For an easy, but impressive weeknight dinner, turn a simple roast chicken into a fabulous poultry dinner by rubbing it with za’atar. Using olive oil to form a paste, spread za’atar and salt underneath the chicken skin and let it rest in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours, which has the same effect as brining a chicken.
To cook it, use the Italian technique of cooking under a brick (or a pot in this case). Once the skin is crisp, brush on additional za’atar and olive oil paste. Then finishing the chicken breast side up in a hot oven turns the paste into a crisp crust. While the chicken cooks, create a zesty vinaigrette that brightens up the finished dish.
But exactly what is za’atar? It is so multifaceted and dynamic due to a blend of many different flavors, textures, and fragrances. Even though it varies greatly (specific recipes can be closely-guarded secrets), za’atar is generally a combination of dried oregano, thyme, and/or marjoram (woodsy and floral), with sumac (tangy and acidic) and toasted sesame seeds (nutty and rich).
If za’atar is not available at the grocery/specialty store, make it at home, like us (see below). Play around with different quantities of crushed dried oregano, dried thyme, and dried marjoram, and add sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and, if you want, salt.
One of our paired side dishes was locally grown organic tomatoes, spread with fresh pesto, topped with slices of mozzarella, and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette.
TIP: We keep a jar of preserved lemons in our auxiliary refrigerator at most times. If you don’t have or can’t find preserved lemons, you can microwave four 2-inch strips lemon zest, minced, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon water, ¼ teaspoon sugar, and ¼ teaspoon salt at 50 percent power until the liquid evaporates, about 1½ minutes, stirring and mashing the lemon with the back of a spoon every 30 seconds.
Because our chicken weighed over 5 pounds—25% bigger than called for—I used more za’atar mix and doubled the preserved lemon vinaigrette. It also took a bit longer to come to temp, but not much because we used a convection roast setting. If at any time while in the oven the skin seems to be getting too dark, rest foil over it while the meat continues to reach temperature. Test both breast and thighs with an instant-read thermometer.
Za’atar-Rubbed Butterflied Chicken with Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
- 5 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp. Za’atar (recipe below)
- Salt and pepper
- 1 4-lb. whole chicken, giblets discarded
- 1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint
- ¼ preserved lemon, pulp and white pith removed, rind rinsed and minced (1 Tbsp.)
- 2 tsp. white wine vinegar
- ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
- Combine 1 tablespoon oil, 1 tablespoon za’atar, and 1 teaspoon salt in small bowl.
- With chicken breast side down, use kitchen shears to cut through bones on either side of backbone. Discard backbone and trim any excess fat or skin at neck. Flip chicken and tuck wingtips behind back. Press firmly on breastbone to flatten, then pound breast to be same thickness as leg and thigh. Pat chicken dry with paper towels and, using your fingers, gently loosen skin covering breast and thighs.
- Rub za’atar-oil paste evenly under skin. Transfer chicken to large plate and refrigerate uncovered for 6 to 8 hours.
- Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 450 degrees.
- Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Combine 1 tablespoon oil and remaining 1 tablespoon za’atar in small bowl. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Place chicken skin side down in skillet, reduce heat to medium, and place heavy pot on chicken to press flat.
- Cook chicken until skin is crisp and browned, 20 to 25 minutes. (If chicken is not crisp after 20 minutes, increase heat to medium high).
- Off heat, remove pot and carefully flip chicken. Brush skin with za’atar mixture, transfer skillet to oven, and roast until breast registers 160 degrees and thighs register 175 degrees, 10 to 20 minutes.
- Transfer chicken to carving board and let rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk mint, lemon, vinegar, mustard, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and ⅛ teaspoon pepper together in bowl until combined. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in remaining 3 tablespoons oil until emulsified. Carve chicken and serve with dressing.
- 2 Tbsp. dried thyme
- 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
- 1 ½ Tbsp. sumac
- 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
- ¼ tsp. salt
- Process thyme and oregano in spice grinder or mortar and pestle until finely ground and powdery.
- Transfer to bowl and stir in sumac, sesame seeds, and salt.
(Za’atar can be stored at room temperature in airtight container for up to 1 year.)
Recipes from The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen