A New Summer Favorite: Grilled Chicken with Za'atar

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Sesame, sumac, and herbs meet chicken. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

If I've made two great decisions in my life,* it's been to a) make sure that I work on building friendships with folks from foreign countries and b) give away as much food as I can. I've been lucky enough to collect a good stable of friends from around the world over the years and to distribute plenty of tasty food to them. This is nice because it means not only do I get the best recommendations and even the occasional bed to sleep on when I go abroad, but it also means that I often find myself with tasty treats that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to me.

* Beyond wifing my wife and dogging my dogs, that is.

Take, for instance, my collection of za'atar. Up until my Lebanese friend brought me a half dozen different jars of the stuff, I was under the impression that it's simply a Middle Eastern spice blend flavored with sesame and sumac. In reality, za'atar refers not just to the spice blend, but to the herb that it was originally based on. A hearty dry climate herb closely related to hyssop, thyme, and oregano, dried za'atar has an aroma that lands somewhere in the middle of the three. Two of the jars my friend brought me contain different samples of the dried za'atar herb all by itself—one wildly herbaceous with little fluffy tufts of leaves and the other more resin-y with chewy little flower buds. Both are delicious.

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The other four jars contain various blended mixes made with the ground dried herb, toasted sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Typically you'd use them as a condiment, sprinkled over a bowl of labne cheese or made into a paste with olive oil for scooping onto bread. For me, it seemed only natural to use the mixture on grilled chicken.

I already have a great simple technique for grilled chicken. The key is to butterfly the bird so that it lays flat, then cook it over indirect heat. This ensures that the legs and breasts both finish cooking at around the same time while also maximizing the amount of retained juices. I finish the chicken by cooking it skin-side-down over direct heat to crisp it up, using an instant-read thermometer to ensure that it doesn't come above 150°F. Overcooked chicken is like the Monty Python of dinner: dry and often tasteless.

I figured with that technique under my belt, the rest would be as simple as rubbing the chicken with olive oil and za'atar, then grilling it. Unfortunately, the dry spice mix kinda of clumps together when you try and rub it onto a greased chicken.

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Instead, I decided to form a paste with the spice mix and olive oil, adding some garlic to it as well, then rub that all over the chicken. After the paste, I applied more of the spice blend in order to get a substantial coating of the herbs.

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Za'atar #4 (my favorite of the dried blends my friend brought me) was excellent, but I also tried grilling a chicken with a homemade blend that started with dried oregano to which I added fresh thyme, fresh savory, sesame seeds, and sumac. It's a different flavor profile, but it captures the herbal, woody flavor of traditional za'atar very nicely.

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Once the spice blend was neatly applied, the rest is easy: I cooked the butterflied chicken using my standard indirect heat method. The spice mix toasts and forms a nice crust as the chicken roasts, forming a crisp layer on the outside. This is the kind of chicken you want to eat with your fingers, if only so that you can lick the toasted olive oil-coated spice blend off your fingertips when you're done.

I served the chicken with my sumac-mint aioli. I've been planning on making a trip with my friend to his home country at some point in the future. Hopefully if I feed him enough chicken it'll earn me a spot on his personalized food tour when we get there.