Braised Lamb with Pomegranates and Chestnuts

Nar, nar, more nar! This is what the family has been saying the most ever since nars (pomegranates) hit the Long Beach markets stalls about a month ago. We buy loads of nar. And we have nar eating sessions every day. Even our dog is addicted. He eagerly joins our sessions,  and we all munch on the the crunchy juicy  seeds, the dog shamelessly sending the juices to the floor while we the humans, to our faces. When I want the floor and our faces clean, I cook with pomegranates. Like I did yesterday, when I made this classic Azerbaijani dish called Nar Govurmasi.

The dish hails from the region of Goychay in Azerbaijan, the pomegranate capital of Azerbaijan. There dozens of pomegranate varieties grow in each and every front and back yard and vast orchards across the region.  Juicy pomegranates with flavors that run from tart and tangy to sweet,  with seeds that are burgundy, red and even white, with skins that can be red, pink, or white – Goychay is a blissful paradise for pomegranate enthusiasts.

Because of the fruit’s abundance, cooking with pomegranates is a common practice in the region and numerous dishes, both sweet and savory, are prepared with their ruby seeds. Nar Govurmasi is one such dish.  In this dish, the meat (traditionally, lamb is used, but veal is a great substitute) is first fried with the onions, then chestnuts are added to it. A little broth on top and a dash of saffron, and the dish is simmered until the meat is fully cooked. Pomegranates are added at the very last stage and a great care is taken not to overcook them – they should remain fresh and never lose their crunchiness. Sometimes, the pomegranates seeds are not cooked at all: instead, they are added to individual serving plates, to taste.

This is an unusual dish worth trying now that pomegranates and chestnuts are at their peak. You’ll be intrigued by its taste.


Nar Govurmasi

Note: Typically, saffron infusion is added to jazz up the flavor of the dish, but if not available, use a generous pinch of turmeric powder instead (no need to dissolve in water).

Serves 4

2 pounds (900g) boneless or bone-in lamb (such as breast, shoulder or leg), cut into medium size serving pieces (substitute with veal)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, peeled, cut into half lengthwise, then thinly sliced crosswise
4 cups blanched and shelled chestnuts
salt, to taste
ground black pepper, to taste
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
2 tablespoons water
2 cups pomegranate seeds (preferably a tangy variety)

Put the meat in a medium saucepan and fill it with water, enough to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the meat is no more pink inside, about 20 minutes. During that time, with a slotted spoon, skim off the froth that may surface to top. Strain the meat through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving the broth (you will need some of it later). Put the meat on a separate plate.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until light golden, about 10 minutes. Add the meat to the onion and cook together, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes (the onions will almost melt down).

Add the chestnuts to the meat. Using a mortar and pestle, powder saffron threads (you should obtain about a pinch of powder), then dissolve the powder in 2 tablespoons hot water. Add the saffron-water along with 1 cup reserved broth to the pan with the meat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Cover and cook stirring occasionally (too much stirring may break the chestnuts) for about 30 minutes, or until the meat is fully cooked and the chestnuts are tender (they must hold their shape). If you are going to serve immediately, add the pomegranate seeds, cover and simmer over for 5 more minutes. If you are going to serve later, add the pomegranates just before serving and cook briefly. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve with bread or as a topping to rice pilaf. Nush Olsun! Enjoy!

A naughty two-year-old boy:”My, my Nar!”