Chicken, skewered and grilled, is a classic Persian dish, one that has been cooked for centuries. And it’s magnificent. The key is two-fold: 1) the marinade: a tangy blend of yogurt, lime juice, olive oil and saffron, which does wonderful things to the chunks of chicken breast, and 2) the charcoal grilling, which lends that lovely char that so nicely offsets the tenderness of the meat.
Chicken alone is nice; I like to pair with vegetables like onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Make sure you cook those on different skewers, as they and the chicken take different times to cook.
Above all, you need a starch to go with this, and the best without doubt is the chelo, the rice. It’s officially just a standard steamed basmati rice, but if you do it right, you get this lovely crust (or tah-dig) at the bottom of the pan that is so mind-blowing.
This recipe comes from Azita from the top-notch Persian food blog Turmeric and Saffron (http://turmericsaffron.blogspot.com/).
- 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, preferably fresh, never frozen, cut into cubes
- 1 medium onion, grated
- 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
- 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1.5 teaspoon powdered saffron dissolved in 5-6 tablespoons of hot water, divided in two
- 2 teaspoons salt plus extra for the rice
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- A pinch of red pepper powder *optional
- 2 1/2 cups basmati rice
- Vegetable oil
Start with marinating the chicken (6-8 hours before meal)
- In a bowl, combine the yogurt, onion, olive oil, lime juice, liquid saffron, salt and pepper. Blend well into a smooth mixture, adjust the seasoning with lime juice and salt and pepper.
- Pour the mixture over the chicken in a large bowl, making sure that all the pieces are fully covered with the sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6-8 hours.
Move to rice (3.5 hours before meal)
- In a large bowl, wash the rice with cool water a few times to get rid of the extra starch and pour the water out. Soak the rice in 8 cups of cool water, add 3 tablespoons of salt and set aside for at least a couple of hours.
- In a large non-stick pot that has a tight fitting lid, bring 8 cups of water to a rapid boil on medium-high heat.
- Drain the soaked rice and pour into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil on medium-high heat for about 10 minutes or until the grains are long soft on the outside and hard in the center. Drain the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse with cool water a few times.
- Wash the rice pot with water and and return to heat. Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon of liquid saffron to the bottom of the pot, move the pan in a circular motion or use a wooden spoon to evenly cover the bottom with oil.
- Remove from heat and with a large spatula return the parboiled rice back into the pot, building it into a pyramid shape away from the sides of the pot.
- In order to release the steam make 4-5 holes in the rice with the handle of the wooden spatula. Place the pot back on the stove on medium-high heat, uncovered.
- Wait about 7-10 minutes or until steam starts coming out of the pot.
- Gently pour 2 tablespoons oil, 1/4 cup water and saffron over the rice, cover, lower the heat and steam the rice for an hour. (Here’s a secret: Wrap the lid with a kitchen towel or 2-3 layers of thick paper towels to prevent the moisture from going back in the pot. This is the secret to making a perfect tah-dig.)
As the rice steams, heat the grill and get the chicken ready to go.
- Thread the chicken pieces onto metal skewers, place the skewers on the hot grill and continue grilling until chicken pieces are well cooked.
Involved? Yes. But worth it.