My name, Sanaë, in Japanese means little rice seedling. It seems fitting that my mother raised me on a diet of rice, rice three times a day from breakfast to dinner. The way I know rice is brown, or short-grain and white, prepared in a rice-cooker. Rather than being the colorful centerpiece, rice was our base, the necessary binding ingredient that held the vegetables and fish together. And so, it was a familiar but often dull or under-appreciated part of the meal. I was always thrilled when my mother chose to dress it up and sauté the rice in minced carrots, onions and olive oil before cooking. On those nights the kitchen filled with the caramel notes of a carrot-onion infused rice. It was the kind that I could eat by the spoonful without accompaniment.
But I still resort to cooking rice the simple way, in a rice cooker where I can let it sit for hours. It requires little attention and the smell of steaming rice is as close to home as I can get on most days. So I was delighted when I found a new way to cook rice: with chicken. By this I mean, cooking the rice and the chicken together in the same pot. It seems like an obvious combination, but until I came across the recipe in Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi I’d never tried my hand at it. A friend once told me about a Thai street food dish of chicken cooked in rice. He described it with so much enthusiasm (the rice has the light flavor of chicken broth — but it’s so much more!), and yet I couldn’t understand what was so exciting. Then I discovered a recipe of rice cooked in sea bream in a Japanese cookbook, which happens to be a popular dish with its salty flavors and delicate dashi stock.
The Jerusalem recipe for chicken with caramelized onions and cardamom rice is my new winter comfort food. I have cooked it twice this week, and both times I’ve been enchanted by the spicy flavors and tender meat. There is a large container of leftovers in my fridge for tomorrow and already I’m anticipating stirring the crispy rice and chicken sprinkled with some fresh parsley… but I’m getting ahead of myself. I keep waiting for winter to lift its cloak and let us be. And while I wait, I’ll eat well.
The beauty of this dish is in the combination of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and currents. The flavors are quite light and unobtrusive: the cinnamon stick perfumes rather than overpowers, unlike the way ground cinnamon sometimes can, and the currants are only faintly sweet, lending a soft base to the peppery rice. The recipe recommends lots of pepper, and so I have been liberal in my peppering, which results in a spicy dish that heats your belly like a strong mulled wine. But the best part is the bird, so tender and covered with a seductive layer of golden skin —truly it provides you with the best of both worlds.
Chicken with caramelized onion and cardamom rice
Adapted from Jerusalem
4 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, thinly sliced
2 lb skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, or one whole chicken quartered
10 cardamom pods
¼ tsp whole cloves (about 6)
2 cinnamon sticks snapped in two
1 2/3 cups basmati rice
¼ cup currants
2 ¼ cups boiling water
A few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan, for which you have a lid, over low-heat. Add the onion and cook for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion has turned a deep golden and smells sweet. Transfer the onion to a bowl and wipe pan clean.
Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl and season with 11/2 teaspoons salt and plenty of black pepper. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon sticks, and use your hands to mix everything. Heat the sauté pan and sear the chicken and spices for five minutes, on each side, and remove from the pan. The spices can stay in the pan but don’t worry if some of them stick to the chicken. Meanwhile place a kettle of water to boil. Remove most of the oil from the pan, leaving a thin film, and add the rice, caramelized onion, a teaspoon salt, and more black pepper. Add the currants and stir well. Return the chicken to the pan, pushing it gently into the rice.
Pour the boiling water over the rice and chicken, cover the pan, and cook over very low heat for 40 minutes. I stirred the rice once after 30 minutes, as the top layer of the rice cooks more slowly than the bottom layer. Turn off the heat, remove the lid, quickly place a clean tea towel over the pan, and seal again with the lid. Leave the dish undisturbed for another 10 minutes. Finally add the parsley and use a fork to fluff up the rice.
You can serve the dish warm but it’s best eaten hot. And don’t forget to search for the caramelized, golden bottom beneath the rice, where the flavors of the seared chicken and spices and onion concentrate in a rich layer, ready to be scraped with a wooden spoon.