Words: Aoife McElwain Photo: Mark Duggan
Have you come across the spices of za'atar and sumac before?
They're both staples of the Middle Eastern spice cupboard, brought to my attention by the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef based in London who has a wonderful way with vegetables.
Za'atar is a spice mix made up usually of sesame seeds, dried herbs such as thyme and oregano, and salt. Sometimes sumac is also added to the mix. Its most common use is as a topping for a Middle Eastern pizza - a pitta bread doused in oil and sprinkled in za'atar, before hitting the fire. You'll find it sprinkled on hummus and labneh, or used as a seasoning for meat, which is what we've done here with our chicken thighs. It gives the chicken a salty, herby flavour, rather than a hot and spicy kick.
Sumac is a red berry, dried and crushed, often creating a magenta, almost purple powder. In taste, they are tart, with a citrus zing, making them a super addition to salads, rice dishes and meats.
I love a bit of sumac sprinkled over my eggs, whether they're boiled or poached.
To accompany the chicken thighs, I've done a really simple sumac yogurt. When I'm using yogurt as a drizzling sauce, I often add a tablespoon or so to thin out the consistency. It doesn't make a huge impact on the strength of the flavour and it helps improve the dish's final presentation.
When put together, this dish has a really satisfying taste of the Middle East. It's so quick to put together as well, you'll be surprised at the pay off in flavour.
Serve it with some pitta bread on the side to help mop up that sumac yogurt and deliciously spiced chicken.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
For the chicken:
8 chicken thigh pieces
1 tablespoon of za'atar spice
Pinch of salt and pepper
4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
For the rice pilaf:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 white onion
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
200g basmati rice
600ml vegetable stock
4 tablespoons of natural yogurt
1 teaspoon of ground sumac
Handful of shelled pistachio nuts (salted is fine)
Handful of pomegranate seeds
Handful of fresh mint, finely chopped
1. Pre-heat your oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6. Lay your chicken pieces in a roasting tray. Sprinkle evenly with the za'atar, add a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and then drizzle the chicken pieces evenly with the vegetable oil. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and nicely browned.
2. Meanwhile, make your rice pilaf by heating the olive oil over a medium heat in a large, deep frying pan. Thinly slice the onion into half-moon shapes and finely dice the garlic. Gently fry the onion for three minutes until starting to soften, and then add the garlic and fry for another two minutes. You want the onions and garlic to be translucent and smelling lovely, but be careful not to burn either of them.
3. Next, add the cumin seeds, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick and the rice, stirring and frying for one minute, until the rice is coated with all the spices. Pour in the vegetable stock, bring to a gentle boil and then simmer without stirring for 25 minutes, or until the stock has evaporated and the rice is cooked through.
4. Make the sumac yogurt by mixing together the yogurt and sumac. Add about a tablespoon of water to give it a thinner consistency if you like.
5. Serve the rice on a platter and top with pieces of the roasted za'atar chicken. Roughly chop the pistachio nuts and sprinkle on top, along with the pomegranate seeds and the fresh mint. Finish with a generous drizzle of the sumac yogurt and serve the rest of the yogurt on the side.
Za'atar chicken with sumac yogurt
this week's store cupboard essential:
Pistachio nuts: These little green nuts really make a gorgeous topping for any Middle Eastern influenced salad or roasted meat dish. If you can find the unsalted variety, they're very useful for sweet baking purposes, such as a pistachio cake, or a pistachio pavlova topping. Keep a packet in your pantry for times of need.