Arab Cinnamon Chicken Pilaf
December — this month in (my) history:
In December of 1972, I was in Israel. I traveled in an old bus, with the luggage piled on top, through the golden south and greener north, among stone houses with chickens and goats in the yards and stone-walled fields where oxen or mules still drew the plows, past deserts, hills, and the rusting remains of tanks from various battles. The range of climate, as well as terrain, was astonishing for such a small country, from the chill, and even snowflakes, of Jerusalem to the mildness of Tiberius, where the gentle sea breeze murmured in the palms along the beach, to the heat of Jericho, which lies 1300 feet below sea level.
Seeing Masada made that story seem all the more real, and the more astonishing. The Dead Sea, with its white, crystallized beaches and the surrounding Moabite mountains, was spectacular. In Jerusalem, my heart was touched by the Wailing Wall, with the dark-clad mourners before the ancient stones, and my eyes were dazzled by the Dome of the Rock, with its thick gold decorations and jewel-toned windows. The Dead Sea scrolls, the Mount of Olives, the Roman aqueducts — there was almost too much to see.
I crossed the Sea of Galilee and the valley of Megiddo. I drank from Jacob's well, which is so deep that, when the guide poured water into it, it was a full six seconds before we heard it hit the water below. I woke each morning to the call to prayers from Moslem mosques, visited ancient Roman ruins, and shopped my way across the bazaars of Jerusalem. I was delighted by the antiquity, the beauty, the tenacity of this astonishing country.
My father had been in North Africa during W.W.II, and had spent time in Israel. I was amazed to find how much everything — especially in Jerusalem — still looked just like his photographs: high stone walls; narrow, winding streets; low doors; women covering their faces and men their heads; old men with their hookah pipes sitting in the squares; children besieging you with offers of souvenirs for sale. There are modern cities, too, sprawling seaside resorts, centers of business, but they all seem to be somewhere else, somewhere removed from the ancientness and deep beauty of Israel.
Of course, for me, food has always been a major component of travel, and the food in Israel was great. I had falafel for the first time in the open-air market in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. In Tiberius, I was introduced to millet, and had wonderful breakfasts of goat cheese, tomatoes and olives, gnarly bread and dark coffee.
A friend of my father's, Doug Young, had founded a college in Jerusalem, the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, and I had received an invitation to come to dinner. The Young's apartment was fabulous, with Oriental rugs, brass lamps, and inlaid wooden chests. The cuisine was Arab: chicken and rice flavored with cinnamon, onions and almonds. We sat on the floor and ate with our hands. Hot, mint tea was served in tall glasses. It was a memorable meal.
It's okay if you eat this with a knife and fork, but if you try it with your hands, remember not to serve it piping hot, and remember, too, that if you were in Arab company, you would have to use your right hand to eat.
Arab Cinnamon Chicken Pilaf
2 3-lb. chickens, cut up
6 Tbs. olive oil
1½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 cups long grain rice
2 Tbs. blanched almonds, peeled and slivered
1 large onion, sliced
Heat the oil and brown the pieces of chicken, a few pieces at a time, until lightly golden. Set this pan aside, reserving the oil. Put chicken pieces in a Dutch oven or other large, lidded pot, and add water to cover (about 4 to 6 cups), plus the salt, pepper, allspice, and cinnamon. Bring quickly to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the chicken, strip the meat from the wings, legs and thighs and cut into small cubes. Keep the remaining pieces warm.
Adjust the pot liquid to 4 cups (add more water if it has boiled down, cook it down if it's slightly over, or, if it's a cup or more over, just adjust rice upward — no need to waste tasty broth). Return the diced chicken to the pot, add the rice, stir, cover, and place on simmer. While the rice cooks, retrieve the pan with the oil, and sauté the sliced onion. When the onion is transparent, and just beginning to turn golden, make a space in the pan for the almonds, and sauté them, too, until they begin to get golden.
After approximately 20 minutes, the rice should be finished. If the water is not completely absorbed, let the pot sit covered for a few more minutes off the burner. Stir in the onions and almonds.
To serve, mound the rice on a large platter, and arrange the chicken breasts around the mound. Serves 4‑6.
If I'm making this for myself, and don't need to make a presentation, I cut up all the chicken and mix it into the rice.
This is one of those dishes that is great, and possibly even better, reheated.