I have a Persian apple and chicken stew recipe for you today that is quite unique because it comes from a man who has dedicated his life to growing not one or a few but literally hundreds of kinds of apples and other fruit trees. He also happens to be an excellent cook.
In October I had the honour to visit Keepers Nursery in Kent, England, where Hamid Habibi, Sima Morshed and their son Karim have probably the largest private collection of apple trees in the world. The sheer variety of apples they grow is truly stunning. I saw apples that weighed nearly a kilo as well as tiny ones in all colours and shades and many others in between. They also grow Persian and other varieties of medlars and quinces. I got to taste some of Hamid’s superb quince jam and spiced pickled pears the first time I visited.
Cooking with fruit is a characteristic of the Persian cuisine. We love putting fruits of all sorts in our food to give it the sweet and sour flavour (malas) we so much love. Hamid is Iranian but has lived in Britain for many years. When he told me he does a Persian apple khoresht with chicken I had to beg for his recipe. He agreed to give me his recipe as well as an interview to share with my readers. So let’s meet Hamid first:
Hamid, please tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been growing apples? How many varieties do you think you have in your collection?
My wife Sima and I have been growing apple trees as amateur gardeners for a long time but professionally for about 25 years. Our professional involvement really started as a result of my father-in-law setting up a little orchard in part of our garden for our two sons when they were small. He thought it would be nice for them to grow up with fruit trees like we had as children in Iran. To cut a long story short we ended up buying some land around our house and going into partnership with the nurseryman who planted the little orchard for us. This was over 25 years ago. We now have what is probably the largest private collection of fruit trees in the country which includes about 600 varieties of apple. The nursery has grown and our younger son Karim, now grown up, has also become our partner (and occasionally boss!) in the business. We believe that we have the largest range of fruit trees for sale anywhere.
You obviously have a huge supply of many different varieties of apples from the orchard. In what different ways do you use them?
There are lots of ways apples can be used but there is nothing quite like biting into a fresh, crisp and juicy apple straight off the tree. We are lucky to have almost an endless supply from August until about Christmas. We manage to get through quite a few every day: For breakfast, as dessert after lunch or dinner, or just as a snack straight off the tree while we are working in the nursery. We juice some and have our own apple juice throughout the year and some to give to friends as well. One of our favourite cakes is what I call “triple apple cake” because it has a lot more apple in it than cake! We also make apple sauce with cinnamon as a dessert or to have with yoghurt or on cereals. We also make dried apple which is a great healthy snack. One of the favourite dishes in our house is a Persian apple stew – khorest-e sib – and we have our own recipe for it.
This red-fleshed tart apple was the best I tasted during my visit.
Where does your apple khoresht recipe come from? Your family in Iran?
When we were first married Sima said that her favourite dish when she was a child in Iran was khoresht-e sib. Apparently it was a regular dish in their house. I had never had it. In fact it is not a very common dish. Anyway I came up with my version of khoresht-e sib which while it follows the basic pattern of Persian khorsht recipes, is probably unique to our house.
What’s your favourite variety of apple to cook with? What kind of apples work best in your recipe? Any commonly found UK varieties you can recommend?
I have tried a lot of different apple varieties but one of the best, which happens to be one that is available from supermarkets throughout the year in Pink Lady. The khoresht needs a sweet apple with a firm texture which does not break up easily when cooked. It also needs to be an apple which does not discolour too quickly.
What’s the key spice in your apple khoresht recipe?
The key spice is saffron which gives a golden yellow colour to the apples. But I also use turmeric and cinnamon in the recipe.
I had dinner with Hamid and Sima recently. Hamid had made the apple khoresht for us with rice and a delicious golden tahdig (crust from the bottom of the pot). The khoresht smelled and tasted heavenly. I took some pictures of his khoresht but the lighting was not good and none was usable so I made the khoresht this weekend according to his recipe and the house once again filled with the lovely aroma of saffron, cinnamon and apples. So here is his recipe for 4-6 servings:
Reminder from Hamid: “Like most Persian dishes khoresht-e sib benefits from allowing the flavours to blend. We call it ja oftadan. Many are allowed to cook slowly. As this is a dish that cooks relatively fast, I like to leave it to sit for an hour or two and to re-heat it before serving.”
A note on Sekanjabin: This Persian syrup is very easy to make at home. Put 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Add 2 tbsp white wine vinegar and 2 large sprigs of mint. Simmer gently for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and discard the mint when the syrup has cooled. Use as called for in the recipe. For other uses of sekanjabin check out my post Minty Wine Vinegar Syrup.
So here is his recipe for 4-6 servings:
- 750g chicken thighs, skinned
- 1.5Kg Pink Lady apples
- 2 onions
- 5 tbsp sunflower oil
- 2 lemons
- 100ml white cider vinegar
- 100ml sekanjabin (Elderflower cordial syrup works well as an English alternative)
- 1 tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp cinnamon powder or small stick of whole cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground saffron
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- Peel and finely chop the onions. Put 3 tablespoons oil in a pan. Add the chopped onions and cook over medium heat until translucent. Add the turmeric and cinnamon and stir in.
- Add the skinned chicken thighs to the pan and cook until they are well covered with the spices and sealed. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture, season with salt and a little pepper and stir. Add 500ml of boiling water and bring back to boil. Lower the heat and gently simmer for 30 minutes or until the chicken is well cooked.
- Meanwhile, core and cut the apples into 8-10 segments. An apple segment cutter is ideal for this. Heat 2 tablespoons sunflower oil in a sauté pan. Add the apple segments and sauté for 5 minutes.
- Mix the saffron with 2 tablespoons boiling water in a cup. Pour over the apple segments and stir. The apple segments should become golden yellow as they absorb the saffron. Put the apple segments in a bowl.
- Once cooked allow the chicken to cool sufficiently to handle. Gently take the chicken meat off the bone and place the pieces in the sauté pan. Pour the stock left from cooking the chicken into the sauté pan. Arrange the apple segments on top.
- Mix the juice from the two lemons, vinegar and sekanjabin (or elderflower syrup) and pour it over the contents of the sauté pan. Simmer gently for about 15-20 minutes checking regularly to ensure that the apple does not overcook. It is important to cook the apple segments to exactly the right amount. They are ready when they are soft and fairly limp but have not yet started to fall apart. Serve with rice and enjoy.