Planning a menu can be a real challenge, even for the most experienced cooks. Finding delicious recipes to prepare is often the easy part. But there is always the question of what dishes pair well together or more importantly, what recipes will fight on the plate? And what about timing so that everything is ready at roughly the same time? Here are just a few of the simple rules I live by when thinking about a menu for entertaining.
First and foremost, I choose a few dishes that can be made in advance and are fine to sit at room temperature for an hour or so while we enjoy a cocktail and some appetizers. If one or two dishes can be prepared ahead, I am a much more relaxed hostess which is ultimately better for my guests!
Second, when I am narrowing down my menu choices, I visualize the plate with all the dishes I am considering on it. I want to envision what it’s going to look like as we all know we eat with our eyes first. Is there enough color or is everything shades of white and brown? Am I duplicating color or ingredients and if so, are there swap outs that will make the different dishes work better together? As a rule, I to offer big, colorful platters of food to my guests. And if I am unsure about a recipe, I will definitely road test it before using it for entertaining.
Third, I think about how easy the meal is to eat. I don’t want my guests struggling to politely get a string bean into their mouth or needing to cut everything on their plate, while dazzling whomever they are seated next to with delightful conversation 🙂 And of course, I think about texture. Everything can’t be smooth or crunchy!
Last and back to my original thought, I do try to have dishes that have complimentary flavor profiles so they work well together. I probably wouldn’t pair today’s chicken recipe that has a Middle Eastern flare with, for example, a cheesy, creamy pasta side dish or with a vegetable that had a strong Asian seasoning as they would fight for attention in your mouth. Instead, I’ve paired it as I’ve described below, once a little more aggressively, and once a little more simply. Thankfully, both were healthy, appetizing and pleasing to the eyes and stomach!
The recipe I am sharing with you today is one I have used for entertaining with great success this summer. Grilled Za’atar Chicken is big on flavor and a safe bet. The recipe comes from Melissa Clark’s cookbook, Dinner which I borrowed from our summer community’s library on a whim. I hadn’t heard about the cookbook, but I liked the sound of it and enjoy Melissa’s recipes from the New York Times so figured I would give it a read. And who doesn’t need some dinner inspo from time to time?
Boneless chicken (she calls for thighs but I’ve made it with breasts and thighs) is marinated in a combination of garlic, lemon juice and zest, olive oil, parsley and the spice called Za’atar which I like to refer to as the Herbes de Provence of the Middle East. Za’atar is a spice mix and can differ, depending on where you purchase it but generally includes dried thyme, sesame seeds and sumac which has lemon notes. You can usually find it in the spice aisle or in specialty markets. If you go to the Armenian markets in Watertown, not only will you find za’atar seasoning, but also you will often find Za’atar bread which is a pita style bread that is brushed with oil and sprinkled with za’atar before being baked off. Just delicious.
Back to the chicken. After marinating, it is grilled and served alongside a yogurt sauce that is made with garlic, and more lemon juice and zest. Clark calls for garnishing the plate with fresh parsley and mint leaves, pomegranate seeds and a sprinkling of the pink-hued sumac which makes the dish have great eye appeal…
The first time I served the chicken, I paired it with a roasted tomato, fennel and chickpea dish from Diana Henry’s cookbook, How to Eat a Peach. The dish had some harissa and a lemon vinaigrette that paired nicely with the chicken. It was delicious, especially if you love roasted fennel as I do! A friend brought a lovely green salad…
The next time I prepared the chicken, I served it with something I call Mimi’s rice that I put on my Instagram stories last week. It’s a simple dish that my mother used to make every summer with squash from my father’s garden or Wilson farms. Just saute an onion in some light oil until sweated (not browned) and add some diced summer squash allowing it to steam until slightly softened. Add some long grain rice and chicken broth (2:1 ratio of broth to rice), bring to a boil and simmer, covered for 20 minutes. The dish takes me right back to my childhood! Along with the rice I served sauteed green beans with garlic and roasted cherry tomatoes from our garden that I had tossed in some harissa, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper to mimic Diana Henry’s dish a bit. Simple and easy and our plates were full of color…
From my Instagram…
I made two changes to Melissa’s original recipe. First, I added more chicken to the recipe because I felt as though the marinade could support an extra half-pound and who doesn’t love delicious leftovers? Second and purely by error, I added half of the lemon juice called for in the recipe to the yogurt, thinking that was where it went. I was rushing and didn’t read that you were supposed to drizzle it on the chicken at the end but I loved it in the yogurt sauce (as did everyone who had it) and didn’t miss it on the chicken so voila, an adaptation.
Please let me know if you give this Grilled Za’atar Chicken with Lemon Yogurt a try!
Until next time…
One Year Ago: Greek Zucchini Noodle Salad
One Year and One Week Ago: Grilled Turkey Tenderloins with Apricot Salsa
Two Years Ago: Sausage, Corn and Spinach Frittata
Three Years Ago: Summer Squash, Corn and Tomato Gratin
Four Years Ago: Roasted Eggplant Parmesan
Four Years and One Week Ago: Double Chocolate Loaf Cake
This recipe is from Melissa Clark's cookbook, Dinner, Changing the Game. I've made a few adjustments that included slightly increasing the amount of chicken used as the marinade could support it and leftovers are delicious. Second, I used half of the lemon juice called for in the recipe to enhance the flavor of the lemon yogurt (Clark uses it on the chicken before serving). Last, Clark writes to baste the chicken with the leftover marinade which I did not do, but you are welcome to give that a try if you want!
- 2 1/2 pounds boneless chicken (breasts and/or thighs)
- 8 garlic cloves, minced. Set aside 1 teaspoon.
- Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons, divided in half
- 1 Tablespoon za'atar
- 3 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley, plus more for serving
- 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2/3 cup Greek yogurt, 2% or whole milk
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Parsley and mint leaves for garnish (optional)
- Ground sumac for garnish (optional)
- Pomegranate seeds for garnish and eating (optional)
- Place chicken in a bowl or a plastic bag, your preferred marinating vehicle. In a large bowl, add all but the 1 teaspoon of the minced garlic, half of the lemon zest and juice, the za'atar, parsley, olive oil and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt. Whisk ingredients until combined and then add to the chicken. Mix well to make sure all surface areas of the chicken are coated with the marinade. Cover or zip up your plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 8 hours.
- In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt with the 1 teaspoon of minced garlic, the remaining lemon zest and juice, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the freshly ground black pepper. Whisk until combined, cover and chill until serving.
- When you are ready to prepare the chicken, bring it out of the fridge and keep it at room temperature for about 20 minutes. This step takes a bit of the chill off the chicken and allows it to cook more evenly.
- Heat your grill to medium-high or arrange a rack in the position closest to the heat source and heat the broiler.
- Grill the chicken until it's charred in spots, about 4 to 7 minutes, depending on the thickness of your meat. Flip the pieces over and continue cooking until they are just cooked through, another 4 to 7 minutes. If you are broiling, line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spread the chicken out on it in a single layer. Broil the chicken, turning the pieces over halfway through, until well colored and charred in spots, 4 to 7 minutes per side. Be careful that the chicken doesn't burn.
- To serve, drizzle olive oil over the chicken. Sprinkle with the parsley, mint, sumac and pomegranate seeds if using. Serve with the lemon yogurt sauce.
This was scrumptious and the yogurt sauce was
delish! Thank you Valerie for another great recipe!
Run to your kitchen people, don’t walk! This is SO GOOD!
Yum! Can’t wait to try thee chicken, Val. And the rice sounds delish too — summer comfort food : )