Feasting at Home : Persian Chicken with Chelow and Yogurt Sauce

January 5, 2014

Persian Chicken with Chelow and Yogurt Sauce


This has become my new favorite chicken dish. The chicken part of the recipe is fast and easy --made with an Arabic spice blend, called Baharat, that can be whipped up in minutes. The word "Baharat" simply means "spices" in Arabic, and this wonderfully complex blend has a unique balance of  flavors. The chicken is rubbed down with salt and Baharat Spice, seared on the stove and finished in the oven until golden and crispy. Serve with saffron rice, cucumber yogurt sauce and salad and you'll have a simple, delicious, Middle Eastern style dinner.

Chelow is a Persian rice dish with a crispy saffron yogurt crust. The crust is called Tahdig, a Persian word meaning "bottom of the pot"where the crispy crust forms while cooking. The pot of rice is inverted and this lovely golden top is created. Because the tahdig is considered the very best part of the meal, it is traditionally served to guests first. I'll warn you, creating Chelow with the crispy Tahdig can be challenging. Or it was for me anyhow. It literally took me eight tries before I got it right, and in the process, much rice was lost along with several tears.  But the day I got it right, it was truly amazing. The rice is par-boiled, then steamed and then inverted onto a platter. Which, in retrospect, seems like it should be fairly strait forward. Clearly it was not. I learned several things in the process and will share them further in post, to help prevent you from making the same mistakes I did. If you don't want to fuss with the Chelow, make a simple saffron ( or turmeric) basmati rice. 

And don't be tempted to make the Chelow if having guests over, without a practice run. It's fairly temperamental so you'll want to get the hang of it. The Baharat chicken however, will be a knockout the first time around….and I hope you love it as much as I do.





Baharat is often used in Arabic cooking-  most commonly in Persian and Turkish dishes  to add spice and a little heat to meat dishes, couscous, and tagines. The warm exotic flavors of  Baharat are an easy way to spice up simple dishes and give them a little intrigue.

To make the Baharat spice mix, place all the spices in a coffee grinder, and pulse until it is ground.
If you can't find Black Lemons, don't fret, just leave them out.

If you don't have whole seeds, but have the ground spice, it's perfectly OK to substitute ground spices, although the more whole seeds you have, the better the flavor. But don't let the lack of the whole seeds stop you from making this.




Black Lemons are actually dried limes, and owe their misnomer to the English translation from Arabic. They're used in Middle East cooking to add sourness or acidity to chutneys, soups and stews and even ground into flat breads. Ground Black Lemons have a sweet-tart flavor that is unique and really has no substitute, so for this recipe, leave it out if you can't track one down. A friend gave me this one which she got at The Asian Market on Trent. You can also order them on-line.





Because the spice blend contains no salt, be sure to salt the chicken first, before rubbing on the spice. Be generous with the Baharat spice, rubbing both sides. For this recipe, I personally like bone-in, skin-on, chicken thighs best, but feel free to substitute. 

This spice blend would also taste great on tofu, with salt and a little cornstarch mixed in with the Baharat, and then seared. 





In an oven proof skillet, heat 2 T oil over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add chicken, skin side down and sear until golden brown about 3-4 minutes.  Turn heat to medium. 



Turn the chicken over and sear 3-4 minutes before placing in a 400 F oven to finish. 


When it comes out, the skin will be crispy and flavorful, and the meat tender and juicy. 




While the chicken is in the oven, make the easy flavorful cucumber yogurt sauce. 

If you would like to try making the Chelow Rice dish with crispy yogurt saffron crust, here is a step by step. I would recommend reading the whole recipe first, so you grasp the concept and time commitment, and start this before you prepare the chicken. It takes about 1 ½ hours. 


Use long grain basmati rice or long grain Jasmine rice. Do not use a short grain rice.  FYI, I had less success with this brown basmati rice in the photo, so if possible use regular basmati or even a long grain Jasmine rice.  Rinse the rice several times and soak for 30 minutes in warm water. Rinse again. Par boil the rice: boil it like you would pasta, in generously salted boiling water until al dente. Depending on the rice, this will take 5 -10 minutes. Brown rice takes longer. You want the rice to be almost done. This is key.




While the rice is boiling toast a pinch of saffron for a minute. Place it in a bowl, with 2 T of the boiling salted water. Let is sit and infuse the water.

( You can substitute turmeric for the saffron, if you prefer, and skip toasting it)




In a medium bowl, mix together 2 T yogurt and 1 egg. The egg is optional, so if you don't like eggs just leave it out. Add a generous pinch of salt, and the 2 T of saffron water ( or turmeric water) and stir. 








Once the rice is cooked, strain and rinse again several times until the water runs clear, removing all the starch. Drain. Stir 1 Cup of the par boiled rice to the yogurt saffron mixture. Set aside.





Here is where it gets tricky. If you have a good nonstick pot or high sided nonstick sauté pan, with a tight fitting lid, that measures 8-10 inches in diameter, use it. Or, if not, use a dutch oven but make sure to line the bottom with parchment, tracing the bottom of the pot on the parchment to create a circle, and cut it out.   The parchment will allow the tahdig, the crust, to come out all in one piece. Without the parchment, I could not get  the crust to release. But I don't have a non stick pot. 

After lining the pot with a circle of parchment, add butter, olive oil and water ( over the parchment) and heat over med-high heat. This will begin to sizzle up a storm. Give a quick stir, turn the heat down and add the saffron yogurt rice mixture, pressing down lightly to create the crispy base layer. 



Then spoon in the rest of the rice and form a pyramid, so the rice is higher at the center.   Don't just dump it all in or you''ll end up with heavy rice. 

At this point you could also layer in fresh herbs like dill or parsley or cilantro, and nuts like pine nuts or pistachios, and/or dried fruit like golden raisins or dried apricots as you are spooning the rice in. Cumin seeds or coriander seeds are a nice touch too. 




Poke several "steam holes" into the rice with a chop stick or  the end of a wooded spoon.
Cover the pot with a kitchen towel and then the lid.



Fold the corners up over the lid so they don't catch on fire.
The towel prevents the steam from dripping back down into the rice. 
You could also use a couple layers of paper towels. 




Turn the heat to high for 2-3 minutes until you see visible puffs of steam. This will be obvious -so wait until you see it. Once you see the puffs of steam, turn heat to medium for 8 minutes, then turn heat to low for 32 minutes. Cooking for a tool of 40 minutes. Don't be tempted to remove the lid.

After the timer goes off, place the whole pot in a sink or large bowl filled with very cold water, for one minute, so water is at least 2-3 inches up the sides. This will shock the rice and help it release from the sides.



Remove the rice lid and towel, place a large platter or plate on top and invert the whole thing. It's easier with help. Once turned over, give the pot a good shake, knock on the top a few times so the crust releases. And hopefully the crust will come out perfectly golden brown and in one piece. If the crust breaks, piece it back together and sprinkle fresh herbs over top - it will still taste good. The rice should be light and fluffy.

The first time I made this, the rice was not cooked enough, because I used brown basmati rice, and did not par boil it long enough. The crust had to be scraped from the bottom of the pan. The second time I made this, I parboiled the rice too long and the rice was mushy and heavy. And the crust still had to be scraped from the pan. I tried various pots, pans, and it wasn't until I used regular long grained basmati  rice ( not brown) and parchment, did the crust come out in one piece and the rice turn out fluffy and light. 















print recipe

Persian Chicken with Chelow
Persian Chicken with Baharat Spice served with saffron yogurt crusted Chelow Rice and cucumber yogurt sauce -SERVES 4

Persian Chicken
4 - 6 Chicken thighs, bone in, skin on.
2 Tablespoons Baharat Spice Blend ( see below)
Salt to taste
2 T olive oil

Instructions:
Pre heat oven to 400F
Sprinkle both sides of chicken generously with kosher salt. Rub in a generous amount (¾ teaspoon each) of Baharat Spice on both sides of each pieces of chicken. If you have time to do this 30 minutes ahead, before cooking, even better.

Heat 2 T oil in a large oven proof skillet over medium high heat. Sear chicken, in hot oil, skin side down for 3- 4 minutes, until golden and crispy. Turn over and sear other side, turning heat down to medium. Sear another 3-4 minutes. Place the skillet in the middle of the oven, uncovered, and baked until cooked through, about 15- 20 minutes or until internal temp reaches 180 F ( for thighs) and juices run clear. Remove form the oven and let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Baharat Spice Blend
1 T cumin seeds (or 1 T ground)
1 T coriander seeds ( or 1 T ground)
1 T whole peppercorns ( or 2 tsp)
½ of one whole nutmeg ( or 1 tsp ground)
10 whole unpeeled cardamon pod or (½ tsp ground)
2 inches piece cinnamon stick (or 2 tsp ground)
½ tsp ground allspice
8 whole cloves (or 1 tsp ground)
¼ of a black lemon (optional)
1 star anise ( optional)

Pulse all in a spice grinder until ground.


Cucumber Yogurt Sauce:
1 Cup plain thick Greek yogurt
2 small persian cucumbers cut lengthwise, then thinly sliced ( or 1 C english cucumber) Skin ok.
2 -3 T chopped fresh mint, dill, italian parsley or cilantro ( or a combination is nice)
1-2 T lemon juice
1-2 minced garlic cloves
½ tsp kosher salt -or salt to taste.
pepper to taste, white pepper is a nice touch.
pinch of cayenne or squirt of sirracha sauce.

Place all ingredients in a medium sized bowl, stir and refridgerate until ready to serve.

Chelow with Saffron Yogurt Crust ( serves 4)
2 C long grain white basmati rice ( white works best)
2 T plain yogurt
1 pinch saffron ( 20 threads) or ½ tsp tumeric powder
1 egg ( optional)
salt
1 T oil
1 T butter
2 T water
10 C Water and and 2 T salt for par -boiling ( you will rinse)

Instructions:
Read the instructions through a couple times…. and practice once before attempting to serve guests.

Rinse the rice several times and let sit in warm water for 30 minutes. Rinse again. Drain.
In a large pot bring 2 Cups rice to boil in 10 C water with 2 T salt.
Boil for 5 minutes or until cooked al dente, just until almost done. For white rice this was 5 minutes, for brown rice this was 10 + minutes.
In a small bowl, mix saffron threads with 2 T boiling water ( just borrow from the boiling rice ). Set aside 5 minutes. In medium bowl, mix 2 T yogurt, generous pinch salt and 1 egg (optional). Add saffron water, stir.
When rice is al dente, ( tender but not mushy) drain, rinse with cold water until water runs clear, removing all the starch.
Add about 1 C of the par boiled rice into the bowl with Yogurt Saffron mixture.
Line the bottom of 8-10 diameter deep sauté pan or pot (that has a tight fitting lid) with a circle of parchment paper. Place on the stove over Med High heat. Add butter, olive oil and a 2 T water on TOP of the parchment. When butter has melted, swirl it around and it will begin to sizzle. Add the yogurt rice mix in an even layer over the parchment. Spoon in the rest of the rice, gently building a pyramid ( don't just dump it in- or will loose its light quality).

*At this point- you could also layer in fresh dill, mint,or parsley, slivered almonds, pine nuts or even golden raisins, or dried apricots, cumin seed or coriander seed.) With the end of a spoon or chopstick poke 5 steam holes down through the rice.

Cover pot with a thin kitchen towel (or two layers of paper towels- snip corners) then place lid over towel and wrap the lid with towel, so the edges don't catch on fire. See photo.

Turn heat to HIGH for 2-3 minutes until steam visibly puffs out of the pot. It will be obvious and easy to see. When it begins steaming, turn heat to medium for 8 minutes, then turn to low heat for 32 minutes. Don't be temped to uncover. After 32 minutes, either fill sink or large bowl with cold water deep enough to submerge the pot 2-3 inches up the sides.  Place the rice pot in the cold water, to shock it, to help it release form the sides… for a few minutes. Remove lid and towel. You could also run a spatula around the edges. Place a large platter or plate over the top of the pot, and invert the whole thing, shaking a little and knocking the bottom of the pot so it releases. Hopefully it comes out in one piece. If it sticks, using a sharp metal spatula, scrape and coax it out, piecing it together over the rice. Sprinkle with fresh herbs, like parsley or mint, or dill. Serve immediately.
Details
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 4











9 comments :

  1. The rice certainly sounds challenging, but I am always up for a challenge. The chicken also sounds delicious and I will have to scout out the spices. You have definitely peaked my interest Sylvia and I thank you for that.

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  2. I love the crust on both the chicken and the rice. Thx for sharing the tip on successfully getting the crust right on the rice.

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  3. Lovely presentation.... I have been cooking Iranian food for years. Rice is the real center of the meal. I have made tahdig many times. The Yogurt Tahdig is the type I liked the least. There are several types of tahdig you can make that are less fussy. The most common one that is tasty is just a plain rice tahdig. when you take your rice out and put it in a colander to rinse it, you melt a combination of a tablespoon of butter or 2 and a couple tablespoons of oil in the dutch oven, spoon a layer of rice over the bottom and mound the rest of the rice on top ..poke the holes.. cover with a dishtowel/paper towels and the lid.. steam on medium high for 5 minutes.. turn the heat down to under medium for 30 minutes or so I always taste the rice to determine how done it is.. flip and you have a lovely crispy buttery tahdig. for the saffron... you can mix it up the same way without the yogurt and egg and put it on top of the cooked rice, about half a cup of cooked rice and the saffron and water it looks very pretty. Many times the tahdig is taken off the rice and placed on a separate platter or on the side. . Another type of tahdig you can make, slice a raw washed potato or 2 into thin slices and put the slices in your pot on top of the melted butter and oil and mound your rice on top of the potatoes and stream the rice. Another quick one that is delicious is put an flour tortilla on the bottom when your butter and oil have melted and mound your rice on top of the tortilla and steam. Making rice middle east style is an art acquired by practice and error. I have burned my fair share of pots of rice. Stove temperatures vary.. so until you get the knack always monitor and smell your rice for burning, cooking on a lower heat causes less mistakes than cooking on too high heat. You can always increase the heat, but you can't undo burned rice.
    Thank- you for the recipe!

    PS. I generally use Thai Jasmine Rice it is a bit softer and moister.. Basmati is a drier rice and is more expensive and popular now. You should soak both, I do it for a few hours.. it allows the rice grain to puff up and elongate more when cooked.

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  4. Thank you for your brilliant instructions! I tried this with Persian smoked rice and it worked first time (I have a non-stick pot). I'd been to a Persian cookery class here in Germany and had watched it done, and although I have the (German) cooking instructions, I had never plucked up the courage to try it myself. Thanks to you, it has and it really doesn't seem as difficult as I first thought.

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  5. If i made the spice blend entirely of ground spices, how would the measurements change for each of the ingredients for the blend??

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    Replies
    1. I adjusted the recipe above for ground spices….thanks and I hope you enjoy!!

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  6. Wow sounds good. This made my roasted quail with saffron risotto to shame. :( I will try this one day. No wonder Alexander was impressed with Persian rice!

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  7. There is a Japanese place near where I live that makes something that sounds very similar to this. Crispy rice at the bottom of a well-oiled stoneware bowl, not inverted, with different kinds of yummy things in/on the rice. Korean bibimbap is similar. I'm totally looking forward to trying this version though, since my wife and I have been experimenting with Middle East spices. Yum!

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