Sunday, April 1, 2012

Senegalese Grilled Chicken with Onion and Lemon

Art and I got together this past Saturday to put together a Senegalese Grilled Chicken recipe that was one of dozens cut from the final version of our then too-lengthy appetizer book: The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites, 2003, Wiley. Senegal is located on the “shoulder” of Western Africa, where it bulges way out into the Atlantic, twixt Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau. This dish is a specialty of the region around Casamance, situated north of the capital of Dakar. It is incredibly simple to prepare and loaded with bright, fresh flavor. The original recipe calls for the chicken to be grilled and then baked, but we decided to take what would normally be the resulting sauce from the bottom of the baking dish and simplify the process by sautéing the ingredients and coarsely puree it into an accompanying sauce. It removes a step from the cooking process while it reduces the sauce volume to concentrate and intensify the flavor; an experiment that succeeds splendidly. We decided that it would be fantastic on grilled fish or pork as well. As shown in the photos, the chicken can be skewered with chunks of onion and lemon, or grilled and then sliced.
Although it can be made with chicken breast, we much prefer using boneless chicken thighs. For the reasons behind this logical choice, read my anti chicken-breast rant from a previous blog here:

Marinated chicken, ready to skewer.

Instead of using a fresh chile, we opted for including about a teaspoon of the wonderful dried and crushed habanero pepper grown by our pal Bill Jorn, a television exec down in Harlingen; it was in the cupboard begging to be used. It adds a wonderful fruity and piquant edge to the dish that is very complimentary. Other fruity fresh chiles such as ají, ají dulce, manzana, Scotch bonnet, or datil work great; dried fruity chiles like chilcostle, ají amarillo, costeño amarillo, or pequín work just as well. Of course, if you have access to Senegalese chiles, those would be preferred.

In the mini monkey dish is the dried habanero chile from our pal Bill Jorn, of Harlingen, TX.

We would have cooked it outside on the grill but it was in the low 90’s on the last day of March, we didn’t have that much to cook, and decided on the stovetop grill for simplicity and air-conditioned comfort. It is better flame-kissed but, frankly, we were lazy and had a bunch of other work to do on the new book. The flavor is tart from the lemon, spicy from the chile, sweet and earthy from the onions and garlic, rich from the chicken stock, and the herbs, especially the bay, lend an herbal edge that adds that perfect layer of complimentary flavor. Not to mention, it is fast, simple, unique, and delicious.

A skewer and boneless thighs grilling on the stovetop grill, while the sauce is reduced and ready to puree. Below is the finished dish, excellent eats.

Senegalese Grilled Chicken with Lemon and Onions            serves 8 as an appetizer
Yassa Poulet de la Casamance                                                                      

Casamance is a region of Senegal north of the capital of Dakar, and this dish is a specialty of that region. The chicken is first marinated and then grilled. The grilling in Senegal is done over a small charcoal-fired hibachi-like grill called a fournière. The original topping applied before the dish is baked is instead sautéed here to concentrate the flavors, and then pureed slightly to make a chunky relish to accompany the chicken. The chicken can be skewered with chunks of lemon and onion, or grilled and sliced. A mound of seasoned white rice traditionally accompanies this dish, but it also goes well with crusty peasant bread. Grilled scallions or sweet onion eighths and thin slices of grilled lemon make a nice additional partner on the plate.

Juice of 2 large lemons
4 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and coarse ground black pepper to taste
3 bay leaves, toasted lightly and bruised
1 teaspoon dried thyme
8 boneless chicken thighs (or breast meat, about 1½ pounds)
Onion Mixture:
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1½ cups thinly sliced white onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ to 1 tablespoon minced hot fresh chile, or a teaspoon of fruity dried hot chile (to taste)
½ cup fresh lemon juice
2 cups rich chicken stock
Parsley sprigs for garnish
White rice or crusty peasant bread for service
Grilled scallions or white onion and grilled lemon slices for service (optional)

Advance Preparation
1. Combine the marinade ingredients, mixing well. Place the chicken pieces in a resealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over the chicken pieces; remove air, seal, and massage to mix well. Marinate in the refrigerator at least 1 hour, up to 4 hours maximum.
Cooking Method
2. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onions, stirring constantly to prevent browning, until soft. Add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Add the parsley, salt and pepper, bay leaves, thyme, chile, lemon juice, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and reduce until much of the liquid has evaporated. Remove the bay leaves and puree using an immersible blender or a food processor. Reserve and keep warm until service.
3. Charcoal grill the chicken until golden brown and done (internal temperature of 155°F). Allow to rest a few minutes before slicing.
6. Serve one thigh per person, sliced on the diagonal.
7. Spoon some of the chunky relish over the top, garnish with the parsley sprigs and serve immediately with rice or bread.

Chef Notes- This method works well with any type of poultry or with game birds such as squab or pigeon (these are quite commonly used throughout Africa.) It also works quite nicely with thick fish steaks or large shellfish, with appropriately reduced cooking time.

Mick Vann ©

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