Roast chicken is truly magical. It's easy, relatively quick (making it a weeknight favorite), and perhaps the perfect vehicle for showcasing pretty much any spice blend. That means that no matter what type of international cuisine you're craving, you can basically rub down a whole chicken with a spice blend from that region, throw together a couple of complimentary side dishes, and - whoosh! - you've been transported to another land. We can also use a little magic pretend travel right now, am I right??
The land we'll "travel" to in this case is the area loosely described as the Middle East, where Za'atar, the blend of toasted sesame seeds, sumac, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and salt, has been a staple of the cuisines of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria since Biblical times. My husband made this recipe (adapted from one we found in America's Test Kitchen's "Sunday Suppers" book) recently for Sunday dinner, accompanied by some shallow-fried fingerling potatoes (also dusted with Za'atar) and some roasted eggplant with a savory anchovy-herb dressing. Yummmm.
Za'atar-Spiced Roast Chicken
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons A Bite of Good Za'atar Spice Blend (get yours here)
1 (3 1/2 to 4-lb) whole chicken, giblets discarded
Salt and pepper
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Combine 2 tablespoons oil and Za'atar in a small bowl. Set aside for later.
Place the chicken breast-side down on a cutting board, and use kitchen shears to cut through the bones on either side of the backbone. Save the backbone for making chicken stock later, and trim away excess fat and skin around the neck. Flip the chicken and tuck the wingtips behind the back. (In culinary school we called this the "Sexy Chicken" because it looks like it's posing in a boudoir photo shoot. Hahaha.)
Press firmly on the breastbone to flatten the chicken. Cover the chicken and surrounding area with plastic wrap, and use the flat side of a meat tenderizer or a rolling pin to pound the breast so that they are about the same thickness as the legs and thighs. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Place the chicken, skin side down, in the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium, and place a heavy pot (we used another cast iron skillet) on the chicken to press it flat. Cook chicken until skin is crispy and browned, about 25 minutes.
Remove whatever you're using to weigh down the chicken and carefully flip the chicken over in the skillet. Put on some gloves, and rub the chicken all over with your za'atar paste. You can use a brush if you prefer, but it's easier to use your hands (aka "man's original tools"). Just be careful, as the chicken is obviously going to be hot.
Transfer the skillet to the bottom rack in the oven, and roast until the breast registers 160 degrees, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a carving board and allow to rest 10 minutes before carving. Serve chicken with some Toum (recipe here) or make a zesty vinaigrette with 1 tablespoon minced fresh mint, 1 tablespoon minced preserved lemon rind, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, and 3 tablespoons olive oil.