I hardly knew Tom and Joanna when they first invited me for dinner. I thought they were smart, funny, and sarcastic, and looked forward to an amusing evening. The evening was entertaining, but not in the way I’d expected.
The pair made their home in a nondescript apartment complex, which they managed in exchange for reduced rent. The kitchen was tiny. The walls were sterile. The kitchen equipment was rudimentary.
When I arrived, Tom and Joanna hadn’t yet started cooking. The intended main course was chicken in pomegranate sauce. It was an ambitious undertaking; in those days, we experimented with complex recipes calling for skills we did not yet possess.
The difficulty with the recipe was it required juiced pomegranates. This was before pomegranate juice was readily available, and Tom and Joanna had purchased a pile of pomegranates to liquify.
Joanna had no idea how to juice a pomegranate. Neither did Tom and neither did I; the only pomegranates I’d ever had were Christmas treats, savored seed by seed. I was dubious whether pomegranates could actually be turned into juice. The kitchen equipment was clearly not up to the task.We steeled ourselves with stiff shots of Jack Daniels.
I don’t remember the exact juicing method we finally settled on. What I do remember is the pomegranates contained very little juice; not nearly enough to make the recipe. What juice there was ended up on the counters. And on the walls and backsplash, no longer sterile. And on our clothes, hands, and faces. It was a dramatic mess.
By the time all the pomegranates had been mangled, we couldn’t quit laughing. It was that laughter that sealed our lifetime friendship. In circumstances where some might be frantic or upset, Joanna just laughed and poured us another drink.
The evening left me with an indelible impression that cooking with pomegranates was more trouble than it was worth. I steered clear of them until recently, when I read Maryann’s advice on Finding La Dolce Vita to juice pomegranates by breaking them down in the blender and straining out the seeds. This sounded easy enough to try.
Maryann's advice came at a time when the local Costco store was carrying flats of huge, gorgeous pomegranates. It was kismet; I had to buy them. Once the pomegranates were piled on my counter, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tom and Joanna’s chicken in pomegranate sauce. I decided to create my own version.
I removed the pomegranate seeds in the sink, under water, to prevent their staining juice from spraying all over the kitchen. I whirred batches of seeds in the food processor and used my mom’s old Foley food mill to strain out the pits. Each large pomegranate made two cups of cleaned seeds which, in turn, made 3/4 cup of juice.
The final dish was a rousing success. The chicken, pounded thin and cooked quickly in butter, had a nutty taste that complimented the slightly sweet, but tangy, pomegranate-wine sauce. I'm not ashamed to admit I licked my plate.
I will make this recipe over and over again. Each time I do, I will laugh at the happy memory of that first dinner with Tom and Joanna, so many years ago.
Chicken with Pomegranate-Wine Sauce
For a more refined sauce, strain out the shallots after the sauce has thickened, and before stirring in the butter. I love the shallots' added texture, so I leave them in. Serve with Dill and Rice Pilaf, and crusty bread for mopping up the sauce.
3/4 cup diced shallots, 1/4” dice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup dry red wine
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 cups pomegranate juice (2 – 3 pomegranates)
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. butter
2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. butter
Fresh dill or parsley, minced for garnishk
For the sauce: Sauté the shallots, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in olive oil until they soften and start to turn golden. Stir in the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until the wine is reduced by half. Add the chicken stock, pomegranate juice, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to medium, and cook until the sauce is reduced to 1 cup, and is slightly syrupy. (I made the sauce ahead to this point.) Just before serving, warm up the sauce. When the sauce is hot, turn off the heat and whisk in the butter, 1 Tbsp. at a time.
For the chicken: Wash the chicken breasts, and dry them well. Remove the “fillet” from each breast, and cut the rest into two slices by holding the pieces flat with one hand and cutting parallel to the cutting board. Pound the sliced chicken pieces, including the fillets, between pieces of waxed paper or plastic wrap until they are 1/4” thick. Cut the pounded chicken into approximately 3” pieces. Season both sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (The chicken may be prepared ahead to this point and refrigerated until ready to cook).
Heat the butter in a frying pan until it just starts to bubble. Quickly cook the chicken pieces until they are lightly browned and cooked through. Cook the chicken in batches, being careful not to crowd the pan, or the chicken will steam rather than brown. When all the pieces are done, quickly toss them in the frying pan to make sure all pieces are hot.
For serving: Spoon a pool of sauce onto each of 4 plates, top with pieces of browned chicken, and sprinkle with minced fresh dill or parsley.
Pomegranates are a popular item this season, in part because of "the heavy promotion of the crimson fruit and its juice as rich in antioxidants." This antioxidant rich dish is my entry for this week's Antioxident Rich Food/Five-a-Day Tuesday sponsored by Sweetnicks.
Don't forget to buy your Menu for Hope raffle tickets no later than December 21-- all proceeds go to the UN World Food Program. The Menu for Hope prize I am offering is here (wild oregano, handmade sheep cheese, handmade egg noodles, and autographed copy of Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska), the list of all West Coast Menu for Hope prizes is here, and the list of all worldwide Menu for Hope prizes is here. For more information about Menu for Hope, go here.