Iranian Saffron Lemon Chicken Wings

So close, but so far away. That’s how I felt as I stood on the balcony of my hotel room in Baku, Azerbaijan, looking out over the Caspian Sea. A half day’s ferry ride, and I could be in one of the world’s great grill cultures, known in Alexander the Great’s day as Persia and today as Iran. But this is one case where politics and religion trump barbecue, so I had to settle for dinner at one of the many fine Iranian restaurants in Baku. Which, as it turned out, really wasn’t settling at all. Here’s how a Buffalo wing would be made on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea: marinated in yogurt and perfumed with saffron and lemon juice. The crisp skin and the succulent meat transcend national borders.

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 medium-size sweet onion, peeled
  • 1 cup plain Greek-style whole-milk yogurt (see Note)
  • 2 teaspoons Coarse salt (kosher or sea), or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 pounds whole chicken wings (about 12 wings)
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter
  • 3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (optional), for serving
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional), for serving
  • 2 lemons, cut into wedges, for serving

You’ll also Need

  • Flat metal skewers (optional)

Method

Advance Preparation

to 24 hours for marinating the wings

  1. Prepare the marinade and wings: Place the saffron threads and 1 tablespoon of hot water in a small bowl and let the saffron soak for about 5 minutes. Transfer half of the saffron and water mixture to a small bowl and set it aside for the glaze.
  2. Grate the onion on the coarse holes of a box grater into a large nonreactive mixing bowl. (You can also grate the onion in a food processor.) Add the yogurt, salt, pepper, and remaining soaked saffron and stir to mix. Gradually whisk in the ¼ cup of lemon juice and the olive oil. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper as necessary; the mixture should be highly seasoned.
  3. Rinse the chicken wings under cold running water and blot them dry with paper towels. Cut the chicken wings in half, cutting off and discarding the tips. Add the wings to the marinade and stir to coat. Let the wings marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for at least 6 hours, or as long as overnight, stirring them every few hours. The longer the wings marinate, the richer the flavor will be.
  4. Make the glaze: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the reserved saffron and water mixture and the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and let the glaze simmer until blended and flavorful, about 2 minutes.
  5. To grill: Drain the wings, discarding the marinade, before grilling.

    If you are using the direct method, set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat it to medium. Leave one section of the grill fire-free for a safety zone. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate, if using. Arrange the chicken wings on or over the hot grate, skin side down, and grill them until crisp and golden brown and cooked through, 8 to 12 minutes per side, turning with tongs. Should any flare-ups occur, move the wings to the safety zone. In Iran they would grill the wings on a grateless grill; you’ll find instructions for doing this here. If you are using the grateless method, preheat the grill to medium-high and skewer the wings crosswise on flat metal skewers.

    If you are using the indirect method, set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a drip pan in the center, and preheat the grill to medium. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the chicken wings skin side up in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. Cover the grill and grill the wings until they are crisp and golden brown and cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes.

  6. To test for doneness, make a small cut in the thickest part of one of the wings; there should be no traces of red or pink at the bone. Whichever method you use, once the wings start to brown, start basting them with the saffron glaze (you never want to touch the basting brush to raw meat). Baste the wings several times.
  7. Transfer the grilled chicken wings to a platter and pour any remaining saffron glaze over them. Drizzle the pomegranate molasses, if using, over the wings and sprinkle them with parsley, if using. Serve the wings at once, with the lemon wedges.

Variations

Whole Persian Saffron Lemon Chicken

Substitute a 3½- to 4-pound chicken for the wings in the Iranian Saffron Lemon Chicken Wings, spatchcocking the chicken as described here. If you use the direct method, it will take 15 to 20 minutes per side for the chicken to grill. Using the indirect method will take 40 minutes to 1 hour. Baste the chicken with the saffron glaze and serve the bird as described in Step 7.

Persian Saffron Lemon Chicken Kebabs

A popular Iranian shish kebab can be made by starting with 1½ pounds of skinless, boneless chicken breast or thighs, cut into 1-inch squares. Marinate the chicken in the yogurt marinade for 3 to 4 hours, then drain it well and skewer it alternating with 1-inch squares of green bell pepper, red bell pepper, and pieces of onion. Grill the kebabs using the direct method until the chicken is browned on the outside and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side, 8 to 12 minutes in all. During the last 4 minutes, start basting the kebabs with the saffron glaze. Spoon any remaining glaze over the kebabs before serving and top them with the pomegranate molasses and parsley, if using. Serve the kebabs with the lemon wedges.

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