MOUSSAKHAN

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This is a simple and surpassingly delicious Palestinian chicken treatment I ate (as often as possible) in East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley a couple decades ago, and never forgot—moussakhan. I’ve adapted it to use locally-raised game hens and a New England hearth. Besides its sheer succulence, a singular advantage of this recipe is its near-magical capacity to feed a tableful of people on a small amount of meat.

  • 2 locally-raised Cornish game hens
  • the seeds from 6 green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns (or ground pepper)
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice (or ground)
  • 4 whole cloves (or a pinch of ground)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 good-sized yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • one recipe flatbread dough, ready to bake (see below)

Prepare a hearth, rigging, fire and poultry as described above. Make the flatbread dough a couple of hours ahead (see below). Crush the cardamom seeds in a mortar. Add whole peppercorns, allspice, and cloves, and pulverize. (If using pre-ground spices, just stir together.) Stir in salt. Rub half this mixture on the hens, inside and out. Set the other half aside for later.

Set the hens up to roast as described above. When drippings are beginning to sizzle in the dripping pans, divide the butter and olive oil into them. When the butter is melted, add half the chopped onion to each pan and stir. Shovel more coals under the pans to allow the onions to cook very gently for the next 40 or 50 minutes, while the poultry roasts. Stir every now and again, as there may be hot spots.

When the hens look about half done; bake the flatbreads. Divide the dough in 8 pieces and round each one up by kneading on a lightly floured surface. Let rest about 15 minutes while you preheat a griddle over a separate coal bed, far away enough from the hens so as to not compromise their rotational cooking

On a floured surface, pat one of the dough balls into a flat disk. Using a long straight rolling pin, roll the disk as large as it will go. Pick it up by an edge and smartly flap the circle from one open palm to the other, exerting kinetic stretching pressure on the perimeter as you work your way methodically around it. When it’s as thin as you can make it, maneuver the dough onto the hot griddle. Bake it until flecked with brown on one side, then flip and bake the other. Flip onto a plate and keep warm while you bake the rest.

Use the dying heat of the griddle to toast the pine nuts to the palest tan; remove from the griddle and set aside.

When the onion sauces are well-colored and very soft and delicious, stir the remaining spice mixture into them and taste for seasoning. Leave over gentle heat.

When the hens are just done (165 degrees F, or clear juice runs from thigh joint when poked), line a serving platter with a layer of 4 or 5 slightly overlapping flatbreads (leave several inches hanging off the edge of the plate). Cut down the poultry, pull out the skewers, remove the ankle-bracelets, and arrange atop the bread. Nap the sauce all around, scatter over toasted pine nuts, and flip the edges of the breads up to enclose. Serve immediately with additional flatbreads.

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