Sumac and za'atar roasted chicken

This week Simona from briciole is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging, and I've been using two of my favourite Middle Eastern spices: sumac and za'atar. Sumac is made from the crushed berries of a small Mediterranean tree, and used liberally all over the Middle East, where it can be sprinkled over food or infused in water and used to flavour dishes, rather like tamarind. It has a sharp flavour, like lemon juice, and is used in the same sort of way. Za'atar is not a spice but a spice and herb mixture, comprising dried thyme or marjoram, sesame seeds and salt. It can sometimes contain sumac as well. One of my favourite ways to eat za'atar I discovered in Jordan, where they mix it with olive oil to form a vivid green paste which is then spread on rounds of flatbread, to form a sort of za'atar pizza. It's incredibly delicious; you wouldn't have thought dried herbs on bread could taste so good, but the olive oil gives it an almost buttery flavour. I could happily have subsisted off those little pizzas for the entire time I was there. Supplemented by some falafel, naturally. And baklava.

I'm quite fond of my jar of za'atar, having travelled with it through Syria and Jordan and then back to the UK. I stumbled across it in Aleppo, after spying a little nondescript shop on the corner of a street whose windows were full of these gorgeous jars, where the various ingredients in the za'atar mix had been layered atop one another. It was an effect reminiscent of those jars of coloured sand you can sometimes buy in touristy areas, where the colours are layered in stripes. I was captivated and intrigued, so ventured in to ask the stallholder what the substance was. When he told me, I immediately purchased a large bag. I already had some that I'd bought from the Moroccan deli in Oxford, but this was the real deal and I wasn't going to miss out. Particularly as I bought twice as much for half the price. As well as some huge blocks of olive oil soap, which I still have because I can't bear to use them. I was also informed that rubbing them on clothing keeps biting insects away, so I think I probably purchased them in a desperate bid to ward off the mosquitoes; they are drawn to my flesh as I am drawn to baklava.

It's hard to describe the flavour of za'atar; almost musky in a way, and much less pungent than simple dried thyme. I think it's the mellowing effect of the sesame seeds. The salt and sumac also give it a slight tartness, which means it's good for coating food to be roasted. I've had it on potato wedges, and also sprinkled over a bowl of homemade labneh (Middle Eastern cheese), but my favourite use is to scatter it liberally over roast chicken. 

This is a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, and it's superb. It's also incredibly simple, but the end result is much more than the sum of its parts. I cook a lot, and some of the things I attempt can be quite complex and fiddly (the quail egg ravioli springs to mind...), so it's sometimes quite nice to cook something as easy yet as impressive as this. Jointed chicken pieces are marinated in a lemony, garlicky mixture for a few hours then covered in za'atar before being roasted in the oven. It's the kind of food I like serving to people; it's full of flavour, hearty, rustic, and pretty much guaranteed to please everyone. After all, it's essentially roast chicken, just updated with a moreish Middle Eastern twist. The sumac and lemon combination make it incredibly addictive; they have a sourness that works so well with the crispy chicken skin, and are simultaneously quite refreshing. You can get sumac and za'atar in supermarkets now, but your best bet is a Middle Eastern grocers, if you don't have the time, money (or suicidal streak, given the current political climate) to go to Syria.

The main reason I made this was because I'd been craving the crisp, herby skin of a roast chicken against the cool tartness of Greek yoghurt, ever since eating some incredible Persian food at the Real Food Festival last weekend. I hate yoghurt on its own, as anyone who knows me will be sick of hearing, but I don't mind it with savoury dishes, and it can be the perfect accompaniment to spicy roast meats. 

To serve with this, I mixed Greek yoghurt with grated cucumber and chopped mint, tzatziki-style. For the carbohydrate element, I went with bulgur wheat, mainly because I fancied a change from couscous and because I love its nutty, larger grains. I caramelised some onion slices and pine nuts to go on top, partly for decoration and partly because caramelised onions paired with roast meat can only be a good thing.

The crispy, tart skin of the roast chicken with the nutty, almost creamy wheat, the crunchy pine nuts and the cooling yoghurt is a beautiful combination. The best bits, however, are the onions and lemon slices from the marinade, which go in the oven on top of the chicken and turn sweet and crispy. The lemon mellows enough to eat, skin and all, and when you get a mouthful of chicken with a little bit of lemon slice the flavour is incredible, particularly because the tartness is heightened by the sumac. It's a real feast for the tastebuds, with all the tart, herbal, caramelised flavours in there, and an immensely satisfying combination. It's also guaranteed to please a crowd of hungry diners; there's a sort of barbecue element to the pieces of crisped chicken, charred in places, served with a simple sauce and big spoonfuls of wheat.

Incidentally, I served this lemon and mint cheesecake after the chicken; its creamy, tangy citrus flavour is the perfect complement to a rich meal.

Sumac and za'atar roasted chicken (serves 4):

1 large chicken, jointed into four or eight pieces
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp sumac
1 lemon, thinly sliced
200ml chicken stock or water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp za'atar

400g Greek yoghurt
Half a cucumber, grated
20g fresh mint, finely chopped

200g bulgur wheat
500ml water
2 onions, thinly sliced
A handful of pine nuts
2 tbsp olive oil

First, marinate the chicken. Mix the onions, garlic, olive oil, spices (not the za'atar), lemon, stock/water, salt and pepper. Add the chicken pieces, coat in the mixture and leave to marinate overnight or for a few hours in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the chicken and its marinade on a large baking tray, skin-side up. Sprinkle over the za'atar. Roast for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.

Meanwhile, mix the yoghurt, cucumber and mint and set aside. Boil the bulgur wheat in the water until tender, then season generously. Caramelise the onions in the olive oil (this will take about 20 minutes), then add the pine nuts and let them colour. Spoon the bulgur into a serving bowl and spread the onions and pine nuts on top.

Serve the chicken pieces with the bulgur and mint yoghurt, and some chopped parsley scattered over, if you like. You can also sprinkle over more sumac and za'atar.

(Chicken recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's Ottolenghi cookbook)