Marinated chicken gets old after a while. So do cajun rubs and Greek seasonings. After a while, it all just tastes the same so changing up the routine is necessary. Chicken is boring by nature. Breasts dry out on the grill and rarely take on the marinade flavor. Thighs have more flavor, as do the rest of the leg, but still, variety is the spice of life particularly when it comes to spices.
Za’atar is a recent addition to the Al Dente stable of spice thanks to my recent Penzey’s Spices order. It’s an ancient herb found in abundance throughout the Mediterranean Middle East and the Levant (that fun part of the world where the Islamic State wants to setup shop). Pure za’atar, so I’m told, smells and tastes like its relatives oregano and thyme. The za’atar most frequently found in Middle Eastern grocery stores and at places like Penzey’s is a blend that adds sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt. Both the blend and straight versions are mild in spice, but bold with the flavors you would recognize from eating Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s generally baked into bread or rubbed into it with olive oil, but it also makes a first-rate seasoning for meats and fish.
This particular recipe comes courtesy of the genius J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats. Kenji butterflies his bird and spatchcooks it on the grill, but that was a little more involved than I was looking to get on a Tuesday night. Instead, I rubbed down a bunch of chicken thighs with the za’atar paste.
WHAT WORKED: Za’atar and sumac. Listen, foodies can nitpick whether the za’atar is sourced from the last herb field in Syria not controlled by Bashar Al-Assad or ISIS. Eaters are concerned with exploring new flavors and cultures. This is about trying new flavors and putting a twist on the ordinary.
WHAT DIDN’T: One of my lemons was rotten, which was annoying.
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy to medium-easy since there are a few extra steps. Still, it goes together quickly.
BEST FOR: Changing up the weekend cookout or weeknight dinner routine.
SERVE WITH: Warm pita. I took four pieces, wrapped it in foil, and warmed it on the grill.
Grilled Chicken with Za’atar and Sumac-Mint Aioli
- 2 tbsp. za'atar spice blend (or make your own from 1/2 tbsp. dried oregano, 1/2 tbsp. fresh minced thyme, 1/2 tbsp. minced fresh savory, 1/2 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds, 1 tsp. ground sumac and a pinch of kosher salt)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 7 garlic cloves, minced and divided in portions of 3 and 4 cloves
- 1 to 1 1/4 lb. chicken thighs
- 1 egg
- juice of two lemons
- 1/2 cup light olive, grapeseed, or vegetable oil
- two-fingered pinch kosher salt
- two turns of a black pepper grinder
- 1 tbsp. ground sumac
- 8 to 10 mint leaves, chopped finely
Clean and oil your grill grates, then preheat the grill on its highest settings, allowing the grill to reach 600 degrees.
Combine the za'atar with 2 tbsp. of olive oil and 3 cloves of garlic. Mix with a small spoon until the ingredients take on the consistency of a paste.
Rinse the chicken thighs under cool tap water and pat dry with paper towels. Use your hands to rub the herb paste into the thighs, massaging the spice paste into the meat. Set aside on a plate.
Add the egg, 3/4 of the lemon juice, 1/2 cup of olive oil, and 1/2 cup of other oil to the mixing cup for your immersion blender. Insert the head of the immersion blender and run until the ingredients combine and emulsify. Move the head around, tipping it on its side and moving it up and down to capture as many of the ingredients as possible to blend. It should have the consistency of runny mayonnaise.
Use a spatula to scrape the aioli from mixing cup into a small bowl. Add the sumac, mint and remaining lemon juice, and stir vigorously to mix. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Lower the heat on one half of the grill to between 1/2 and 3/4 power. Add the chicken thighs to this side, cover the grill, and cook 10 to 12 minutes, or until the chicken develops a little char and the internal temperature of the thighs reaches 150 degrees.
Serve the thighs with aioli, warm pita, and additional za'atar.
Adapted from the original from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats
© 2020 Jared Paventi. All Rights Reserved.