Iraqi Chicken over Red Rice is a savory, succulent, budget-friendly dinner worthy of company. Also known as Plau B’Jeej, this dish contains subtle layers of flavors and textures. I cooked chicken thighs with tomato paste and spices to make the broth which I then used later to cook the rice. Chicken thighs are more flavorful than breast meat and they retain their moisture. Onions (LOTS) were slowly sauteed until just short of caramelization. When I added an exotic blend of spices along with almonds and raisins I was immediately transported to the market places in Israel.
We ate the Iraqi Chicken over Red Rice for a satisfying, lovely Shabbat meal. A cup of Greek Red Lentil Soup, along with side salads of Moroccan Beets, Baba Ganoush and a watercress, Persian cucumber, tomato and olive filled out the menu. And, of course, my husband’s beautiful challah!
While I know that some people eat the same special meal every Shabbat, I have always tried to vary it. With a wonderful library of cookbooks, I’m never short of inspiration. As anyone who follows my blog knows, I especially love Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food as well as Indian. They both use lots of fresh herbs, pulses, vegetables and spices and it’s fun to mix and match cuisines. These palate pleasers also create a feast for the eyes with their colorful blends. This recipe comes from the Jewish Soul Food From Minsk to Marrakesh cookbook by Janna Gur.
Yield: 6 servings, depending on sides. Any leftover rice can be used with other grilled, or roasted meat, chicken or fish.
2 to 2.5 pounds of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (or saddles , which includes the legs)
5 cups of water
7 ounces of tomato paste
1 slightly rounded teaspoon of ground cumin
1 slightly rounded teaspoon sweet paprika
Generous pinch of cayenne (optional, but I used)
2 cups long-grain white rice (I used Basmati)
3 to 4 Tablespoons vegetable oil such as Canola
3 large yellow or white onions
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 slightly rounded teaspoon baharat spice mix (easily available online, but a recipe for making it at home will be included at the bottom)
1 cup of blanched slivered or halved almonds
1/2 cup of raisins (I used unsulphured Sultana Raisins)
Place the chicken in a medium saucepan. Mix the water with the tomato paste, cumin, paprika and cayenne. Pour the liquid mixture over the chicken. Partially cover the pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for one hour. Toward the end of cooking, add a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside until it is cool enough to handle (about 15 minutes). There should be just about 3.5 cups of liquid remaining, which you will use in a bit to cook the rice.
While the chicken is cooking, rinse and then soak the rice in cold water, using a sieve or colander over a bowl. The rice should soak for at least 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes. Then drain the rice.
Once the chicken has cooled enough to handle, remove the skin and shred the meat off of the bone. Set the chicken meat aside.
Peel and thinly slice the three onions. Don’t get scared off by the seemingly large amount. It cooks down and is all necessary. In a 12-inch pan (preferably cast iron) heat the vegetable oil. I ended up using about 3.5 Tablespoons of oil. Add the sliced onions and saute over medium heat, only stirring occasionally for about 20 minutes+. You want the onions to become softened and just beginning to turn golden and caramelized. Season with salt to taste and add the turmeric and baharat. Mix through. All of this can be done ahead if you wish.
Twenty minutes or so before you are ready to eat, bring the tomato liquid to a boil. Add the drained rice. Cover the pot tightly and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, but check it after 15 since different brands of rice cook different times. You want the liquid to be absorbed and the rice to be tender. Fluff the rice with a fork, re-cover the pot and allow the rice to stand for 5 to 10 minutes.
Heat the onion mixture if you made it ahead. Add back the chicken and mix it through. Add the almonds and saute for about 5 to 6 minutes more, gently tossing the almonds through the mixture. Now add the raisins and cook for one more minute.
This can be presented on a platter with the rice on the bottom and the chicken, almond, onion, raisin mixture mounded on top. Be sure to leave some of the rice visible. You can also serve this in a similar presentation on individual plates. Top with a bit of fresh parsley or cilantro for color contrast.
Baharat Spice Mix
There is no one single recipe for Baharat. Every family and spice vendor has their own blend. The following recipe also comes from the Janna Gur cookbook and is one option for making Baharat at home. I used a commercial blend this time which I received as a gift.
1 Tablespoon ground cardamom
1 Tablespoon freshly ground balck pepper
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1.5 teaspoons ground allspice
1.5 teaspoons ground nutmeg
Combine and keep stored in an airtight container in a cool dry place.