If I had to name my favourite ingredient in the kitchen, it would have to be saffron. I mean, what’s not to love? There’s the fact that it comes from the strangely edible stamens of my favourite spring flower – the crocus. And then there’s the reverence it demands from those who cook with it – I still remember my scientist dad preparing saffron for rice with the same meticulous method he’d use to transfer chemicals in the laboratory, to make sure not even the tiniest fleck would be wasted! But of all the things I love about saffron, most of all, I love what happens when saffron is introduced to chicken.
When saffron and chicken are combined, it’s as though some sort of strange alchemy occurs. Somehow, the saffron makes the chicken taste even more…chicken-y, whilst also elevating it with a sort of earthy sweetness that I find totally irresistible. In Persian cuisine there are dozens of dishes that take advantage of this beautiful combination, from Zereshk polo ba morgh – barberry-studded rice with saffron chicken, to Joojeh kabob – saffron chicken kebab, which happen to be two of my favourite foods of all time. But when I’m cooking them at home, I don’t often stick religiously to the recipes. I like to play around with them, combine my favourite bits of each, have a few happy accidents. But I do so quietly. I don’t want any Persians finding out that when I make zereshk polo I actually prefer to put the barberries in with the chicken, instead of the rice, or that I sometimes even put sumac on things that don’t involve rice at all – which are both truly sacriligeous acts!
Anyway, rules schmules, the other day I came up with a saffron-chicken mashup that I was so pleased with I just couldn’t keep it to myself. I’m calling it saffron sizzled chicken which I think is a pretty accurate title – chicken breast on the bone, stuffed with saffron laced onions, topped with a lime juice and sumac marinade, all sizzled heartily in a skillet in the oven. The saffron onions under the skin make the meat beautifully tender and flavoursome, while the sumac and lime on top crisp up to form a deliciously zingy and crunchy top. Barbecue it, serve it with rice at a dinner party, or carve it, drizzle with lemon and wrap it up in a flatbread for lunch. Either way, I think this one’s a keeper… and I’m prepared to incur the wrath of any Persian traditionalists reading to share it with you all!
- 2 chicken breasts on the bone, skin on or 4 chicken thighs, skin on
- 3 medium onions
- 1 tsp saffron
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 tbsp sumac
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Small bunch fresh parsley
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Finely slice the onions and place in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan with a good glug of oil. Fry over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes until soft and golden brown.
- While the onions are frying, grind the saffron to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle, then pour on 2 tbsp of boiling water. Leave the mixture to 'brew' for 5 minutes.
- Once the onions are cooked, add the saffron mixture to the pan full of onions and stir to combine. Fry for a further 5 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated, then turn off the heat and leave to cool.
- In a small bowl, combine the sumac, lime juice and the olive oil. Stir together and season to taste.
- Place your chicken on a skillet or roasting tray. Using your fingers, part the chicken skin from the meat, then take a good handful of the onion mixture and push it into the space you have made. Massage the mixture around until there is a layer of onion mixture under all of the surface of the skin.
- Pour the sumac and lime mixture over the top of your chicken, and massage in well.
- Cook in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the skin is nice and crispy.
- Scatted over a handful of chopped fresh parsley and a little extra lime juice, then serve.