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.
The more I cook with tomatillos, the more I love them. Their tangy and grassy flavor pairs perfectly with green chili peppers making them a foundation for salsa verde or green sauce in Mexican cuisine. Like tomatoes, but not related, tomatillos taste great either fresh like in a raw salsa verde, or roasted and cooked. In this recipe, it is the tomatillo sauce that sets these chicken enchiladas apart.
Chicken Enchiladas with Verde Sauce
Simply put, I love this tomatillo sauce which I adapted from Rick Bayless, Roasted Tomatillo Sauce from More Mexican Everyday. As the title of the recipe link says, “It is a recipe to know by heart.” Once you get comfortable making tomatillo sauce you will want to make it repeatedly. Just like Poblano Chili Cream Sauce, it is easily adapted for recipes with eggs, cheese, or any grilled fish and meats.
Chicken enchiladas with a verde sauce is one of my favorite Mexican foods. Red chili sauces may have a more complex flavor, but I love the fresh and bright taste of fresh chilies when I cook with them. Fresh chilies make everything more invigorating and upbeat. I never feel heavy when I eat a meal prepared with a verde sauce, unless, of course, I loaded it up with extra cheese and sour cream. Normally I add avocado to all my Mexican inspired food, but the roasted tomatillo sauce is so satisfying, I do not miss the avocado.
Making chicken enchiladas is a great way to use up left over chicken as well. A rotisserie chicken from the store is also perfect for chicken enchiladas. You only need a shy 3 cups (750 ml) of shredded chicken to fill these enchiladas. Using precooked chicken frees up your time to make the tomatillo sauce and it is worth it. Sure, you could make a verde sauce from jarred salsa verde, but the taste won’t be as bright or have that personal touch of homemade food.
Additionally, you can fill enchiladas with just about anything that goes well with the sauce. You can easily substitute the chicken with shredded pork, cheese, fish, legumes, or other vegetables.
Chicken Enchiladas Variations
I adapted Rick Bayless’s chicken enchiladas recipe by adding more herbs and spices to the sauce. In addition, I mixed together sautéed onions and poblano peppers with the chicken filling. Originally, I set out to make chicken enchiladas with a verde sauce filled with shredded chicken and poblano rajas, but I pared down my original idea to reduce some of the prep work. Also, Rick Bayless recommends garnishing the enchiladas with raw onion slices. I do not enjoy eating raw onions, so I roasted onion slices and garnished the enchiladas with them instead.
For this recipe I recommend charring and peeling the skins off the poblano pepper. Charring the poblano pepper and removing the blistered skin adds a smoky flavor to the pepper and enchiladas. You can roast the poblano pepper when you roast the vegetables for the tomatillo sauce, but unlike the serrano chilies, it should be peeled, and seeds removed before you chop them up for the chicken filling. Peeling off the skin is not necessary, but it is a nice touch. If you are pressed for time, do not roast the poblano pepper, instead chop it up without peeling it, and sauté the pepper and onions together until soft but not browned.
The sauce carries some heat which I enjoy, but I realize not everyone does. If you are making the enchiladas for your family, or for people who do not like spicy food, substitute the Serrano peppers with half of a poblano pepper and roast it along with the tomatillos. You will need to peel off the skin before you purée the roasted vegetables. The sauce will taste bright from the poblano chili pepper, but the heat level will be significantly reduced.
Vegetarian Enchiladas with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce
For vegetarian enchiladas, make the filling with 1½ cups (375 ml) of good melting cheese like Monterey Jack cheese or Cheddar cheese. Sauté a whole onion with a whole poblano pepper, cool slightly then mix with the grated cheese. Assemble the enchiladas as directed in the recipe. Black beans, kidney beans or white navy beans are a nice addition with the cheese and vegetables as well. Some cooked fish like tilapia, mahi mahi, or cod will taste great as a filling for enchiladas with the onions and poblano peppers. However, do not add cheese to fish enchiladas, or for the garnish.
Pointers for Success
Mise en Place – Prepare all the ingredients before you start cooking. This will help with the timing for making the sauce and assemble the enchiladas.
- Gather all ingredients and place the spices near your stove
- Slice and chop the onions then organize in three piles as you need them at three different stages. To save some time, roast the onion slices for the garnish along with the onions for the tomatillo sauce. When they are done, make sure you separate half an onion’s worth of the onion slices before you add the remaining sliced onions to the tomatillo sauce.
- Shred the chicken
- Grate the cheese
- Chop the cilantro
- Place the tortillas in a microwave safe plastic bag and set aside until needed.
- Pull out your baking dish or dishes, and set aside.
Assemble the enchiladas when all the ingredients are still hot from the stove. This cuts back on the cooking time and helps keep the enchiladas from falling apart. The longer the tortillas cook in the sauce the soggier they get.
Use the best quality tortillas you can buy. If possible buy tortillas from a tortilleria or Mexican market.
Microwave the tortillas when you are ready to assemble the enchiladas.
Microwave the tortillas in a plastic bag leaving an opening for some of the steam to escape. My tortillas got soggy after being heated in the microwave and sat in a sealed and steamy plastic bag. Rich Bayless recommends microwaving on high for one minute, but I think it was too long. You may need to experiment with the amount of time you need to heat the tortillas up.
Assemble the enchiladas a minute after you heat the tortillas. Any later and the tortillas will get soggy.
Chicken Enchiladas with Roasted Tomatillo Sauce
Chicken enchiladas have such a bright and invigorating taste when paired with a verde sauce. Roasted tomatillos, serrano peppers, onion and garlic set the stage for the enchilada sauce. The tomatillo sauce is adapted from Rick Bayless, More Mexican Everyday, Roasted Tomatillo Sauce.
There are some specialty ingredients in this recipe. You can find tomatillos at well stocked grocery stores, Asian produce markets, or Mexican markets. The dried spices like epazote and Mexican oregano you can find at Mexican markets or on line. Epazote has a unique flavor that cannot be matched. If you cannot find epazote, add one bay leaf to the sauce then remove it before you assemble the enchiladas.
Bake the enchiladas in one large baking dish or individual dishes large enough to hold 2 enchiladas.
Best eaten right out of the oven.
- 1 lb. tomatillos
- 4-5 garlic cloves peel intact
- 2 serrano chilies or half a poblano pepper for a mild sauce
- 1 white onion sliced across the equator in ½ in thick rings
- ¾ tsp Kosher Salt
- 1 poblano chili pepper charred, peeled, seeds removed and chopped
- 1 white onion divided
- 2 cups (500 ml) Roasted Tomatillo Sauce
- 1 ½ cup (375 ml) chicken stock
- 1 tsp dried Mexican Oregano
- 1 tsp dried crumbled epazote
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- Shy 3 cups shredded chicken
- Handful of cilantro
- 10 corn tortillas
- Cheddar or Monterey Jack Cheese grated
- ½ cup (125 ml) Crème fraiche
Roasted Tomatillo Sauce
Turn the boiler up high and place the oven rack at the top position.
Take the poblano pepper in the chicken filling section and slice it in half lengthwise then remove the seeds. Arrange the halves on a rimmed sheet pan then add the peeled tomatillos, serrano chilies, garlic cloves, and slice onions rings for the sauce in an even layer. If you want to save some time arrange the onions slices for the garnish (half an onion) on the baking sheet with the onion for the tomatillo sauce.
Slide the sheet pan under the broiler and roast the vegetables until they get nice and charred. Check after 4 minutes and continue if the vegetables need more charring. Each vegetable will brown at different speeds, so you will have to adjust the timing for each one. Once they get browned turn them over and brown the other side. This can take from 8 -15 minutes. If the onions need more time than the other vegetables, remove the browned vegetables and place the tomatillos in the bowl of a blender or food processor and chilies and garlic cloves on a cutting board. Pour off any juices in the pan into the bowl of a blender or food processor. Set aside and continue to brown the onions if needed. Remove when done.
Place the poblano chili halves in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it steam for 15 minutes.
When the Serrano chilies and garlic are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin from the garlic cloves and place the roasted garlic in the bowl with the tomatillos.
Cut off the stem of the serrano chilies and slice down the middle. Remove some of the seeds and pith if you want to turn down the heat., or leave them be. Add the serrano peppers to the tomatillos and blend, or process, the vegetables until smooth. Makes about 2 cups (500 ml).
Pre heat the oven to 400 °F (200°C / Gas Mark 5) with the oven rack set in the middle position.
Heat a 10-inch (25.5 cm) skillet with 2 TB olive oil over medium heat. Add 2 cups (500 ml) roasted tomatillo purée to the skillet and simmer until it slightly thickens. Add the chicken stock and Mexican oregano, epazote, ground coriander, and Kosher salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer the sauce on low, stirring occasionally until ready to assemble the enchiladas.
Meanwhile, remove the poblano halves from the bowl and peel off the skin. Quickly rinse under cold water to remove stubborn skin. Chop the poblano into ½ inch pieces.
If you have not done so already, slice the onion in half across the equator, slice one half into rings and set aside. Chop the remaining half in ½ inch pieces.
In another skillet heat up 2 TB of vegetable oil and add the chopped onion and poblano pepper. Cook until the onions are soft. Add the shredded chicken and ½ cup chicken stock. Stir to mix. Cook until the liquid evaporates and the chicken is warm. Add about 2 TB of chopped cilantro and stir to mix.
Heat up the tortillas. Place the tortillas in a zip lock bag and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Make sue the bag is not closed all the way. Remove the tortillas from the microwave and let the tortillas rest in the plastic bag for a minute.
Assemble the enchiladas.
Set aside a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33 cm) baking pan. Place a tortilla on a work surface and add 2 spoonfuls of the chicken mixture across the center of the tortilla. Roll up the tortilla to cover the chicken filling. Place the rolled-up tortilla in the baking dish. Continue to fill and roll up the tortillas. You should have enough chicken filling for 10 enchiladas. It will be a tight fit in the baking dish. If you have a small baking dish, perfect for two enchiladas, add the last two enchiladas to a separate dish, otherwise fit the last two enchiladas to one side of the row of enchiladas.
Completely cover the enchiladas with the tomatillo sauce and sprinkle grated cheese down the middle of the enchiladas.
Place in the oven and cook until heated through and the cheese is melted, about 5-8 minutes.
If you haven’t roasted the onions for garnish already, heat up a skillet until almost smoking. Add the onion slices, intact, to the skillet and dry roast the onions until browned. After a couple of minutes check to see if the onions have browned, then turn over to brown the other side. When done, remove from the skillet.
Serve immediately with crème fraiche and garnish with the browned onions and cilantro.
© 2018, Ginger Smith- Lemon Thyme and Ginger. All rights reserved.