This recipe was an accident—a culinary baby surprise, if you will.
A few years back I made a huge batch of za’atar chicken, from a whole jointed chicken, and a massive bowl of tomato-mint salad with my garden-crop of cherry tomatoes. I knew it was going to be a busy week at work and I had a lot of packing to do as I was preparing to move 700 miles away in a few short weeks so rather than spending time puttering about in the kitchen after work as I would normally prefer I knew some streamlining was in order.
On Friday I came home, threw the refrigerator door open and realized I had made a HUGE mistake. I forgot I had only a few heaping spoonfuls or tomato salad left and a lone chicken leg. That’s right. I said to myself the previous night that it’ll be good for picking at as a midnight snack this weekend… problem was that I forgot about that conversation. A chicken leg and a measly garnish-sized portion of salad does not a meal make. How screwed am I? I didn’t really plan on having to do any cooking and there’s not much in the house other than some pitas and… Hey. Wait a minute.
I had pitas for eating with the chicken and salad. Also in the fridge was a few slices-worth of halloumi—that dense, squeaky, salty cheese. One of my favorite low-effort dinners is some bitter-tart greens like frisee or curly endive with griddled halloumi, a poached egg (and by “poached” I mean done in an egg-poaching pan) and vinaigrette studded with minced red chilies. I can only assume that I ran out of salad greens or eggs, otherwise that halloumi would’ve been devoured. That’s when this little flatbread was born.
I know at first glance it probably looks like a margarita affair but, while there’s NOTHING wrong with a simple pizza of tomatoes, basil and mootz, this has a bit more personality. Za’atar is a punchy spice blend that’s a mix of aromatically sour and woodsy made from ground sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and dried marjoram. I actually like to make mine with freshly minced thyme, especially in the summer when I have a bountiful amount from my thyme plant that’s reaching shrub-status—the lemoniness of the herb compliments the same sour-tart notes of the sumac but balances it with oily and woodsy green flavors. Caked onto an oil-slicked spatchcocked chicken and slapped on a grill is something completely divine.
I know that a tomato salad typically seems to beg for basil, and that’s fine—just no balsamic, please—but for za’atar chicken mint just seemed much more appropriate. Basil and mint aren’t that different from one another, really, so it’s not hard to see why they both fit in so well with tomatoes; something about the red fruit’s sweetly acidic flesh loves to be lifted by the anisey flavors—just look at sauce Choron. Regardless, I could eat a bowlful of tomato-mint salad all day, any day, any time of year. Scattering it over a pita and wolfing it down is just as satisfying and tossing the tomato and basil combo in a pot of pasta and eating it straight off the stove. Not only that, but if you grow mint once you grow it forever (you have to move to get rid of it) so I had plenty. I can’t take credit for growing the beautiful tomatoes you see here—they come from a coworker of my partner’s garden and they’re drop dead gorgeous with a flavor to match. If you want my opinion, if you can’t find a good locally grown heirloom tomato for this I would just stick to cherry or grape tomatoes. All of mine have been quite disappointing this year (I need to amend the soil clearly) so when I can’t rely on the fabulous tomatoes given to me by coworkers (I’m a tomato mooch, and proud of it) those little babies are my go-to.
While halloumi is typically griddled or fried in a dry non-stick pan it does a damn good job under the broiler or succumbs to the heat of grill beautifully. Rather than retaining it’s shape while its exterior crisps as it would in a pan in a hot oven or grill it soften a bit while still bronzing and bubbling on top. And it’s cheese. Need I say more? It ties the whole thing together.
I know that now as I write this summer is considered over. It’s starting to get a little cooler. I’m still hanging on. If you want to hang on a bit longer with me I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll make the flatbreads if you bring the tomatoes.
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|4 - 6 (or 8 - 10 as a starter)||30 minutes|
|Cook Time||Passive Time|
|30 minutes||12 - 24 hours|
- 1 t-spoon ground sumac
- 1 tablespoon fresh minced thyme
- 1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
- 1 t-spoon kosher salt
- 12 - 14 ounces chicken thighs boneless, skinless
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound tomatoes either heirloom or cherry/grape, per preference
- 2 green onions thinly sliced
- 1 cup mint leaves very roughly chopped
- 2 t-spoons lemon juice freshly squeezed
- 1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 t-spoon kosher salt
- Small pinch sugar
- Toss the chicken thighs with the olive oil in a roasting pan that fits them all comfortably and in a single layer with space between them. Make the za'atar simply by mixing the sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and kosher salt together and scatter it over the chicken, pressing it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for 12 – 24 hours.
- Let the chicken come to room temperature for at least one our—but up to two—before preheating the oven to 450°. Roast the chicken for 20 minutes—the chicken should be golden-brown around the edges and the top almost brick-red. Set the chicken aside to cool slightly before roughly chopping or shredding the meat. Keep the oven on.
- For the tomato-mint salad… Simply enough, cut the tomatoes in half, remove the stem portion and scoop their guts out and discard. Chop the tomatoes into pretty large chunks and transfer to a large bowl.
- If the tomatoes don’t taste absolutely perfect then sprinkle over a little bit of the salt and sugar and set aside for a few minutes.
- At the last possible minute, thinly slice the green onions, very, very, very roughly chop the mint and toss together, along with the lemon, oil and any remaining sugar and salt.
- Put the pitas in the oven for just a few moments to crisp them a little (otherwise the bread can get soggy from the tomatoes). Remove the pitas and turn on the broiler.
- Scatter the pitas with the chicken and tomato-mint salad. Adorn the top of the pitas with slices of the halloumi. Slide them under the broiler for just a few moments, keeping a close on them—you’re looking for the cheese to soften and blister a bit, but take care not to burn anything.
- Remove form the oven, slice, and serve immediately or at room temperature.
- Feel free to grill both the chicken and the flatbreads in the summer—it’s particularly delicious this way.
- You can up the quantities of this very easily to serve for a huge feast as, say, an appetizer or part of huge spread. For this, I would probably just buy a whole chicken (probably figuring about 5 - 6 ounces per person) and either break it down into portions or spatchcock it and cook it this way.