by Julia Sementelli
It’s March and the official month of the start of Spring! But here in Boston the temperatures have been playing games with our hearts, which makes trying to decide what to make for dinner a bit tricky. This recipe for Yotam Ottolenghi’s “chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice” is the perfect meal to help you transition from winter to spring. Warm and comforting from the spices and hearty chicken and rice, but refreshing and light from an abundance of fresh herbs and a tangy yogurt sauce. This dish has become a staple in my cooking repertoire and I’ll share with you my tips for making the best possible version of this delicious dish.
I was sitting in the grass in my backyard on a warm fall day, with the sun shining on my shoulders, perusing the Boston Globe when I stumbled upon a beautiful picture of a skillet brimming with verdant green herbs. There were so many herbs that you could just barely see the beautifully browned chicken thighs on a bed of spiced rice underneath. The accompanying article was about Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook, which had garnered a cult-like following. Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born, British chef and restaurant owner. He is well known for his cookbook, Plenty, in which he transforms vegetables into the most beautiful recipes. His recipe for “chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice,” and the photograph I was drooling over, was described as particularly outstanding. I knew I had to make it. I ran to the bookstore to get my hands on Jerusalem: A Cookbook.
Despite the recipe’s apparent simplicity, the result is an intensely fragrant and complex combination of sweet, from the currants and caramelized onions, and savory, from the crisp chicken thighs and tart yogurt sauce. It is a one-pot wonder to make on a cool, fall evening. It will solve your weeknight cooking woes because it makes a generous portion, easily satisfying a family of four with one or two rounds of leftovers. It could also feed one person for a whole week of dinners. It is a favorite among my family as well. I have received countless requests to make “that chicken and rice dish” for dinner.
The vessel in which you make this dish is paramount. If the skillet is too small, the chicken will simply steam rather than brown, the onions will not caramelize, and the rice will be unevenly cooked. Therefore, it is important to have a large skillet (at least 12 inches wide) with a tight-fitting lid. Once you have chosen your pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Next, add 2 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions. Allow the onions to cook for 20 minutes, only stirring occasionally to allow the onions to caramelize. You will know when to reduce the heat when the onions are a dark brown. Every time I make this dish I always question if I cooked the onions too long. We are used to golden onions as the sign that you can move on to the next step of cooking. But in this case, you want a deep brown color. In my opinion, the caramelized onions transform this dish so give them the attention (or lack thereof) that they deserve. If you move them around too much, they will not achieve that deep golden brown. Once the onions are concentrated and nearly syrupy, which is essential for the flavor and sweetness of the dish, transfer them to a dish and set aside.
Next, in a large bowl, combine 2 ¼ pounds of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with 1 ½ teaspoons each of kosher salt and black pepper, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 10 cardamom pods, and 2 long cinnamon sticks broken in half. Mix everything with your hands and wash your hands. Next, over medium heat, add the chicken and spice mixture to the skillet, searing the thighs for five minutes on each side. Try your best not to move the chicken as this will interfere with browning. Using tongs, remove the chicken and spices from the pan. While the pan is still hot, add 1 plus 2/3 cups uncooked basmati rice, 2 ½ tablespoons of dried currants, and 1 teaspoon each of kosher salt and black pepper to the pan. Return the chicken and spices to the pan as well, nestling the thighs in the dry rice. Now, add 3 ¼ cups boiling water, cover, and immediately set the heat to low. It is imperative to add enough water to ensure that your rice is perfectly cooked since nobody likes crunchy rice. There is a discrepancy between the prescribed amount of water between the cookbook and the Boston Globe article. The book calls for 2 ¼ cups of water while the article states that one more cup of water is necessary, recommending 3 ¼ cups total. The latter is the winner, based on personal experience. The couple times that I forgot to add that extra cup of water, the rice did not cook enough. Having crunchy rice bits mixed in with the soft ones is a nightmare. Trust me, two and a half cups is not enough water. It results in some uncooked rice in the pan and warrants adding more water as you go, so do yourself a favor and just start with the three and a half cups of boiling water.
Cook the chicken and rice covered for 30 minutes over very low heat. After 30 minutes, take the pan off the heat, remove the lid, quickly place a clean dish towel over the pan, and return the lid to the pan. The towel serves to absorb moisture to prevent the rice from becoming waterlogged. Let the dish sit for another 10 minutes, remove the dish towel, and then add 1 ½ tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, ¼ cup cilantro leaves, and ½ cup dill leaves, all chopped.
The final step is to make a quick yogurt sauce to go with the chicken and rice. I remember the first time I made this dish I omitted the yogurt, under the assumption that it wouldn’t make that big of a difference. When I finally decided to give the yogurt a try I realized that I had made a significant mistake the first time. The tangy yogurt cuts through the meaty, deep flavor of the dish. Combine 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt with 2 tablespoons of high quality olive oil. Serve alongside the chicken and rice.
Sometimes the beauty of a recipe is not necessarily in the final product but in the path that led you to it. My path to this recipe seems rather serendipitous given that I merely stumbled upon on it the newspaper on that warm summer day. I, as well as my friends and family, have fallen for a dish that seems so simple upon first glance. While there are only a handful of components, it is important that the ingredients are of high quality and all the steps are executed well. The combination of flavors is so warm and comforting that this recipe certainly deserves a spot in your cool weather recipe repertoire. It has surely become an unbreakable part of mine.
Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change student and Boston-based registered dietitian who works in a local hospital and also counsels private clients. You can find her on Instagram (@julia.the.rd.eats- Follow her!) where she shares her love of real food, like this chicken and rice dish.