Iranian Stuffed Chicken with Fresh Green Herbs and Golden Soup

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Complex

  • Yield:

    4 to 8

    Servings, Depending on the Size of the Chicken and Other Dishes Served

Appears in

You pick up strips of silky, moist poached chicken, glistening with amber broth, and wrap them in an array of fresh green herbs—mint, scallion slivers, basil, tarragon, cilantro—then pop the scented packet in your mouth. Between bites there is the stuffing—cumin-scented rice and dal-like split peas, tinted sunshine yellow with turmeric—that has been cooked to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness inside the gently simmered chicken.

Only much later do you realize that this sensory feast—unlike most from the Rosh Hashanah repertoire—is nearly fat-free, rich only in its extravagance of aromatic fragrances and brilliant gold colors.

An added bonus is the wonderful broth that comes with poaching the chicken, to be served at this meal, or saved for the second Rosh Hashanah dinner tomorrow.

The original Iranian recipe, while utterly delicious, is somewhat tricky to do, but I have come up with an easy and foolproof—though somewhat unconventional—cooking method. I precook all of the stuffing, and wrap it up in a thin piece of cotton. Then I split the bird open, slip the stuffing package inside it, and roughly truss the bird closed around it. No need to sew up the chicken and no fear that stray stuffing will seep into the broth and cloud it up. The stuffing drinks in the chicken’s lovely juices, and removing it and serving it is a breeze.

Beautifully fresh herbs are essential here; some herb blossoms, if you can get them, added to the mix make for a stunning presentation.

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Ingredients

For the Stuffing

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • cups finely chopped onion
  • tablespoons cumin seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle or coarsely ground in a spice mill (for extra flavor, lightly toast the seeds until fragrant before crushing)
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 cup basmati rice, rinsed well
  • ½ cup yellow split peas, picked over and rinsed well
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Chicken

  • 1 large roasting chicken,
  • 4 to 7 pounds (neck, liver, and giblets removed and reserved for another use)
  • Enough fresh, cold water to cover the bird (if you us bottled water for coffee or tea, use it here)
  • Salt
  • 1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 2 medium celery stalks, preferably with leaves
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas, picked over, rinsed, and soaked overnight (optional)
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 to 1½ teaspoons turmeric

To Serve with the Chicken

  • An assortment of fresh herbs, including at least three of these: basil, mint, tarragon, cilantro, scallions
  • Small red radishes
  • Herb blossoms or other edible flowers (optional)

Method

Start the stuffing: in a wide 3-quart saucepan, warm the olive oil. Add the onions and sauté them over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until they are softened and just beginning to turn pale gold. Don’t brown them. Add the cumin and turmeric and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until they become very fragrant. Add the rice and split peas, and stir to coat them with the onions and oil. Add 3 cups cold water, about teaspoons salt, and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, over very low heat for 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Remove the pot from the heat.

You’ll need a thin cotton cloth to enclose the stuffing. I prefer an inexpensive, large white cotton men’s handkerchief (unlike other cloths, it never unravels), but a piece of clean cotton sheeting (that has been washed in unscented laundry detergent), premade muslin soup bag (sold in some kitchenware stores), or a double thickness of good-quality cheesecloth will also work well. Spoon the stuffing onto the center of the cloth and mold it into a rough oblong about 8 by 5 inches. Pull the cloth over the stuffing to enclose it completely. Twist the ends and tie them and the middle closed with kitchen string, allowing a little extra room for the stuffing to expand.

Using kitchen shears, cut through the chicken along the backbone as if butterflying it, or have the butcher do it. Remove as much loose fat as possible and rinse the chicken well with cold water. Spread the chicken open and place the bag of stuffing inside it. Fold the chicken over the stuffing to enclose it, then tie the chicken closed with a light truss. That will make it easier to turn the chicken, if needed, and to remove it from the pot. Place the chicken on the bottom of a stockpot (an 8-quart for a small bird; 10- to 12-quart size for an extra-large chicken). Add water to cover it, and about 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a strong simmer, but don’t allow the water to boil.

As the chicken cooks, skim off all the froth and scum that rise to the surface. After the water begins to simmer gently, continue skimming for 15 to 20 minutes, until very few impurities come to the surface, then add the onion, celery, chickpeas, if using, a few grinds of pepper, and about 1 teaspoon turmeric. The water now should be a light, golden yellow (it will turn burnished gold later from the chicken juices). You may need to add up to ½ teaspoon more turmeric, especially if your chicken is large and required a lot of water to cover it. Bring the water back to a strong simmer, skimming occasionally, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to very low. The bubbles should be breaking slowly and silently along the surface; do not let the soup boil or the chicken will be tough. Check occasionally to make sure the chicken is completely covered with liquid. If there is not enough liquid to cover it, don’t add more water—that will dilute the soup too much. Instead, turn the chicken carefully from time to time, so all sides are gently bathed in liquid during most of the cooking.

Poach the chicken for 1 to 2 hours (depending on the size of the bird), until its juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a thin metal skewer or long-pronged fork.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare the herb accompaniment: if the basil leaves are large or the stems thick, pull off the leaves and discard the stems. Trim off any hard or woody stems from the mint, and trim the cilantro and tarragon. Cut off the bearded roots and 2 to 3 inches of the dark green ends from the scallions, then sliver the scallions lengthwise. Trim the radishes and thinly slice them. Set out the herbs and the radishes decoratively in a basket lined with a pretty napkin, or on a platter. If you have any herb blossoms or other edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, violets, Johnny jump-ups, or borage flowers, intersperse them among the green herbs for a striking presentation.

To serve the chicken, carefully transfer it to a warm serving platter. I find it easiest to do this by grabbing onto the trussing string with tongs, and holding a plate or very wide, sturdy spatula directly under the chicken with the other hand, while a second set of hands stands ready with the platter. Discard the trussing string and remove and discard the chicken skin, leaving the meat on the bones. Arrange the chicken attractively on the platter. Untie the bag and scoop out the stuffing, mounding it in the middle of the chicken. Spoon a little hot broth over everything to moisten it, and tuck a few clusters of herbs around the chicken and stuffing as garnish.

Or slice the chicken off the bone after discarding the skin, and place in warmed, shallow soup bowls. Spoon some of the stuffing around the chicken and arrange a few sprigs of herbs artfully on top. Ladle about a half cup of steaming broth over everything.

To eat the chicken, take some herbs in hand: a strip of scallion and a couple of tarragon leaves, for instance. Then, still using your hands, pull off a small piece of chicken and roll the herbs around it. If you’d like, sprinkle with a few grains of coarse salt before popping the little packet in the mouth.

If you have added chickpeas, taste one for tenderness after removing the chicken, and, if needed, simmer the broth a little longer until the peas are done. Discard the onion and the celery.

If you are serving the broth and chickpeas as a prelude to or alongside the chicken, tent the chicken and stuffing with aluminum foil to keep them warm as you defat the broth. Use an inexpensive gravy separator to remove the fat or carefully spoon off as much of the clear fat layer as possible. Or scoop out the chickpeas, using a perforated ladle, and place them in a large bowl. Line a fine-mesh sieve or strainer with two to three layers of dampened paper toweling or with coffee filters, and fit the sieve over the bowl. Slowly pour the broth through the sieve into the bowl, trapping the fat in the paper towels or filters. If the broth is still fatty, repeat with clean paper towels. Wash out the pot before reheating the soup.

Because the bag of stuffing adds quite a bit of volume to the contents of the pot, necessitating more water than usual to cover the ingredients, you may need to reduce the broth somewhat to concentrate the flavors. Boil uncovered over high heat to the desired strength. Adjust the salt and pepper. Serve the broth with the chickpeas in warmed shallow bowls garnished with chopped fresh herbs and some of the poached chicken, shredded.

If you are serving the broth at another meal, allow it to cool, uncovered, to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator until the fat congeals in a layer on top. When ready to serve, spoon off the fat and discard it. Reheat the broth until piping hot. Reduce if needed and adjust the seasoning.

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