Middle Eastern Style Baked Sesame Chicken
Coating chicken thighs with spices and sesame seeds adds a unique flavor to an otherwise ordinary weeknight chicken dinner. This recipe for baked sesame chicken should not be confused with the sesame chicken you find in Chinese restaurants. There is no breading, the chicken is baked not fried and the flavor is very different. Middle Eastern Style Baked Sesame Chicken is made with boneless chicken thighs, with a generous coating of toasted sesame seeds flavored with spices and ingredients traditionally found in Middle Eastern foods, like cumin, coriander and pomegranate molasses.
Middle Eastern food is often seasoned with a mixture of fresh herbs and spices creating one complex and unique flavor out of many ingredients. At first glance of a typical ingredients list one would wonder how will all the spices and herbs taste together? It would seem like there is too much flavoring going on and the ingredients would compete. Yet, Middle Eastern food is the master of mixing all these spices and herbs in just the right way to create one harmonious flavor out of many.
Baked Sesame Chicken
When I started developing this recipe for baked sesame chicken, I loaded it up with a lot of different spices and ingredients that I love in Middle Eastern foods. Yet, after my first batch I decided to keep the flavor profile of baked sesame chicken on the subtle side. What stood out to me is the combination of the toasty notes of sesame seeds and the sweet and tangy flavor of pomegranate molasses and wanted to make sure these flavors stood out. It took a lot of will power to resist my temptation to add saffron to the marinade, but I do believe it would work nicely here.
Chicken benefits from some marinade, especially when the skins and bones are not there to add extra flavor. However, you do need to be careful and not marinade chicken for too long when there is a lot of acid. Chicken, especially boneless breasts, turns mealy if it sits in a marinade for too many hours. In this recipe, the amount of time marinating is kept at a minimum of 30 minutes at room temperature seasoned with Kosher salt, then an hour in the refrigerator coated in the sesame marinade. There is not a lot of acid in the marinade, so the chicken thighs can take a longer marinade if you wish, but not overnight.
Like the yogurt dressing, the roasted vegetables are more like a condiment for the baked sesame chicken as opposed to a vegetable side dish. The concentrated and bright flavors of roasted fennel and grape tomatoes help the nutty and subtle sweetness stand out. The yogurt dressing is optional, but I think the vegetables roasting in the oven with the chicken is an integral flavor for the meal.
To Grill or Not to Grill
This time of year, it is tempting to want to grill these chicken thighs. The days are longer, warmer and bright, and I just want to spend to whole time outside. However, I have good reason to bake sesame chicken and not grill it. Sesame seeds burn easily when seared over the hot coals. Unlike chicken meat, the charred sesame seeds turn very bitter and unpleasant. Therefore, this is not a recipe that effortlessly transitions from roasting to grilling.
Specialty Ingredients for Middle Eastern Style Baked Sesame Chicken
There are a couple of specialty items in the recipe, Aleppo Pepper and Pomegranate Molasses. both ingredients are available at specialties markets. You can find both at Middle Eastern food stores like Sahardis in Brooklyn or online. If you are interested you can make pomegranate molasses using this recipe from Alton Brown. Personally, I have not had a lot of luck making it, so I buy it.
Pomegranate molasses has a unique flavor of tart, sweet and caramelized pomegranate syrup and there is not a good substitute.
If you cannot find Aleppo pepper, you can substitute it with most varieties of chili peppers.
Sesame Seed Love
I love just about anything with the toasty nuttiness of sesame seeds and sprinkle them on breads, in salads, stirred into rice as in Crunchy Jasmine Rice, sprinkled over a stir fry in Sesame Shrimp with Spinach, or as a featured flavor like in Cold Sesame Noodles. Even though they are seeds, I get the same warm nutty flavor I love.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs are staple dinner items in many households, especially mine. They are easy to prepare and do not take a lot of time to cook. We eat them so often, it is nice to have a variety of marinades for chicken to change things up a bit. Baked Sesame Chicken is a great alternative to a breaded cutlet creating a meal with a unique flavor profile. The combination of the nutty sesame seeds and the sweet and bitter components of the pomegranate molasses, orange zest and honey, compliment the roasted chicken and vegetables for a unique tasting chicken dinner.
Roast thinly sliced fennel and grape tomatoes to brighten up the nutty chicken. The yogurt dressing is optional and adds a tangy contrast to the roasted chicken.
Serve with a green salad made with arugula, orange segments and avocado slices with a citrus vinaigrette.
This meal is also delicious made with skin on and bone in chicken thighs. Or, any part of the chicken with or without the skin and bones.
- 1.85 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, about 5
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- ¾ tsp dried oregano
- A few grounds of white pepper
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 TB dry white wine or vermouth
- 1 TB extra virgin olive oil
- Zest from half an orange and orange slices
- 3 TB toasted sesame seeds
- Sesame chicken
Marinated sesame chicken thighs
- 1 fennel bulb with fronds about 13 oz (380 g)
- 8 oz 2331 g grape tomatoes
- 1 TB extra virgin olive oil
- 3-4 orange slices
- ¼ cup plain yogurt or crème fraiche
- ½ clove pressed garlic green germ removed
- Pinch of Aleppo pepper flakes or a pinch of ground cayenne pepper
- If it is too thick thin it out with a squeeze of lemon juice or milk. Adding a little at a time until you get the right consistency for easy drizzling.
Make the marinade
Place the chicken thighs on a rimmed baking sheet large enough to hold the chicken thighs and pat them dry on both sides. Sprinkle Kosher salt over both sides of the chicken and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Mix the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl large enough to hold all the chicken thighs. After the 30 minutes rest, add the seasoned chicken thighs to the marinade and toss around with your hands to get the chicken pieces well coated with the sesame seeds and marinade.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinade for one hour or more.
20 minutes before you want to bake the chicken, turn the oven on to 400°F (200°C / Gas Mark 6) and place the rack in the middle position.
Putting it all together
Cut off the stalk and fronds of the fennel bulb, then cut the bulb in quarters. Slice the bulb quarters into thin pieces less than a quarter of an inch (.5 cm) thick. Add the sliced fennel to a large mixing bowl. Add the grape tomatoes, the extra virgin olive oil, some fennel fronds, a pinch of Kosher salt and a couple grounds of black pepper. Toss to evenly coat the vegetables with olive oil.
Arrange the chicken thighs on a rimmed baking sheet. Add the fennel and grape tomatoes and arrange around the chicken. Slide in the orange slices near the chicken.
Bake in the oven for 40 minutes or until the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced with a fork, about 165°F (74°C).
While the chicken is cooking, mix in a small bowl the yogurt, pressed garlic Aleppo pepper and lemon juice. Add a pinch of Kosher salt and a couple of grounds of fresh black pepper. Taste and correct seasoning. Cover with plastic wrap or lid and let it rest on the counter until ready to serve.
Serve hot drizzled with yogurt sauce and a tossed salad of arugula and fresh herbs, avocado and orange segments.
© 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.