(Vicki James) This terrific recipe would be a great choice for either Easter or Passover, if you are serving a small group. Under the constraints of the pandemic, most of us are (or should be) planning a much smaller celebration this year. But we still want to make food that feels like more special than the usual fare we are eating these days (i.e. canned spaghetti-os and such). These exotic flavors will transport you to Biblical times in the Holy Land. Za’atar is a seasoning mix that has been in use in the middle east since ancient times.
The foundation of Za’atar is a wild thyme that grows in abundance in that region of the world. A modern blend is produced by Morton and Basset and contains thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, oregano, marjoram, coriander, and cumin, with a dash of chili pepper thrown in.
If you google it, you will also find some recipes online to make your own mixture. I’ve seen some fierce debates as to whether cumin belongs in Za’atar, so make your own decision if you decide to make it yourself.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with sumac, it’s a middle eastern spice with a slightly citrusy flavor. I first tried it when I was I college and sumac garnished dishes were prepared by a good friend who was married to an Iranian. I was intrigued by the scent and flavor then but was never sure how to procure any for my own use and not many recipes existed that called for its use.
I began to notice recipes using sumac about a year ago in mainstream publications. It was still not available locally, but I ordered some online and enjoyed the unusual tang it lent to my middle eastern inspired recipes. Now it seems that Za’atar is having a moment, too. The only bad thing I can say about Za’atar is that it resembles the dust you might find in a vacuum cleaner bag. Sadly, your chicken will not look very pretty, but I promise it will taste incredibly delicious.
4 -5 medium red potatoes (around 1 ½ pounds) unpeeled and scrubbed.
4 medium shallots, halved
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sumac
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 small roasting chicken (about 3 ½ to 4 pounds)
1 small lemon
4 tablespoons za’atar seasoning blend
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves
6 thyme sprigs
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut each potato into 6 wedges. In a 9” x 13” glass baking dish, toss the potatoes and shallots with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, salt, pepper and sumac.
Season the cavity and exterior of the chicken with salt and pepper. Zest the lemon into a small bowl. Halve the lemon and set aside. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil to the lemon zest, along with 3 tablespoons of za’atar and the red pepper flakes and gently stir.
Stuff the interior of the chicken with the lemon halves, garlic and thyme sprigs. Rub the chicken all over with the za’atar mixture. I would also recommend that you gently work your fingers under the chicken skin and over the breast to loosen it. Then gently ease some of the za’atar mixture between the skin and the breast meat. If you wish, you can truss the chicken or simply tie the legs together. You can sprinkle the chicken with an additional tablespoon of za’atar, but I did not do this as the skin was thicky coated already.
Place the chicken breast side up on top of the potatoes. Roast the chicken at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350. Roast about an hour and check the temperature. It should be 165 degrees. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes. Remove the garlic, lemon and thyme from the interior of the chicken. Discard everything except the lemon, which you can squeeze over the chicken and potatoes just before serving. Carve the chicken over the potatoes so that the yummy juices bathe the potatoes and shallots.
The chicken will be amazingly flavorful, but the skin will not be crisp. That is why I recommend rubbing some of the Za’atar mixture under the skin before roasting. The potatoes cooked under the chicken will be soft while the potatoes not under the chicken will be delightfully crisp. My husband and I especially loved the sweet, spicy roasted shallots. If it’s only the two of you dining together on the holiday, it’s great to note that the chicken makes wonderful leftovers.
While the chicken was resting, I microwaved an 8 ounce package of fresh French green beans. I the tossed them with the potatoes and shallots, so that they were coated in the delicious mixture of olive oil and chicken juices, favored with the exotic seasonings. It was a delicious way to add a fresh green element that the plate was missing. A green salad would be a terrific accompaniment as well.
Pile your plate and settle down for a zoom gathering with the family while you dine. After you describe your wonderful meal to the group, everyone will want the recipe, so share this food blog with one and all.
Happy and safe holidays everyone. Remember, social distancing now ensures that all of you can be together again next year.