Cooking with whole spices have always been intriguing to me. I first started to take notice of the use of whole spices in Indian cooking. Lately my interest has been in Middle Eastern (see also Middle Eastern Spiced Pot Roast) cooking which also uses a lot of whole spices. I have the Jerusalem cookbook to thank for my latest interest and for the inspiration behind this Chicken Shawarma with Red Onions and Cilantro.
Using whole spices when cooking is preferable because they have a more pronounced flavor and they keep much longer than ground spices. This recipe is great introduction into the spice world because shawarma is a much loved recipe in the Middle East and beyond. It is usually seasoned meat placed on a spit grill. In this recipe we are just going to cook the meat on the grill. The flavor of this spice mix is sweet, earthy, warm, and peppery. This combination with grilled chicken is so delicious. We have also used this spice mix on lamb, and ribs. It works with any meat. This spice mix makes about a little less than 1/3 of a cup, so you will have plenty left over to experiment with. I highly recommend that you do. There is no salt in the spice mix so remember to add some when using it on meat.
Now, there are two things that may be slightly annoying about this recipe. The first is finding these whole spices. It shouldn’t be too hard, but you may need to go to the international aisle of your grocery store or to the closest non-American grocery store (I really hate saying ethnic). The second slightly annoying factor is the use of a spice grinder (aka coffee grinder). I highly recommend you invest in a coffee grinder that you only use for spices. It is worth the investment, and you will use it more than you think. Having a spice grinder will give you the freedom to have fresh ground spices at a moment’s notice. The shelf life of whole spices is double of ground. Grinding whole spices will get more life out of your purchases and with better flavor. Recently I learned a trick to get rid of the flavor leftover from the spices you just ground, so the spice grinder is clean for the next use. Grind a handful of rice (uncooked). This gets rid of any residual powder of the spices you just ground. I do it 2-3 times to make sure it is really clean and wipe it out in between each grind of rice.
- 1 tbsp cumin seeds
- 3 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds, optional
- 4 whole cloves
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1 star anise
- ½ cinnamon stick, crushed
- 1 tbsp sweet paprika
- 1 tbsp sumac
- 2 tsp grated nutmeg
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- ½ medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 handful of cilantro, roughly chopped
- juice of half lemon
- 1 tsp olive oil
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp Shawarma Spice Mix
- 2¾ tsp salt
- 2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs
- Place the first 8 ingredients (whole spices) in one small bowl and the remaining (ground spices) in another small bowl. Heat a cast iron pan over medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and add the whole spices to the pan. Toss around for 15 seconds or until the spices become fragrant. Add the paprika, sumac, nutmeg and ginger. Toss for a few more seconds, just to heat them. Remove the spices from the pan and into a bowl to cool slightly.
- Transfer the spices to a spice grinder, and process the spices to a uniform powder. Reserve 1 tbsp of the spice mix and transfer the remaining to a small container with a lid to store.
- In a small bowl, add the onion, cilantro, lemon juice, 1 tsp olive oil and salt. Toss to combine and set aside.
- Preheat the grill to high.
- In a large bowl, combine 2 tablespoons olive oil, a tablespoon of spice mix, and salt. Stir well to combine. Add chicken and toss to coat. You made need to use your hands and toss to make sure the chicken is coated evenly.
- Place the chicken on the grill and cook for about 6 minutes on each side or until the chicken is cooked through with grill marks.
- Serve hot with the red onions and cilantro.
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