Chicken is my thing. I’ve always been a chicken maniac of sorts. Linda raised my brother and me on chicken wings, back in the days when they couldn’t give the stuff away–this was before the buffalo wing phenomenon that still, somehow, endures. Lemon, garlic, salt and pepper, in the oven for a half hour. Crispy, garlicky, greasy, salty and peppery. It was one of my favorite dinners, I used to anticipate Linda’s wings, a longing refusing to be assuaged.
Chicken can be wonderfully prepared in all sorts of ways, using an infinite array of ingredients. You have to be a real idiot to screw up chicken (no comment). It’s such a diverse meat, so much can be done with it.
So I am always looking for new fowl-minded explorations, in my neverending quest to wander and peck my way through life. I was surprised to see Melissa Clark’s chicken and plums recipe, which was published just in time for Rosh Hashanah. You don’t ordinarily make a connection between meat and plums. The Georgians make ketchup-like sauces out of plums, actually. The only one I ever tried was nasty to say the least and I remember having to down some beer or apricot vodka or whatever the hell I was drinking to clean out my mouth. It took a few swirls of alchohol to do the trick. Those Georgians contributed two notable things to Caucasian cuisine–the khingali and khachaburi, both of which are actually not all that original if you ask me (a giant, boiled manti and oversized flakey beureg). But that’s a different story. We’re talking about chicken, damn it!
Some of my past dinner guests have undoubtedly tried my Roast Tarragon Chicken recipe. Been making it for years. As the name suggests, the dish involves lots of fresh tarragon. And I mean, the bird is covered in tarragon leaves. This plum chicken recipe calls for a whopping kilo of plums for two chickens. Melissa invited the reader to use one chicken and cut all the ingredients by half. Screw that! She knows what she’s talking about, we’re doing it her way.
This time of year is plum season in Armenia. And this summer has been a bountiful year for fruit. I don’t remember seeing so much fruit on the market in years. In the villages across the Ararat valley watermelons were piled up to resemble miniature mountains. They were selling the stuff for 50 dram, or about 15 cents, a kilo. Ridiculously low prices on summer fruits and vegetables here. For this recipe I decided to use both red and black plums, which are oblong and not round, like what you would see in a Boston suburban supermarket for instance (Market Basket, anyone?). Don’t ask me why the hell they’re oval shaped. Might be an Armenian thing. But they are succulent and they taste amazingly sweet. For some reason there was a whopping 2 cent difference in price between red and black, but screw it. Might as well do it right.
Another major ingredient of this recipe is sumac for the marinade–two tablespoons! I believe sumac is some sort of plant-like material. I am too lazy to look it up as I write this, but I’ve had it as a condiment in foods most of my life. I know Iranians love it in their cuisine. It has a wonderful tangy flavor to it, sort of lemony, but without the pulp and effort needed to extract the juices, then the clean up, the annoying stickiness and the aggravating scrubbing and scraping involved after it dries out, when it’s all over the counters and floor and your fingers and your bald head … wait I’m digressing again. The sumac that I had on the shelf packed by the Santa Anna company (do not buy any of their spices!) sold in many grocery stores in Yerevan was looking a little on the brown side. From my experience quality sumac should have a warm, maroon hue. So I made a trip to this new spice store that opened up on the corner of Deryan and Sayat Nova called JL Spice. Gorgeous store, all sorts of wonderful spices to be had, everything enclosed in plexiglass containers. It’s the only place in Yerevan where I’ve seen saffron being sold by the kilo. They also sell narghile and e-cigarettes for some odd reason. Their sumac looks gorgeous and it smells amazing–you can actually sense that tartness in your nostrils with a strong whiff. Wonderful stuff. I bought 100 grams of it for a buck (450 dram).
The chickens, the chickens… I just go to Nor Zovk on my street. I buy my boneless chicken breasts there, too for the gourmet chow I make for my chihuahua, who is my occasional food taster. The beef and pork are hit or miss, but that’s a story for another post. I asked for 2 chickens on the big side. They are all the same size for the most part and not oven stuffers by any means, but they’re pretty tasty.
The first thing Melissa requires is to zest two lemons. One of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen, besides a sturdy, high quality chef’s or Santoku knife (have two), is a top-notch hand-held grater. The Microplane is a miracle of culinary science. It’s well worth paying $15 bucks for one at a home goods or kitchen store (like BB&B). It’s especially great for parmesan cheese and also garlic. I am an amateur zester, so it took me about five minutes per lemon to grate the rind. I hope to shave a minute off my zesting time soon. The zest is combined with sumac, garlic, olive oil, some cinnamon and allspice (special thanks to Effendi), then set aside to be smeared all over the chickens once the ladies are washed out with warm salt water.
For the garlic use a good crusher or else a grater. By all means, chop if you like. But to get that annoying peel off, first slam your chef’s knife onto the garlic cloves. Actually, doing that will probably launch the garlic all over the kitchen. Press down firmly with the knife and you’ll see that the skin flakes right off.
The plums are washed then cut in half and pitted. Use a high-quality honey–still have the stuff from Meghri on hand, which has a faintly rosewater-like aroma. The honey does not and probably should not be transparent and smooth– the cloudier and lumpier the better in my experience. Shallots as far as I know do not exist in Armenia. You have scallions, red onions, white onions, garlic. Never seen a shallot in 11 years here. Substitute a medium-sized onion, no one is going to know the difference (what the hell does a shallot taste like, anyway?). I omitted the bay leaf because I’m out of them. Add a half ounce more allspice to compensate if you feel guilty about it.
Note to the wise–these days I am usually sticking with sea salt, which tends to be stronger than regular store-bought salt. So if something calls for a teaspoon, you can probably get away with half. If it’s not salty enough to everyone’s liking, put a salt shaker on the table. The less added salt in recipes the better. Armenians use way, way too much salt in their food. Do not bother with going out and buying kosher salt for this recipe, unless you or your guests are Jewish or something. Sea salt is perfectly fine.
So I smeared the ladies all over with the sumac-garlic-lemon zest goodness. I found some old dried springs of thyme so I inserted some of those into the cavities (my guests were asking what the twigs were). I don’t have a roasting rack (shame on me) so the girls rested on 4 potatoes each in the roasting pan, along with the plum and honey mixture. I did exactly what Melissa said to do–baked those babies for a half hour then took them out and poured lemon juice and olive oil all over them before throwing them back into the oven. The chicken was tangy, garlicky and juicy. The plums were so ripe that a thick, extraordinary gravy was actually formed at the bottom of the pan.
Serve with garlic mashed potatoes, broccoli, a simple salad (tomato, cucumber, oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh ground black pepper, sea salt). Or choose your favorite side dish. It’s chicken, everything goes with it!
Beautiful birds. Fantastic recipe. Merci Melissa!