As I’ve mentioned before, one of the best parts about marrying a man of Palestinian descent is the food. Jason’s mom, Salwa, is a truly wonderful cook…a master of her native cuisine. I realized this one day as we were eating mashi (stuffed squash), kibbeh (bulgur + lamb patties), and hashweh (rice + lamb) made by someone who is not Jason’s mom. It was fine, it was familiar…but it was not the can’t-put-down-my-fork delicious food Salwa makes.
Perhaps it’s because of this mastery she has in the kitchen, but I have been intimidated by the comforting, spicy dishes that Jason (and now I) crave. I’m generally up for anything in the kitchen, attempting dishes from various nationalities, undaunted. But I had yet to try an Arabic dish until yesterday.
Msakkhan (roughly prounonced “im-sohcken” with a throaty second syllable) was traditionally regarded as peasant food. Its origins are Middle Eastern, but it’s basically one version of a casserole that’s made around the world (the Greek version, moussaka, is more well known).
There are lots of recipes for this around the web. When I made it yesterday, I made a few missteps that I’ve corrected using my mother-in-law’s technique. I followed the online recipes and baked the whole thing together. The bread stuck to the pan and got pretty sogged in chicken broth, which was still tasty, but not like Jason’s mom’s. Come to find out, she bakes the chicken and the onion bread separately, then combines them at the end. So that’s what I’m recommending here and how I’ll make it next time.
Though extremely simple, this is a somewhat time-consuming dish, but really, the long cooking spans are largely hands-off. Reddish-purple sumac, the predominant spice here, lends a slight sweet-tanginess while the cinnamon and nutmeg add a warm aroma that’s comforting and perfectly balanced. If you can’t find sumac at your grocery store (and I’m doubting you will be able to), look for it in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean markets, or online at Penzey’s.
Msakkhan (Arabic Chicken on Onion Bread)
1 1/2 generous tablespoons finely ground sumac
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small chicken, quartered
3 large red onions, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons chicken stock
4 to 6 small pita bread rounds
Combine sumac, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, and salt in a medium bowl. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the mixture in another bowl, and set it aside. Squeeze the lemon juice over the rest of the mixture, and use a fork to combine. Add 2 tablespoons oil, and stir to combine.
Trim the chicken parts to remove excess skin and fat. In a large resealable plastic bag or a large bowl, combine the spice marinade and chicken pieces, and turn chicken to coat it really well in the marinade. Cover, and refrigerate for 3 hours.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and reserved spice mixture, and stir to combine. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until onions begin to soften. Add chicken stock, and stir. Turn heat to low/medium-low, and cover pot. Cook onions, stirring every so often, until they are meltingly soft and have turned a nice purple color, about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400º. Spray a large roasting pan with nonstick spray. Remove chicken from marinade, and shake off excess. Place chicken in the pan skin side up, and roast until the internal temperature reaches 165º on an instant-read thermometer, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Spray a large rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray. Place pita bread in one even layer on the pan. Brush lightly with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Spoon onions evenly atop bread, leaving a 1/2-inch border all the way around. Bake for 25 minutes, or until bread is deep golden brown. Top each piece of onion bread with a chicken quarter, and serve remaining pita on the side.