Friday, 16 October 2009
Za’atar is a middle eastern spice blend that I’ve recently developed quite a crush on. It’s dark green and is predominantly made from Thymbra spicata which is a slightly minty member of the oregano and thyme family. The blend is then made up of ground sumac, roasted sesame seeds and a variety of other green herbs. For full etymology and biblical references have a look at the Epicentre website.
Feeling bamboozled and not knowing quite what to do with it, but feeling adventurous and very much inspired by our Ottolenghi experiences recently, I decided to cobble together my own recipe for za’atar chicken to feed a dinner party of 10. If Nigella can do it, then so can I.
Here’s what to do…
Stir 5 large spoons of za’atar spice into enough olive oil to form a paste. Then add a dessertspoon of sumac and give it a taste. I’ve got to admit that my first impression was that I’d just created an oily, gritty mess. Not unlike mixing weed with lighter fuel. But I persevered. And encourage you to do the same.
Smear your paste over 20 chicken thighs and season with salt. After a brief discussion with Cowie, I then poured over a glass or two of white wine and a squeeze of lemon to give it some moisture and acidity. The chicken then got whacked in the oven for an hour at about 180’c, whereupon, with a bit of basting and turning, it transformed like a latter day Britney Spears from looking apologetic, anaemic and bland into a moist, exotic, showstopper.
Remove the chicken from the baking dish and put it in a fresh dish into the now cooling oven so the skin stays crisp and the meat gets a chance to rest. Then, to create a sauce, pour off the liquid and separate out the fat. Add the remaining cooking liquid back into the baking tray you cooked it in and place it on a high heat on the hob and reduce as if there is no tomorrow. Add a glug or two of pomegranate molasses and some honey and adjust the acidity by squeezing in lemon until it thickens and tastes right. (This bit was seriously ad-libbed but it worked out a treat.) We were left with a sticky, syrupy, savoury, sensational sauce that I never dreamed of ending up with when we started.
Serve with Israeli cous cous, studded with pine nuts and raisins along with the ever-popular Ottolgenhi classic of scorched broccoli to appreciative friends.
It worked out brilliantly. Next time I’m going to give the same treatment to a whole chicken and serve it as a Sunday roast.
Despite this not being directly influenced by the Ottolenghi cookbook, it certainly played a key role in inspiring us to experiment with new ingredients such as sumac, za’atar and pomegranate molasses. But I’m getting worried that our growing Ottolenghi addiction may result in us booking flights (that we can’t afford) to Damascus, Cairo or Beirut to get stuck into Middle Easter food first hand.