Not for an ordinary recipe would I get up at 4:30 on a Sunday morning to peel potatoes and cut up chicken. The dish that inspired me was Chicken Hamin in “Sephardic Israeli Cuisine: a Mediterranean Mosaic” by Sheilah Kaufman (Hippocrene Books, $24.95). Hamin, the Sephardic equivalent of cholent, is a dish that cooks for many hours at low heat, enabling Jews to avoid cooking on the Sabbath and yet have a hearty dinner.
I had tasted hamin before and it was pretty dull, but Kaufman’s recipe includes dates, cilantro and caramelized sugar as well as the usual chicken, vegetables and lentils. This was intriguing. It needs to cook for 12 hours, though, so it had to go in the oven early to be ready for dinner.
Some of the details were fuzzy, as is true of other recipes in this interesting but rather unpolished little book. How should the carrots be cut? Shouldn’t the dates be pitted to prevent cracked teeth? And wouldn’t it be a good idea to skin the chicken to cut down on fat? Olive oil goes in the casserole first, but nothing is sauteed. This seems odd, considering that the cooking starts on top of the stove.
And what size pan? I used the biggest I had, an old Descoware Dutch oven that holds about 6 quarts. By the time I added 6 cups of water to a pot jammed with ingredients, it was so full I didn’t dare bring it to a boil as directed, only to a gentle simmer. The recipe ought to specify an 8-quart container.
Getting something so heavy in the oven was difficult too, especially when one is barely awake. But I managed and went back to bed.
Meanwhile, the Chicken Hamin was cooking away. As it boiled, hot liquid bubbled onto the oven floor, even though the pan was covered. The spill turned into steam, which seeped through the sides of the oven door and condensed into brown rivulets on the white enamel. But the aroma that filled the house was marvelous, as if a pot of Boston baked beans were in the oven.
Twelve hours later, it was done. I lifted the lid and gasped. Inside was a mash as black as charcoal. A disaster--and guests were waiting to eat! I dreaded even a little taste, but I had to know what had gone wrong. Gingerly, I took a little of the blackened meat off the top, expecting the worst: a burned, inedible, unsalvageable cinder of a meal.
But I was stunned again. The Chicken Hamin was actually juicy, aromatic and delicious--the dark color came from caramelization, not from burning. The flavor was as sublime as the appearance was awful. It was slightly fruity and subtly sweet from the dates and rich from the vegetables. The chicken was perfectly tender. It was a wonderful tapestry of flavors.
Dinner that night was very good. The accompaniments were two other recipes from the book: zucchini with sauce, a boring name for nice, cold marinated zucchini with dill, and tomato spread, which is a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean tomato and green pepper stew also known as shakshouka.
The zucchini method also needed refinement. Two pounds of sliced squash was too much to cook in a medium pot, and the slices on the bottom became overdone, while those on top were just right.
The spread was right on, full-flavored and mellow. And versatile too. I have used it as a hot side dish, a dip for tortilla chips and a pasta sauce.
But the hit of the night was Chicken Hamin. It was worth the struggle and spills, and this winter, I’m sure, I’ll be setting my alarm clock again.
This recipe has been slightly modified from the original in “Sephardic Israeli Cuisine.”