That Chicken and Rice Dish

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.

Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice. Recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo by Julia Sementelli.

Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice. Recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi. Photo by Julia Sementelli.

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.

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Ackee: Jamaica’s Irresistible Delicacy

by Christine Sinclair

Ever heard of Jamaica? Yes? Ever heard of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt? Yes? Ever heard of ackee? No? Well, just like Jamaica and our international stars, ackee is a star in its own right. You don’t quite know Jamaica until you know ackee. So let me introduce you. Sit back, because you are in for a treat! Ackee has a rich history dating back to the slave trade. It has a delicious flavor, and a unique texture that you will want to add to your cooking repertoire. And the recipe below is Friedman approved, having debuted the recipe below to a group of students with rave reviews.

Ackee is a fruit that grows in clusters of three in a pod on large evergreen trees in tropical climates, namely on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and in other parts of the world, including West African countries, Haiti, and parts of South America. The outer shell of this fist-sized fruit is bright red, with hues of orange and yellow. It has a tough outer skin that protects its delicate inside. As ackee matures and ripens, it naturally opens up to expose its edible contents. This unique and bountiful fruit grows throughout the island and, in fact, is Jamaica’s national fruit and a main ingredient in the national dish, ackee & saltfish.

Ackee has been Jamaica’s national fruit for centuries, having made its way to the island during the 18th century, carried over on slave ships departing West Africa. Its name is derived from the West African Akye fufo and its scientific name, Blighia sapidawas, was coined by a man named Captain William Bligh, and has since become a staple food in the Jamaican diet. The yellow arils are edible, while all other parts of the fruit, including the seeds are discarded.

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee not only has an interesting history, but a unique and potentially dangerous toxic property. Ackee goes through stages of maturation and ripening. During these different stages, ackee has varying levels of a water soluble toxin called Hypoglycin A and B. These toxins produce a symptom called Jamaican Vomiting Syndrome (JVS) aka Toxic Hypoglycemic Syndrome (low blood sugar as low as 3 mg/dL), which can cause severe vomiting, abdominal pain, coma and death. But, wait! Before you run off dismissing this delicate treat, let me explain how ackee can be enjoyed with no toxic effects at all.

In unripe ackee, the concentration of Hypoglycin A is about 1000 parts per million (ppm). As the fruit matures, in addition to its exposure to sunlight, Hypoglycin A is drastically reduced to 0.1 ppm in the mature fruit. Ingestion of immature ackee (a.k.a. ackee not left to properly ripen and naturally open) produces the toxic effect in humans.

Ackee found in the United States is precooked and canned, and has gone through extensive processing checks by the USDA to ensure safe consumption. And these checks seem to work: There have been no known cases of JVS in the United States from canned, imported ackee due to these regulations.

Photo: Ackee stages of maturity

Photo: “Tastes Like Home,” Ackee stages of maturity

What are the health benefits of ackee?

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research on ackee—partly because it isn’t grown in the United States—what little literature we do have suggests that ackee provides many health benefits. People in Jamaica will eat ackee cooked or uncooked. The uncooked version is said to serve as a strong diuretic, helping move the bowels and keep them in good shape. While the uncooked version cannot be found in the United States, the cooked form can be found canned in international markets. And don’t worry, only mature ackee is canned for your eating pleasure!

Ackee in both forms is rich in the monounsaturated fatty acids, oleic acid (55.4%), palmitic acid (25.57%), and stearic acid (12.59%), and is low in calories (about 151 calories per 100g can of ackee). Ackee is also rich in many vitamins and minerals, according to the West Indian Medical Journal.

How is ackee prepared?

When ackee is cooked with different meats and spices, it takes on the flavors of what you pair it with—without losing its own unique taste. Many find it difficult to describe the actual taste of ackee, saying it has the consistency of avocado with a rich buttery flavor. After interviewing a number of people, the verdict is still out. The best way to know? Try it for yourself!

At Ackee Bamboo Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA, owners Marlene and Delroy Beckford prepare this staple dish for customers unfamiliar with ackee’s delicious taste and powerful history. Hoping to give them a true and authentic experience of Jamaica, they give out samples to convince the novice that they are in for a treat. As Marlene said, “If you say you have had ackee [and saltfish] you have been to the island.”

Ackee and Jamaican Culture

Ackee’s uniqueness, beautiful range of colors and its authentic and delicious taste describes the very essence of Jamaica. Ackee is Jamaica! Rooted in a deep history of the slave trade, revolution and liberation, ackee is so much more than a delicious meal. To try and put into words the meaning that this national fruit has is close to impossible. But, if you would like a bite size experience of a rich and powerful history, the next time you spot ackee in your local market or pass by a Jamaican restaurant, be sure to pick up a can or stop in and ask for a plate of ackee and saltfish with dumplings, green banana, yellow yam and callaloo!

Picture: Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled dumplings and greens

Picture: “Pinterest,” Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled
dumplings and greens

Ackee Recipe

Ingredients – 4 people

1/2 lb saltfish (dried, salted codfish)*

12 fresh ackees or 1 (drained) can of tinned ackee

1 medium onion

1/2 tsp black pepper

3 tbsp of butter or cooking oil

1/2 a hot chili pepper (ideally Scotch Bonnet)

1 bell pepper (red, green or both)

1 chopped tomato

1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme

Optional ingredients: 2 cloves of garlic 4 scallion (green onion)

*Eliminate the saltfish to make this recipe vegan

Preparation

  • Cover the saltfish in cold water and let it soak overnight (minimum 8 hours) changing the water several times (this removes most of the salt)
  • Bring a pan of cold water to boil and gently simmer the fish for 20 minutes (until tender)
  • Chop the onion, bell pepper, chili pepper and tomato
  • Remove the fish from the water and allow to it cool
  • Remove all bones and skin then flake the flesh of the fish

Cooking

  • Melt the butter or add oil in a frying pan and stir fry the onion, black pepper, bell pepper, chili and thyme for about 3 minutes
  • Add the tomatoes and flaked fish and stir-fry for another 6 minutes
  • Add the ackee and cook until hot throughout and tender. Stir gently to avoid breaking-up the ackee

Serve with yam, green banana, or fried dumplings

ackee4

Christine Sinclair is a second-semester NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program whose family is from the beautiful island of Jamaica. She is an avid health enthusiast who loves challenging activities such as boxing, cross-fit, and distance running. If Christine isn’t cooking, she is eating, or talking about food. 

We Found East Asian-Inspired Soul Food in a Hopeless Place

by Julia Sementelli

Little Big Diner is bringing innovative yet comforting and delicious East-Asian food to Newton Centre, an often overlooked culinary spot, and helping to put the suburb on the foodie radar.

I step into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to see two chefs, one tossing ramen noodles and the other seasoning and tasting his giant pot of steaming something, and a slew of happy patrons slurping bowls of broth. This is a no reservations place with a line out the door. As I wait for my name to be called I suddenly remember that I am in Newton. Not hip Cambridge, not the trendy South End. Newton, Massachusetts. A suburb known for its wonderful school system and the hometown of Friends star, Matt LeBlanc. As a native, I know that Newton isn’t necessarily known for its culinary scene. While Newton is speckled with some delicious, homey spots, it isn’t my first choice when I want new and exciting food. Or even second. But this suburb has begun to step up its culinary game. Sycamore, a new American restaurant known for its use of seasonal and local ingredients, put Newton Centre on the map in 2013. But now, owners, Sycamore chef David Punch and his business partner at Sycamore, Shane Smyth, along with Little Big Diner head chef, Daniel Scott are breaking the mold of Newton dining by introducing another restaurant to the community. And given the line out the door on a rainy Sunday night, it appears their endeavor has been successful.

Having opened only recently, in February 2016, Little Big Diner offers East Asian soul food with organized and efficient yet friendly service. Both times that I dined, there was a wait. That hardly ever happens in Newton, unless it’s 11am on a Sunday morning at a local brunch spot. The host provided an estimated wait time (which ended up being very accurate) and offered to take my cell phone number and call me when a table was ready. Or another option, much to my surprise, was to enjoy a drink while waiting for our table. While the lack of a waiting area does not allow for a very comfortable waiting experience (some patrons were clutching their beers towards the back of the restaurant near the restrooms while I was pressed up against the front door) the fact that we were invited to stay despite the tight fit was a welcome hint of hospitality that is often absent in restaurants. A spiked beverage also makes waiting for a table a bit more enjoyable.

Once seated, our server promptly brought us menus and explained the layout of the menu. The service was memorable, in a good way, because it seemed to be backed by well-trained staff. Tricia Meegan, previously of Sycamore, manages the front-of-the-house. She kept the hectic 19-seat spot running smoothly. Talented chefs are often recruited for restaurants but front-of-the-house can frequently seem like an afterthought. An experienced manager maintained an enjoyable dining experience separate from the food. Waiters were well versed in the menu items and offered to answer menu-related questions since many dishes included a number of not-so-common ingredients, such as shoyu chicken, mayu, and ajitama eggs. They did not flinch at my substitution request to try both of the rice bowl sauces on the side since I couldn’t decide between the two. Water glasses were refilled frequently despite staff having to push their way through the tables to get to our glasses.

Green Papaya Salad at Little Big Diner. Photo: Julia Semetelli

Green Papaya Salad at Little Big Diner. Photo: Julia Semetelli

While the menu appears simple at first glance, the food is packed with inspired flavor. It is divided between Starters, Little Big Rice Bowls, and Noodles. Servings were generous (always something that I take note of) and the food arrived swiftly. They also have a notably high-quality drinks menu with draft cocktails, including a refreshing Yuzu Margarita, sake, local beers, wine, and non-alcoholic options, like local soda. To start, the green papaya salad was a large, shallow bowl of papaya ribbons with toasted garlic, salted peanuts, and chili and citrus. The amalgam of textures—crisp papaya, crunchy garlic and peanuts, and a burst of bright citrus and heat—made for the perfect starter to awaken the taste buds. In my experience, the usual Thai restaurant papaya salads are extremely spicy and consequently difficult to enjoy. But this salad had the perfect amount of heat and, even though the portion was substantial, I was left wanting more. (In fact, I ordered it both times I visited Little Big Diner). Next, the Miso Ramen, their signature dish, was a generous bowl filled with chili ground pork, nori, ajitama egg, bean sprouts, sweet corn, mayu, scallions, and homemade noodles that were both delicate and hearty. The broth flavors were deep and concentrated. On a rainy October night, this dish was perfect.

The next dish was the pumpkin ramen. While pumpkin is rampant in coffee shops and grocery store packaged foods, pumpkin is an unfamiliar addition to an East Asian menu. But the pumpkin ramen was delicious and popular as I overheard multiple tables ordering it as well. The earthy yet sweet flavor of the pumpkin coconut broth was intoxicating. Brimming with smoked maitakes, chili onions, crispy kale, noodles, and topped with pepitas and scallions, this ramen was unique but still had that comforting ramen essence we all crave.

Tofu Bowl at Little Big Diner. Photo: Julia Sementelli

Tofu Bowl at Little Big Diner. Photo: Julia Sementelli

While the ramen is the star of Little Big Diner, their rice bowls will keep me coming back when I want something lighter. The bowls are rather straightforward—select white or brown rice, a protein, and a sauce. While burrito bowls at other establishments are a mess of one-note flavors, give other such bowls a bad reputation, the flavors in this dish held their own as each ingredient seemed to have a designated role. A garden of fresh, bright herbs, including Thai basil, mint, and cilantro with house pickled vegetables on a bed of brown rice provided the vibrant base. Next, I selected shoyu chicken and “that sunny side egg,” which was beautifully cooked and provided me with that oozing egg yolk I always pray for. I sampled both of the sauces, a hot and spicy and a sweet katsu sauce and decided upon mixing both. Separately, the spicy one packed too much heat while the sweet did not provide enough of a kick. Together they made the perfect sweet and spicy sauce. The chicken, boneless thighs were cooked well and remained moist despite not being prepared on the bone. During the other meal I selected the charred heiwa tofu that, unlike most restaurant preparations of it, was not cooked to death. It was tender with perfect char marks and a bright seasoning. Both times, I did find myself wishing that the herbs were chopped a bit smaller as I found myself having to cut them myself in order to avoid a bite full of mint. Overall, the dishes were a bright and creative take on the sometimes widely available heavy bowls of ramen while providing modern dishes like the rice bowl that cater to those who like to choose their own adventure.

Although the food at Little Big Diner is not necessarily groundbreaking, it is a breath of fresh air in a place that has great potential to expand past its culinary mainstays and show food lovers that Newton is just as great food-wise as its neighboring cities.

Rating: ★★★

Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication student and registered dietitian. If you ever need to get in touch with her just go to the Whole Foods or sweetgreen near Friedman. There’s a 99.7% chance that she will be there at any given time, probably photographing an aerial shot of her salad or stocking up on kombucha. You can also find her on Instagram as @julia.the.rd.eats

Lemon Preserve: Lemons + Salt + Patience

By Jennifer Huang

Have you ever seen “patience” listed as a recipe ingredient? No? Well you’ll need it, as this simple recipe promises a unique and versatile flavor burst that is well worth the wait.

I have seen lemon preserves in Middle Eastern grocery stores before—usually as unappealing lemons floating in questionable liquid—and never gave them a second thought. Thankfully, my brother recently enlightened me on what lemon preserves are after he saw a recipe posted by our favorite Taiwanese food blogger, Karen Hsu.

Lemon preserves aren’t new to the scene: The earliest reference to this ingredient was in an Arab Mediterranean recipe from the 11th century, according to the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History. Today, you will find lemon preserves in many Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisines.

So what’s the hype? Well, many recipe bloggers describe how the fermenting process brings the flavor and fragrance of lemon to an unimaginable level. Used in recipes for salad dressing, couscous, chicken and many other dishes, lemon preserve is a versatile ingredient sure to liven up any dish. Another beautiful thing about lemon preserve—it is simple to make and requires few ingredients. However, one of them, as Serious Eats has put it, is patience.

Here is the recipe translated and adapted from Karen Hsu’s blog:

Lemon Preserve

Duration: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 12 lemons
  • 200 g salt (approximately ¾ cup)
  • 3-4 whole pieces of bay leaves (optional)
  • Some black pepper (optional)
  • Patience

Lemon Preserve Picture (1)

Steps:

  • Sterilize glass jars. (My brother and I boiled mason jars in water for 10 minutes.)
  • Cut six lemons into ¼ inches slices.
  • Layer salt and lemon slices in the jar. Put some salt into the jar first, then a lemon slice, then salt, etc.
  • After layering, crush the bay leaves and sprinkle both the bay leaves and black pepper into the jar (optional).
  • Squeeze juice from the other six lemons into the jar.
  • Seal the jar and put it in the refrigerator.
  • Wait for a month. (Yes. A month, but it will transform your life after that month.)

Disclaimer: I have used this recipe, but have not tasted it myself (it won’t be ready until September 14, and is currently fermenting in Houston). However, after reading a myriad of articles about lemon preserve, I think it is a promising addition to anyone’ shelf.

But… since my patience is wearing thin, I have found Moroccan restaurants in Somerville and Charleston that have lemon preserve dishes I am dying to try. Join me if you are interested, because I shall be going there, very soon.

Jennifer Huang is a first-year FPAN student. She worked as a dietitian in Houston and is interested in the economics and trade of food and food safety at the international level.