Among the many advantages of living in New York City, perhaps the one we miss the most since moving to San Diego is the profusion of ethnic restaurants. They offer its residents ready, and often affordable, access to a wide variety of cuisines. Oftentimes, the chance to savor an esoteric dish you’ve just read about is no more than a quick subway ride away.
After I recently bemoaned this loss to my better half, he suggested doing something about it and sent me a link to a New York Times recipe by Sarah Copeland for a Middle Eastern shawarma-inspired skillet chicken with cumin, paprika, and mint. The photo of the dish made it look appealing and its description even more so. For me, however, preparing it would mean leaving my comfort zone. At least 75% of my cookbook collection is Italian, with the remainder made up mostly by French and a smattering of American classic collections like James Beard’s or my Neapolitan aunt’s well-worn copy of The American Woman’s Cookbook.
Observing my reluctance to prepare the dish, my husband dared me to try it and promised a dinner out should it fail. Accepting the dare, I read through the five-star recipe with over 400 ratings again and examined all of the 61 comments it had received. A number of readers who had prepared the dish found it lacking in flavor, or complained that its rice component stuck to the pan, or even that the chicken skin was slimy. Many suggested substitutions like red onion for yellow or chicken broth for water; other readers suggested changes like adding the marinade after returning the chicken to the pan or extending the cooking time with a lower temperature.
After taking notes and annotating the recipe, I set out to make it. I decided to follow some of the suggestions from those who had prepared the dish before me. I substituted a red onion for the yellow, used chicken broth rather than water. For the rice, I opted for aromatic Basmati and used only a cup and followed one reader’s advice to use yellow raisins. Moreover, given the complaints about blandness, I was generous with the spices and, like another reader, used a smoked paprika.
To reduce the chance of slimy skin, I made sure to brown the chicken well. I knew that with the steaming of the rice the skin would not be crispy, but it needn’t be yucky. Again, for the sake of flavor, I retained the marinade and added it to the dish after returning the chicken to the skillet. I also had to adjust the cooking temperature. For the first cooking of the rice, I followed the recipe’s 10 minutes, covered, over medium heat, “until the liquid is partly absorbed.” After the 10 minutes, however, the liquid in my pan was more than partly absorbed. Fortunately, I had plenty of extra boiling broth available, so I added about another ½ cup of it and decided to reduce the flame to low. To avoid drying out the rice, I also made sure to tightly cover the pan by using a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil under the cover for its final cooking, about 25 minutes.
During the final cooking stage, my husband kept assuring me that all would be well while simultaneously suggesting dining-out options. A glass of Prosecco also helped.
When I finally removed the cover, the dish looked great: the chicken still appeared nicely browned; the rice, plump and fluffy; the aroma, intoxicating and taken to another level with the addition of the mint and parsley. Noticing my relief, my husband asked with a subtle smirk: “So, are we dining in?” To which I replied: “No; on the balcony.”
Skillet Chicken with Cumin, Paprika, Turmeric, and Mint (adapted from a New York Times recipe by Sara Copeland)
2 lemons, juiced and the zest of 1
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 generous teaspoons ground cumin
2 generous teaspoons ground smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 ½ pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 4), patted dry
1 medium red onion, peeled and chopped
1 cups long-grain white or sprouted short-grain brown rice
2 to 3 cups boiling chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
½ cup yellow raisins
½ cup chopped fresh mint, for serving
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for serving
Plain full-fat yogurt, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
1. Combine the lemon juice, lemon zest, 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, cumin, paprika and turmeric in a large resealable plastic bag along with the chicken pieces.
2. Seal and shake the bag to coat chicken and distribute the spices evenly. Refrigerate for 4 hours or up to overnight.
3. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat.
4. Remove the chicken from the marinade, letting the excess drip off, and cook until well browned, about 5 minutes per side. Remove to a plate. Reserve the marinade.
5. Add the onion to the pan, and stir to coat.
6. Decrease heat to medium and cook until softening, about 5 minutes.
7. Add the marinade, removing most of the garlic. (Photo below was taken before we decided to remove most of the garlic.)
8. Add the rice and remaining salt, and stir to coat.
9. Add the boiling broth; stir, cover tightly and cook over low heat until the liquid is partly absorbed, 10 minutes.
10. Stir in the cinnamon stick and raisins, top with the chicken thighs and their juices. If there appears to be insufficient broth, add about an additional ½ cup.
11. Continue cooking, tightly covered, over low heat, until the rice is al dente and the chicken is completely tender, about 25 minutes more.
12. Remove from the heat and scatter the mint and parsley all over the top.
Serve warm, with yogurt and lime.
Wine Pairing: Red Zinfandel