A couple of weeks ago I visited Borough Market for the first time. For someone who expends every waking thought on culinary matters, this was rather an exciting experience. It reminded me of the Real Food Festival; lots of independent retailers selling weird and wonderful things - the favourites seem to be cheese, artisan bread, and chorizo sausages. I was expecting more of a generic market, so I was pleasantly surprised. I loved the fruit and veg markets especially, with their lush displays of glistening fresh cherries, lychees, champagne rhubarb and quinces. I haven't seen quinces for a while now, so I bought a load of them eagerly for future use. They were the most perfect quinces I have ever seen; smooth and with a perfect, unblemished surface. But this isn't about the quinces. Another exciting purchase came in the form of a brace of teal from a butcher's. I've never seen teal before; the butchers here have never had it in stock, so I've only read about it in my game cookbook. It's a very small breed of wild duck, and I was struck by just how tiny it is - smaller than a wood pigeon. Always keen to try cooking something new, I bought a couple, with no idea of what I was going to do with them.
Inspiration came, though, from my Iranian cookbook, Saraban. There's a recipe for duck breast with fesenjun sauce, a thick, rich, unctuous concoction of pomegranate molasses and walnuts. Seeing as teal is a kind of duck, but its meat is much more strongly flavoured and gamey, I figured it would go very well with a rich, aromatic and sweet sauce. My mum had also recently been for a meal at an Iranian friend's house, and she raved about the fesenjun stew she had tasted. She told me proudly that she'd even obtained a bottle of the pomegranate molasses from her friend to make it, which she would give to me - why on earth she didn't think I'd have some already, I don't know, but I'm a bit addicted to the stuff so more is always a good thing. I wanted to try this culinary delight for myself; the notion of walnuts and pomegranates together in a sweet-sour sauce is something that appealed to me immensely.
In classic fesenjun recipes the meat is cooked in the sauce until it is tender and melts in the mouth, but overcooking such a tiny, beautiful game bird would have been a horrible thing to do, so I made the sauce separately.
The sauce is simple to make: the ingredients go in a pan and bubble away happily for an hour or so, until the mixture thickens and becomes rich and glossy. It's not the prettiest sauce to look at, but it tastes amazing. There's a richness from tomato purée, a sweet-sourness from pomegranate molasses, and an aromatic depth from cinnamon, turmeric, bay and black pepper.
For the teal, I seasoned them with salt and pepper then browned them in a pan full of hot butter. I brushed their skins with a glaze of honey, pomegranate molasses, black pepper and crushed cardamom, then they went in the oven for about ten minutes. Sounds like a very short time, but they are very small birds, and the meat is best eaten rare. They were perfectly cooked; a deep, scarlet red inside, with wonderfully soft, grainy meat.
Add some saffron couscous and a bunch of watercress, spoon over the sauce, and you have a delicious and moreish combination of intriguing flavours. Scattering over a few pomegranate seeds makes it look pretty and also adds a welcome crunch and freshness. The sauce is very good just stirred into the couscous and eaten on its own, but it's even better when coupled with a mouthful of iron-rich game. I can't wait to try a proper fesenjun stew with chicken.
You could use regular duck breasts for this recipe as well, or even a wild mallard (though you'll need to cook a mallard for a little longer).
Roast teal with fesenjun sauce (serves 2):
First, make the sauce. Roast 100g shelled walnuts in a baking tray in the oven for ten minutes. Remove to a food processor and blitz to thick crumbs - try to retain some texture. Heat some oil in a small saucepan and fry a small onion, finely diced, until soft. Stir in half a teaspoon cinnamon, a quarter of a teaspoon turmeric and black pepper. Add a dessert-spoon of tomato puree. Fry for a couple more minutes, then add the walnuts, a dessert-spoon of pomegranate molasses, a bay leaf, 20g sugar, 150ml pomegranate juice and 200ml chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring regularly, for an hour or so, until the mixture thickens and becomes rich and glossy. Taste to check the seasoning - if too sweet, add some lemon juice.
Start cooking the teal once the sauce is ready. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Season the teal inside and out with salt and pepper. Get an oven-proof frying pan quite hot and add a knob of butter and a splash of olive oil. When sizzling, place the teal in the pan, breast-side down, and sear for a minute or so until golden. Repeat with the bottom of the bird. Mix a tablespoon of honey with half a teaspoon pomegranate molasses and a pinch of black pepper and ground cardamom, and brush over the browned skin of the teal. Place the pan in the oven for ten minutes, then remove the birds, cover with foil, and rest for a few minutes while you make the couscous.
For the couscous, just put it in a bowl, sprinkle on some saffron, then pour over boiling water to cover it by half a centimetre or so. Cover with a plate and leave for five minutes.
Serve the teal with the couscous, some watercress or rocket, the sauce, and some pomegranate seeds sprinkled over.