Assyrian cooking, like many Middle Eastern cuisines, is more vegetarian than you might think. Assyrians, in particular, fast from meat and dairy for a huge chunk of the year, and traditionally don't eat meat on Fridays, so a meat-heavy dinner is not necessarily an everyday occurrence. When we do eat meat, it's rarely chicken. Beef and lamb are much more common staples, which might sound a little counterintuitive.
Indeed, roast chicken might seem like a totally mundane dinner if you're used to seeing a big glowing display of rotisserie chickens every time you go to the supermarket, but in our cuisine it's traditionally a special occasion food. And while I believe that a beautifully roast chicken can be something special in and of itself, stuffing it with rice, pine nuts, almonds, and allspice is just gilding the lily.
Just like those supermarket rotisserie chickens, in Hong Kong, where I recently moved, chicken is absolutely everywhere. Most markets have poultry shops where you can order a live chicken or one that's been recently prepared. These chickens are really different from the poultry I grew up with in the US. I'm not sure whether it's the freshness or the way they hang them, but the skin gets much crispier than chickens that have been chilled. While you can, you don't need to do anything special. You can just butter the skin, bake it at 350° F, and it comes out of the oven with an effortlessly magazine-perfect lacquer (I swear, no blowtorches, WD40, or browning sauce were used in the making of this blog post).
And speaking of crispy, this recipe has a lot of it. The rice turns into something very similar to tahdig, but instead of just the bottom of the pan getting crispy, the top becomes extra crunchy too. If you've cooked this whole dish, only to discover that you're not the world's biggest fan of crunchy rice (is there such a thing as an acquired texture?), don't despair. The leftovers completely transform and become soft and chewy overnight in the fridge. I've also included directions to make sure you end up with your preferred level of rice crispiness. I love kthetha muhasta right from the oven, as well as left over the next day, but it's just a matter of preference.
I don't expect you to go out and track down a fresh chicken, so I've tested this recipe both ways, and chilled chicken roasts almost as well with one simple step: dry brining. This is my favorite poultry trick because it's easier than a traditional wet-brine in every possible way, and according to J. Kenji López Alt (as well as my own experience), it leads to more delicious results. When the easier way is also the better way, I don't ask questions.
So instead of dissolving a bunch of salt in water, waiting for it to chill, finding a bowl big enough, trying to completely submerge the chicken in the brine, finding room for the giant bowl in the refrigerator, and then cleaning up this whole big mess... you simply put the chicken in its roasting pan, blot it with paper towels, sprinkle it with salt, and leave it uncovered in the refrigerator overnight.
Dry brining dries the skin out, which makes it get crispier, but also somehow keeps the meat juicy, which is especially important when you’re adding a stuffing. Whenever you stuff the cavity of a chicken, you have to bake it about 15 to 30 minutes longer than an unstuffed chicken, which means that there is a danger (or more likely, an inevitability!) of the meat overcooking. But you'll discover that when you've gone to the trouble of dry brining, temperature is just a number.
Kthetha muhasta | rice stuffed chicken
Yield: 4 servings
Active time: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 to 14 hours
to dry brine
1 small chicken (about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- At least 3 hours ahead of time, pat the chicken dry with paper towels, and sprinkle its skin with the 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or a bit more to taste (just as if you were seasoning it for the oven).
- Place the chicken on a small casserole dish or cast iron skillet, big enough to eventually leave a border around the chicken for extra stuffing. Refrigerate uncovered for up to 12 hours. *
to stuff and bake
1 cup long-grain rice (e.g., basmati or jasmine)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1 tablespoon cold butter (for the rice)
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons room temperature water
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (from about 10 pods, or straight from the shaker)
2 tablespoons butter (for the nuts and raisins)
1/2 cup pine nuts **
1/2 cup sliced or slivered almonds **
1/2 cup of your favorite raisins, such as golden raisins, sultanas (pictured), or black raisins ***
1 1/2 tablespoons room temperature butter (for the chicken)
1/4 cup water (or more)
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Rinse the rice until the water runs completely clear. Bring the rice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup water to a simmer over medium-high heat. As soon as it starts to simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 7 minutes.
- Once 7 minutes have passed, add the 1 tablespoon cold butter. Mix it together by fluffing the rice until the butter melts completely. Then add the 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons cold water and the allspice, continuing to fluff the rice with a fork for about 1 minute (but never make rice this way again!).
- Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. Add the almonds and pine nuts and stir them constantly until they start to turn very light golden, about 5 minutes. Toss in the raisins for about 30 seconds, and then remove to a paper towel lined plate. After letting them drain for 30 seconds, combine the raisins, nuts, and rice together.
- Smear the dry-brined chicken with the 1 1/2 tablespoons of room temperature butter.
- Stuff the chicken with a much of the stuffing as will fit without packing it too tightly. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine and tuck the wings behind the chicken. Fill the area around the chicken with the rest of the rice mixture. If any raisins are popping out, push them down a little so that they don't burn.
- Bake for about 90 minutes. After 40 minutes of cooking, evenly drizzle 1/4 cup of water over the rice border.
- Make a decision: do you want the stuffing around the chicken to be extremely crispy or a little softer? Cover the stuffing border with foil after you refresh it with water if you want it to be softer, leave the foil off after adding the water if you want it to be super crispy. Or, if you want it to be somewhere in between, cover it for some period of time, tasting the rice every 15 minutes or so.
- Remove from the oven as soon as the internal temperature of the stuffing in the chicken reads 165° F.
- The stuffing inside the chicken will be very soft, and the stuffing around the chicken will be very crispy. Serve a mixture of both to guests, or let people choose their own ratio.
* You can skip the dry brine, but the meat will be less juicy, and the skin less crispy. Find a place in the refrigerator where it won't cross-contaminate other food.
** You can use anywhere between 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of the nuts, depending on your preference. Also feel free to use 100% almonds if pine nuts are too expensive.
*** If you really hate raisins, you can substitute another finely diced dried fruit. Dried apricot or dates work well, as long as they are minced into raisin-sized pieces.