut. So while Turks are as fond of walnuts as are Iranians, similar recipes are to be found in other cuisines where the only difference is the type of nut used. In the absence of cream and other thickeners, the role of nuts in sauces is to thicken and flavour, with the richness of the nuts being countered by the addition of acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar, verjuice and pomegranate.


Serves 6
250 gm walnuts, plus 2 tbsp coarsely chopped extra, to serve
4 large pomegranates
1/4 cup olive oil
6 jumbo quails [about 200gm each], halved, discarding backbone
1 onion, very finely chopped
Pinch of ground cinnamon
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tbsp caster sugar, or to taste
1/4 tsp [tightly packed] saffron threads, soaked in 1 cup warm water
1/4 cup torn flat-leaf parsley leaves, to serve

Persian steamed rice
400 gm [2 cups] basmati rice, soaked overnight with 1 tbsp salt
40 gm butter

1. Using a pestle and mortar, pound walnuts, in batches, until very finely ground. Halve pomegranates, remove seeds [you will need 3% cups for this recipe], reserve ½ cup, then process remaining pomegranate seeds in a food processor, using the pulse button, until finely chopped but not puréed. Strain mixture through a fine sieve over a bowl and measure out 1 cup of juice.

2. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan or casserole and cook quail halves, in batches, over high heat until browned on both sides, then remove from pan and set aside. Heat remaining oil in pan, add onion, cinnamon and 1 tsp sea salt and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 8 minutes or until lightly browned.

3. Add pounded walnuts and garlic and stir to coat in onion mixture, then add pomegranate juice, lemon juice, sugar, saffron and soaking liquid and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add quail halves, stir to coat in sauce, then cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until quail is tender.

4. Meanwhile, for Persian steamed rice, fill a large, heavy-based saucepan with water, add 2 tsp sea salt and bring to the boil, add drained soaked rice and cook for 5 minutes or until firm to the bite, then drain well. Melt half the butter in same pan, add rice and dot with remaining butter. Cover pan with a clean tea towel, then a lid [tying up tea towel over lid] and steam over very low heat for 20 minutes or until rice is tender and a crust has formed on the base. The tea towel will absorb the excess steam, resulting in light and fluffy rice.

5. Transfer quail mixture to a large platter, scatter with reserved pomegranate seeds, extra walnuts and flat-leaf parsley and serve immediately, with rice passed separately.

For duck or chicken faisinjan, follow the above recipe, substituting 1 quartered chicken or duck for quail, and increase the cooking time to approximately 75 minutes, adding a little extra water, if the sauce becomes too thick.

* When pomegranates are out of season, substitute 80ml prepared pomegranate molasses combined with 1 cup water for pomegranate juice, following the recipe above.

* Iranian cooks have elevated rice cookery to incredible levels of intricacy as shown in the rice recipe above, which is often served with fruit-rich stews. Another common way to serve this is to top the rice with extra butter and a raw egg served in a halved egg shell [to be stirred into the rice] with char-grilled skewers of lamb marinated in olive oil, lemon, torn bay leaves, rigani and tomato pulp.

* For chicken and chickpeas in almond sauce, combine 6 halved quails or 1 quartered chicken with a couple of pieces of butter, 1 finely chopped onion, 1/4 tsp saffron threads, 2 cinnamon sticks and 200gm soaked chickpeas in a casserole, add enough water to cover and bring to the boil, then simmer very gently for 1 hour. Add another chopped onion and 120gm blanched almonds or walnuts and cook until second onion is tender. Add the juice of haifa lemon, then season to taste and serve spooned over couscous, scattered with torn flat-leaf parsley.

Recipe from Gourmet Traveller