Sunday Night Dinner Middle East Style – Pt. 2

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There was, of course, a lot more to dinner than just the pita and the dips. Because of the Middle Eastern theme, I had to venture back to the Yotam Ottolenghi Jerusalem cookbook, which, despite  having some of the best cookbook photography, has been a less than stellar culinary experience. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s a result of the fact that he’s trying to capture a cuisine that is “grandmother style”, existing not through recipes, but rather through generations of cooking. My experience with the recipes has been decidedly mixed. Which would normally result in my getting rid of the cookbook, but I just can’t let go of this one. The effort to meld the Palestinian and Israeli cooking traditions, the photography, the plethora of amazing-sounding dishes…I still have faith.

The Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak caught my eye. Despite the lengthy menu, I was trying to keep the individual dishes fairly simple. And as much as I think chicken is bland and boring, I have an odd talent for cooking it. Go figure. The recipe was simple and wouldn’t require a lot of attention during cooking. In the spirit of keeping it simple, I made one key modification when I couldn’t find Arak or Ouzo at the liquor store – I used gin. This probably mellowed the dish’s overall flavor. In addition to the clementines, the recipe also called for 2 fennel bulbs, the anise flavor of which would have been deepened with the licorice notes of the Arak or Ouzo. I picked gin for its herbal qualities which, while being a slightly different flavor profile, are subtle enough when used in cooking so as not to overwhelm the orange and fennel flavor.

The dish is easy and forgiving. Except for the fact that I rarely have clementines and fennel laying around the house, it could be a weeknight dinner. It starts with a marinade of Arak (or Ouzo, or Pernod, or, in my case, gin), olive oil, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh squeezed lemon juice, mustard, and light brown sugar. The recipe calls for chicken parts or thighs. I went thighs because they are the most flavorful part of the chicken and take well to long cooking. In addition to putting the chicken in the marinade, you need to add 4 sliced clementines (skin and all) and 2 quartered fennel bulbs. I threw in a third for good measure because we all really like fennel. I’m glad I did because there wouldn’t have been enough fennel without it. (Here’s where the grandma-style cooking comes in – he says 2 medium bulbs. But what is medium? I thought I picked out medium bulbs, but I knew 2 didn’t look like enough for us, and once the dish was cooked, it definitely wasn’t enough proportionally.)

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He indicates that you can skip the marinating stage if you are pressed for time, but I think it’s critical to tender chicken and deeper flavor. If I were doing this on a weeknight, I’d actually let it sit overnight.

Once you are ready to cook it, put it into a roasting pan large enough to accommodate the ingredients in one layer. (He says ‘baking sheet’ which made no sense. These are big ingredients with a ton of liquid. Editorial miss? Translation mistake? All I know is you need a roasting pan.) Then you slide that roasting pan into the oven and let it bake for 45 – 55 minutes at 475 until the chicken skin is browned and the chicken is done. I let it go for almost 2 hours, covering it with foil and dropping the temp to 375 for the second hour.)

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The resulting dish is fall-off-the-bone tender intensely flavored chicken that tastes like every ingredient in the marinade but not one in particular. There is a hint of orange from the clementines, but also caramely sweetness from their browned skins and the brown sugar. There is also a hint of brightness from all of the citrus juices, a tang from the mustard, and a slight anise note from the fennel. The clementines break down to the point that you can eat them skin and all along with the orange and fennel which enhance the taste even more. C. said it reminded him slightly of duck a la orange with the crispy duck and orange skin and the orange flavor. While I hadn’t thought of that comparison, he’s right.

For our veg course before the chicken I made roasted cauliflower with harissa. And violated one of the most important rules of cooking…taste, taste, taste. In my rush to get it finished before M and C arrived, I simply followed this recipe (sans the chickpeas) from Family Style Food (What a gorgeous blog!), never bothering to taste the new tube of harissa that I’d opened.

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I simply followed the instructions and added it to the sauteeing onions.

 

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…then added the cauliflower which I’d roasted earlier in the day (good pre-prep step if serving for company).

 

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Hot is an understatement. I like hot, but this was too much, and it kept building and building. Poor M. whose palate is very sensitive to spicy couldn’t even eat it. And the leftovers I had last night were even hotter.

Oh well, good reminder to TASTE!

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Want to read about the rest of the dinner? See Part 1 for the appetizer and Part 3 for dessert.

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