I reluctantly pulled out a sweatshirt the other day, and on my morning walk with my dog, Frito, I watched as a few leaves, golden brown as well-baked pie crust, fell from the old oaks and elms on my street. The days are quickening as the sun sets sooner and sooner. A new season is here.
I'm already missing the seemingly carefree days of summer, long and lazy, full of plump fruit and sunshine. As I start to get ready for a season of coziness, I'm hanging on to one of summer's traditional pleasures: cooking outdoors. Summer may be known as grilling season, but isn't cooking outside actually more enjoyable in the fall when it's no longer too hot to stand in front of a fire?
When I spotted this recipe in Nigel Slater's "A Cook's Book" for chicken thighs marinated in za'atar and garlic, grilled and served with a tahini-yogurt sauce, I knew it would be ideal for this bridge period between summer and fall.
If you don't have a grill, as I didn't for many years, don't worry. Slater's original recipe is called "Grilled chicken with za'atar and tahini" but he calls for a grill pan on the stove. I adapted the recipe, so that you can make it indoors or out, any time of year.
Slater's original za'atar chicken recipe called for whole chicken thighs which you were to debone. In the recipe below, I opted for boneless, skinless thighs to speed things along.
From there, you make a simple marinade of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and za'atar. It's a mix that Slater doesn't reserve just for chicken. He uses it on eggplant, pork chops, lamb ribs, zucchini and mushrooms, too. After their za'atar bath, the chicken thighs go onto a ripping hot grill or grill pan. The goal is to get any bits of fat that are clinging to the chicken to render and baste the meat as it cooks. This is no time for gentle heat: You're aiming for chicken that's charred in places so that it picks up the flavor of smoke. Lemon halves get grilled alongside the chicken, so that they pick up some char, too, and stay wonderfully juicy in the process.
Once it's cooked, you'll serve it with the easiest sauce I've ever made: tahini stirred into plain yogurt. The nuttiness of the tahini pairs wonderfully with the tangy yogurt. Slater recommends you serve the dish with warm flatbread, perhaps also kissed by the grill, to scoop up any chicken juices that mingle with the creamy sauce.
Za'atar Grilled Chicken With Tahini
- 3 lemons, divided use
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
- 1 tablespoon za'atar (see note)
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (1 pound total)
- ¾ cup plain yogurt, preferably Greek-style
- ¼ cup well-stirred tahini
- Flatbreads, for serving
Squeeze the juice out of 1 lemon and cut the remaining 2 lemons in half. In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, the lemon juice, garlic and za'atar. Add the chicken, toss to coat and marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes. (The chicken can also marinate for up to 12 hours in the refrigerator, but remove it from the refrigerator 30 or 40 minutes before proceeding with the recipe.)
To cook the chicken on a grill: Coat the grates lightly with oil. Prepare a grill for direct and indirect heat.
Shake off any excess marinade, place the chicken on the grill over the flame, close the lid and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, so any bits of fat render.
Turn the thighs over and move them to the indirect-heat side of the grill. Add the lemon halves, cut-side down, to the grill. If using a gas grill, reduce the temperature to 325 and close the lid. For a charcoal grill, allow the temperature to decrease to about 325 degrees, and close the lid. Cook the chicken for an additional 5 minutes, or until its internal temperature registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
To cook the chicken on a stovetop: Heat a large, cast-iron skillet or grill pan over high heat until it begins to smoke. Shake off any excess marinade and place the chicken in the skillet. Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook it in 2 batches. Cook until the chicken blackens in spots, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon halves to the skillet, cut side down. Turn the chicken over and cook on the other side until browned, about 4 minutes, or until its internal temperature registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Repeat with the remaining chicken, if necessary.
While the chicken is cooking, in a medium bowl, stir together the yogurt and tahini, leaving ribbons of the sesame paste in the yogurt, for a marbled effect.
Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes before serving, with the yogurt-tahini sauce and warm flatbreads on the side.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Note: Za'atar can be found at spice shops, well-stocked supermarkets, Middle Eastern markets and online.
Recipe adapted from "A Cook's Book" by Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press, 2023)