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Crispy Lemon Chicken with Za’atar & Celery Root Skordalia

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lemon chicken za'atar Oleana

One of my dreams is to live in either Tokyo or New York one day. Or, if I ever manage to be fluent in French, Paris would be cool, too.I want to be in a big city that has all kinds of cuisines, from all over the world. There’s just something very exciting about trying new food with a completely different flavor profile than we’re used to. I appreciate the novelty of exotic flavors, and at the same time this novelty makes the Vietnamese flavors I grew up with even more endearing and comforting.

Unfortunately I haven’t really had a chance to live in a gastronomically diverse city. Kyoto was wonderful with all the traditional restaurants full of Kyoto-fu food, but there were – get this, THREE, Vietnamese restaurants, two of which empirically suck. Boston fared a little better – there is a surprising wealth of Middle Eastern, South American and even African grocery stores and restaurants around here. It’s not as exciting as New York, for sure, but among the more well-known ones, I’ve found my favorite: Oleana.

Do you know all the bullcrap cliches about “food made with love” and “food from the heart” they often rant about on TV? Well, I never really believe in it, until Oleana. Maybe because Middle Eastern (in this case, Turkish) flavors are new to me – the novelty effect – but I’ve never had anything at Oleana that I considered “forgettable”. Or maybe because I didn’t hype it up too much, like the time I went to Craigie on Main. Oleana’s food is at once daring and comforting, hearty and light, artisitic and non-pretentious. I don’t even know how that’s possible. Most restaurants go for one end of the spectrum (Craigie on Main – I’m winking at you), and it’s not…satisfying. Let’s just say I’m awe-struck every time I go to Oleana, and promply ordered chef-owner Ana Sortun’s cookbook the day after my first meal there.

“Spice”, just like Oleana, is a non-pretentious cookbook with the least number of glossy photos and the most delicious recipes – actual menu items at her restaurants. Some of them are complicated, but not to the extent where you have to hunt for a pig’s head and cook it for a hundred years. The recipes are also organized by the type of spices used, which…makes so much sense, and a good way to venture into a realm of cuisine you’re unfamiliar with.

Below are 2 recipes I’ve attempted and meddled with, to great success. I’ve had the originals at the restaurant and they were, of course!, better, but I’m satisfied with our results. This, this is food made with love. It makes me all warm and cozy and happy inside.

Crispy Lemon Chicken with Za’atar 

adapted from “Spices” – Ana Sortun

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern herb OR a spice mix with this herb and sesame seeds and some other stuff. The content varies depending on where it’s from, so I thought it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to make my own with thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. The original recipe is for a whole chicken, but we made it with 8 pieces of  chicken thighs (thigh not the drumstick part), adjusting the amount of spices accordingly. The original recipe is also a bit more complicated – she stuffed dark meat chicken into the white meat part and so on, very smart. I simplified 🙂

1 lemon, cut into very thin slices, seeds removed

1/2 cup olive oil, plus 1 tbs

4 tbs butter

Salt & pepper to taste

8 medium pieces of skin-on chicken thighs (not with the drumstick) (*optional: deboned; we didn’t, and it was fine)

2 bricks, wrapped 3 times in foil (*we used a cast iron pan in place of the bricks)

6 tbs za’atar, or as much as you like, really

Step 1. Lemon confit: cook lemon slices in very low heat in the 1/2 cup olive oil, until soft and jamlike. Let cool.

Step 2. Season chicken with salt & pepper on both sides.

Step 3. Cut up half the butter into small cubes and stuff them under the chicken skin. Smear the lemon confit under the skin too.

Step 4. Brown the remaining butter and olive oil in a large pan over high heat. Add chicken skin side down and place the bricks (or another heavy pan) on top of the chicken pieces. This pressure will melt the butter and the chickens get basted in butter and lemon evenly.

Step 5. Reduce the heat a little, cook till skin is brown and crispy, then turn the chicken over to cook the other side. Each side needs about 8-10 minutes.

Step 6. Plate the chicken, sprinkle liberally with the za’atar mix & serve.

We had this with our version of Sortun’s celery root skordalia. Celery root is fascinating! It’s like a turnip, but smells like celery/parsley, very strongly. For the recipe, you’re gonna have to find her book. I can tell you this: instead of using potatoes, we used Asian yam (the not so sweet type). It’s basically a mashed/puree mixture of cooked celery root, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, almond meal, garlic, lemon juice, salt & pepper. We didn’t use olive oil like directed. The proportions are easy to figure out 🙂 It should have the consistency of mashed potatoes!

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