Before there was lemon juice, there was sumac: tart, purple-red berries that grow wild all over the hills of the Middle East. Dried and ground, sumac has an alluring fruity-sour taste, more floral and less sharp than lemon, and is used anywhere lemon would provide sparkle: grilled foods, creamy soups and sauces, and salads.
In fact, it’s better than citrus in the marinades that Jews from Turkey, Iran, and the Fertile Crescent favor for fish, chicken, and kebabs because it contains none of the acetic acid that can break down delicate proteins during an extended soak in a lemony bath. By the time the flesh is flavored by an acidic marinade, it might be overtenderized, even mushy.
There is no such danger with this savory sumac marinade. I remove the poultry skin so the seasoning can penetrate the meat even more, and let the chicken steep for several hours.
But all that carefully created flavor and good texture mean nothing if the bird is overcooked. Chicken breasts turn dry and tough all too easily when grilled, so I hedge my bets with thighs, likelier to remain moist and juicier, and watch carefully.
Prepare the marinade: in a small bowl, stir together the onion, garlic, oregano, sumac, cumin, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the olive oil and whisk until well blended. Remove
Place the chicken thighs in a large, heavy resealable plastic bag, and pour the remaining marinade over them. Shake the bag until all the pieces are bathing in the marinade. Seal the bag and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or preferably overnight, occasionally shaking the bag or moving the thighs around to ensure the marinade is evenly distributed over all surfaces of the chicken.
Bring the chicken to room temperature.
To grill using the stovetop and oven method: preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a large ridged cast-iron skillet or a stovetop grill. Line a shallow roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet with foil (for easy cleanup) and fit it with a rack. (If your cast-iron skillet is very large and you are able to fit all the chicken on it, you won’t need the roasting pan.) Heat the skillet or stovetop grill over medium-high heat until it is sizzling. Add the chicken, in batches as necessary, and cook, turning often, until it is seared well on both sides, about 10 minutes in all. Transfer the chicken to the rack in the roasting pan (or arrange all the chicken pieces in the skillet, if they can fit in one layer). Place the pan in the oven and cook, turning once or twice, until the juices run clear when the thickest sections are pierced with a skewer or knife, 25 to 30 minutes. (This method really requires a ridged skillet or grill. Don’t start the chicken in a regular unridged greased skillet; the marinade will burn when it hits the oil. If you have neither a ridged cast-iron skillet nor a stovetop grill, roast the chicken in a preheated 450°F oven, turning occasionally, for 35 to 40 minutes.)
To grill outdoors or in a fireplace: grease the grill rack. Light a gas grill or prepare a fire using briquettes or hardwood. When it is moderately hot (the coals should be glowing red and covered with a moderate layer of gray ash), put the grill rack back on the grill and let it get sizzling hot. Arrange the chicken on the rack and cook, turning frequently with tongs, until the juices run clear when the thickest sections are pierced with a skewer or knife, 35 to 45 minutes in all.
Brush the sizzling chicken with reserved marinade and sprinkle lightly with lemon juice, fresh pepper, and salt before serving. Excellent hot, at room temperature, or cold.
© 2008 Jayne Cohen. All rights reserved.