Grilled Chicken With Za’atar and Cumin Aioli

In the current July issue of Bon Appetit magazine Chef Silvena Rowe, the chef at London’s hot new eastern Mediterranean restaurant Quince, is featured.  Chef Rowe says, " I want to do with eastern Mediterranean food what Mario Batali does with Italian food."

  The article continues…For Rowe, every dish tells a story.  Some pay tribute to her Turkish father, or wend their way to a spice market in Aleppo, a street-food vendor in Damascus, or a celebration in Istanbul. 

Equal parts rustic and elegant, Rowe’s is a borderless cuisine of za’atar and lemon zest, chile and cumin, marked by vibrant flavors, bright colors, and heady aromas.  “It’s luxury peasant food,” she explains.  “It’s based on traditional recipes, but with a sense of modernity: There’s more fragrance and life.”

After reading the article and the many recipes I decided to make the Grilled Chicken With Za’atar for a special dinner. It was our last dinner with our best friends down the street before their move out of the neighborhood where we met and became fast friends for the past 22 years.

Fortunately, they will be remaining in the area, but not having them within arm’s reach after all these years will take some getting used to for all of us.  But, as they say, change is good, and we wish them all the best as they begin this new chapter of their lives.

Over the years we have shared countless meals together, at their home, at our home, and at many restaurants and cafes.  Undoubtedly, that will not change. 

So a special dinner was called for in our home as a sendoff and this Grilled Chicken With Za’atar served with a cumin aioli was a perfect choice.  The aromatic spices serve to deepen the flavor of the chicken.  The chicken halves are marinated and grilled over medium heat so the skin slowly crisps as the meat gently cooks through, remaining juicy. The Cumin Aioli is a delicious cool counterpoint to the grilled chicken.

Za’atar is an intensely aromatic and ancient spice blend and condiment Chef Rowe uses to flavor everything from grilled meats to freshly baked bread. 

The mixture is traditionally made with dried herbs such as marjoram or thyme (the Arabic word za’atar pronounced ZAH-tahr, also means “thyme”).  Her use of chopped fresh oregano, instead of thyme,  goes well with the nuttiness of the sesame seeds, and is a perfect spice blend for the chicken.

Za’atar (Bon Appetit, July 2011)

(makes about 1/4 cup)

You can find sumac at Middle eastern markets, specialty foods stores, and wholespice.com

Combine 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, 1 tablespoon sumac, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, and salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.  Do Ahead: Can be made 2 weeks ahead.  Store airtight at room temperature.

Grilled Chicken With Za’atar (2-4 servings)  (Bon Appetit, July, 2011)

2 heads of garlic, top cut off

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1  3-4-lb chicken, cut in half lengthwise, backbone removed

1/4 cup za’atar (recipe above)

1 and 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest and 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 small serrano chile, seeded, minced

2 teaspoons dried marjoram

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cumin aioli

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Put garlic on a large sheet of foil.  Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and wrap tightly with foil.  Roast until tender and golden brown, 45-50 minutes.  Let cool.

Place chicken in a 13x9x2” glass baking dish.  Sprinkle 2 and 1/2 tablespoons za’atar over chicken. 

Squeeze roasted garlic cloves out of skins and into a small bowl.; mash into a paste with the back of a fork.  Add 4 tablespoons oil, lemon zest and juice, rosemary, chile, and marjoram;  whisk to blend.  Pour over chicken; turn to coat.  cover; chill overnight.

Season chicken with salt and pepper; let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, build a medium fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to medium-high.  Brush grill rack with remaining 1 tablespoon oil.  Grill chicken, turning occasionally, until skin is crisp and browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the deepest part of thigh without touching bone reads 160 degrees, about 35 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a cutting board, sprinkle with remaining za’atar, and let rest 10 minutes.

Cut each chicken half into 4 pieces and serve on a platter with Cumin Aioli.

Cumin Aioli

makes 1 cup  If you prefer not to eat raw eggs, whisk the ground cumin, juice, and garlic into 1 cup store-bought mayonnaise.

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 large egg yolks (preferably organic)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 small garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup grapeseed oil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Stir cumin in small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 2 minutes; let cool.  Coarsely grind in a spice mill.  Whisk yolks, lemon juice, and garlic in a small bowl. While whisking, slowly pour in grapeseed oil drop by drop, then olive oil, whisking vigorously until emulsified.  Whisk in cumin and 1/2 teaspoon water.  Season with salt.  Cover; chill.

Note:  I used Hellman’s canola oil mayonnaise, and whisked in the ground cumin, lemon juice, and fresh garlic.  May try the homemade version next time.

I also doubled the above recipe for 2 whole chickens.

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