Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chicken with sumac : one of the world's best chicken dishes

Penny for penny, minute of effort for minute of effort, chicken with sumac is probably the best dish in the world. It takes almost no time to prepare, bakes in less than an hour, and uses simple, easy to find ingredients (provided you have a source for sumac).

For some, sumac is a stumbling block. Even hearing the name of the dish gives some people a rash in their throat, but be assured that the spice sumac is a completely different species from poison sumac. It is an essential spice in the Middle east, at least from the Levant through Iran, and adds a rich lemony acidity but is not quite as sour. The color is also beautiful. There is also a traditional American use. American non-poisonous sumac I think is related. Have you ever had pink lemonade? Why would anyone dye lemonade pink? The reason is that in previous centuries, when lemons were scarce to unobtainable, a sweet and sour drink was made with red sumac berries and a sweetener, either sugar or honey: sumac lemonade. My guess is that people were in the habit of drinking a pink lemonade-like concoction, and when real lemons were more readily available, were in the habit of coloring the drink pink. Don't pick your own sumac berries for this dish, though.

The recipe I offer is very slightly adapated from Mary Laird Hamady's luminous Lebanese Mountain Cookery, one of the great books devoted to a micro-cuisine, rural, Druze cooking from Lebanon, and its transmutations in Michigan. It is out-of-print, but still around and worth looking for. You know that you are dealing with the real thing when there is a chapter lovingly devoted to dehen (rendered lamb tail fat), along with adaptations for the American kitchen. This fat is specifically forbidden in Leviticus as an act of asceticism. Remember, our ancestors come from a part of the world where much erotic poetry revolves around the image of the fat tailed sheep and giving it up must have been quite a sacrifice. (Sabbetai Zevi shocked many of his contemporaries by consuming lamb kidney fat, also forbidden, and suggested by Hamady as a substitute for the tail.)

Many of the recipes in the book are worth making (appetizers, pastries, fish, stews, meatballs), but this is our favorite. You will note it is much shorter than most of my recipes, since there is not way to make it longer. I made up for it with excessive commentary:

  • olive oil
  • 4-6 loaves pita bread, stale ok, white or whole wheat ok
  • 1 large spanish onion, peeled, halved, and cut into thin slices
  • 4-5 tablespoons ground sumac
  • 3 1/2 pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces (halve the breasts which tend to be very large)
  • salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Lightly oil a large baking dish that is 1 or two inches deep.
  3. Split the pitas, rip into large pieces, and place in the baking dish. Top with the onions.
  4. Season with salt, fresh pepper, and 2-3 tablespoons of sumac. Mix lightly if you are not lazy, but this is not absolutely necessary.
  5. Top with the chicken, which ideally should cover all the bread.
  6. Season the chicken with salt, pepper and 2 more tablespoons of sumac. It looks nicer if the sumac is spread evenly, so you may sprinkle it on through a sieve.
  7. If the chicken looks like is doesn't have enough skin and fat, drizzle with a little olive oil (or actually as much as you feel like).
  8. Bake 50 minutes to one hour. That's it. Serves 4 - 6 people.
Finding sumac: It is actually not that hard. Any store that stocks middle eastern groceries should have it. Fairway even carries it now. It is also available mail order from Penzey's spices. You can even follow Paula Wolfert's suggestion and call a local Lebanese or Syrian church and ask the priest where the women in his congregation do their shopping. Don't make excuses, you will regret it. It keeps nearly forever in your freezer. Don't keep it, or any other spices, on a rack near your stove. Sumac is also very nice in a chopped salad or fattoush, and can also be rubbed on a plain roasted or broiled chicken.

The key to success: is the right balance between chicken and bread. Be sure the chicken covers the bread, and add olive oil if necessary. Some people think that in this dish the chicken is beside the point and it is all about the bread, onions and sumac. They are right, but don't be tempted to just put in more bread, since there won't be enough chicken fat to moisten it. The best solution if you want more bread is to get a package of chicken backs and increase the seasonings. They will add plenty of fat, and to my taste, more of the best meat on the chicken. Another key to success is salt, and kosher chickens are really good at keeping the sodium levels up. We have friends who live in a low-sodium household (not that any of them have particularly high blood pressure). We on the other hand eat more salt than we do rice, especially since Amy is on her current low-carb regime. Whenever we make this dish for these friends they remark on how much better our version is than their's. It's because we use salt, and aren't shy about it.

How long does it cook? How many does it serve? These are the eternal questions for which there is really no answer, only, in the Jewish style, questions. How hot is your oven? How tightly is the chicken placed? Was the chicken cold or at room temperature when you put it in? How big is the chicken? How big are the pieces (I find that breasts can run so large that they take longer to cook now than the nearly vestigial legs and thighs of our poor chickens, so I then to cut the breasts up)? How hungry is everyone? What else are you serving? Just bake it for an hour and don't worry about it. There will be plenty for at least 4 people.

Chicken with sumac and mussakhan: There is a similar, more elaborate, and more difficult Palestinian dish called mussakhan. To my taste, it's not worth the time and effort -- you get more bang for your precious time with this version of chicken with sumac, which has all the flavor elements and is easy enough to be a weeknight dinner.

Copyright and recipes: One day, as I have long promised, I will write about intellectual property and recipes. My version makes some slight changes from Hamady's (she puts bread on top which just burns) , but I really justify my publicizing her recipe as a way of making her wonderful cookbook better known. Look for it and buy it if you can.


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    1. thanks! but real thanks do to Mary Laird Hamady -- look for her book if you can find it.

  2. Actually, chicken breast doesn't have much fat even when keeping some skin. Furthermore it tends to dry up when baked. I will try this recipe with thigh fillets, keeping the fat, while adding some za'atar.