Monday, February 20, 2012

Persian Sweet and Sour Stuffed Chicken

I've been dying to try so many of the chicken recipes in Food of Life, my Persian cookbook.  So many of them call for an entire chicken, and I don't know how well stuffed chicken leftovers would work the next day.  But, when I saw the recipe for sweet and sour stuffed chicken that could also be done with a Cornish game hen, I was stoked.  Before this dish, I'd never eaten Cornish game hen.  My mom told me that back in the 70s and 80s, they were a Big Thing for people to cook when they entertained friends.  Wikipedia tells me that they're basically small chickens, and it tasted exactly that way.  It wasn't gamey at all.

This was my first time roasting an entire bird.  I've never hosted Thanksgiving or Christmas, so I've never done turkey, and I've never had the guts to roast a whole chicken when I have guests for dinner. It's generally a bad idea to experiment on friends.  I was a little intimidated, at first.  I was nervous that the meat would be dry and nasty, but this dish turned out *amazing.* The meat was moist and the skin was tangy from the lime juice in the basting liquid.  The stuffing was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and the onion and spices made it very hearty.  I would definitely make this for my friends for a special dinner.  

This dish looks labor intensive, and it is mildly so.  There's a good bit of chopping at the beginning, for the fruit.  Then it needs to be basted occasionally once it's in the oven.  So while I wasn't hovering in the kitchen continuously, I used my "cooking time" to catch up on some episodes of Downton Abbey.  That way I could run in and check on it.  This dish is definitely for a night when you're catching up on TV or cooking in advance to impress your guests! Since I halved the recipe, I had some apple left over.  I cut it into wedges and roasted them with the hens and they were quite tasty since they absorbed a lot of the flavors of the stuffing.  The recipe calls for advieh, a Persian spice mix.  I didn't have any and so I left it out.  I finally got my hands on some at my local middle eastern bakery, so I'll have to see if it makes a difference next time. 

I served my hen with a rather large side of saffron rice and dried fruit, and some spinach with chickpeas.  This is a TON of food.  I made the ton of rice because I wanted a backup in case the game hen turned out to be inedible.  Like I said, I was intimidated and a little doubtful of my ability to pull this dish off.  Next time, I would make significantly less rice. The spinach and chickpea dish is Egyptian so this wasn't an entirely Persian meal.  But it's a super quick and tasty side dish if you like spinach. 

The stuffing is a great way to fit some dried fruit into your diet.  In addition to fresh apple, the recipe calls for prunes, dried apricots, and raisins.  I happened to have some golden raisins in my pantry, and I used those instead of regular raisins. 

The recipe instructs to sew or pin the hens shut. I didn't have the supplies to do either, so I used some silicone bands and improvised.  It turned out fine!

The rice was made in a rice cooker.  On a whim, I mixed some ground saffron (just a pinch!) with some hot water and poured it in and mixed it before I turned on my rice cooker.

Persian Sweet and Sour Stuffed Chicken
From Food of Life
Serves 2 (this is a halved recipe)

Chicken Preparation
2 Cornish game hens
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground turmeric

1/8 cup oil, butter, or ghee (I used oil)
1/2 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large clove garlic,peeled and crushed.
1/2 cup pitted prunes, finely chopped
1/2 apple, cored and finely chopped.  Reserve the other half to roast with the hens.  Rub the exposed flesh w/ some lemon to stop it from browning.
1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp advieh (Persian spice mix - I didn't use this)
1/2 tsp grape molasses or sugar
1/4 cup melted butter or oil (I used butter)

Basting Liquid
1/4 cup butter, ghee, or oil (I used butter)
1/8 cup fresh lime juice (I used the juice from a whole lime)
1/8 tsp ground saffron

1)  Preheat the oven to 425 F. Clean and rise the hens with cold water and pat them dry.  If this is your first time with a whole bird, heads up: there's probably a bag inside the bird containing the neck and some organs.  Make sure you get that out.
2) Mix the salt, pepper, and turmeric.  Then rub the birds with it, inside and out.
3) Make the stuffing. Heat the oil in a wide skillet and brown the onion and garlic.  Add the prunes, apple, apricots, and raisins.  Stir fry for about a minute.  Add the rest of the ingredients and cook for another 20 seconds.  Then remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.
4) Stuff the hens with the stuffing.  I really crammed it in there.  Make sure to use up as much of the stuffing as you can, it's really good! Sew, pin, or use silicone bands to close the cavities.  Place the hens in an oiled roasting pan.
5) In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the basting liquid ingredients. Paint the hens with the liquid.  Cover the roasting pan with a layer of parchment paper (I didn't have any and just used foil) and then a layer of tin foil on top of that, sealed tight.  Bake for one hour.
6) Uncover the hens and cook them for another 30 to 45 minutes, basting occasionally.  I cooked mine for 40 minutes and basted 5 times. Cook the hens until the meat separates easily from the bone.
7) Serve with side dishes of choice!  In my case, I'd make much less rice and still serve the spinach and chickpeas.

Spinach with Chickpeas (Sabanekh bel Hummus)
From The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Serves 2

Half of a 14 oz can of chickpeas, drained (save the rest for a salad)
~ 1 lb spinach (I used one large bunch)
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 tsp ground coriander
1 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
juice from 1/2 lemon (the recipe lists this as option, but I think it's really good!)

1) Wash the spinach really well and remove the stems. 
2) In a large skillet, fry the garlic and coriander in the oil until it becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds. 
3) Add the spinach and cover with a lid.  Cook over low until the leaves reduce to a soft mass. 
4) Add the chickpeas and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for another 5 minutes.  If it's still too watery, turn the heat up to high for a minute or two. 
5) Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice, and serve. 


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