Shakriyyeh – Tender poached chicken and yogurt stew

Visiting Rashed’s family was emotional: his mother and brothers missed him tremendously since he’d left for Germany. His tiny niece, Lulu, obsessed over our recording equipment, repeatedly recording little notes to her uncle. Her mom, Rashed’s sister-in-law, refused to let us leave without dinner. “There must be bread and salt between us,” she insisted.

Rashed’s mom, Hala, was making chicken shakriyyeh — a stew of poached chicken stewed in a smooth sauce of hot yogurt. She served with a side of freekeh, an ancient roasted cracked wheat, popular throughout the Levant region, with a robust, nutty flavor.

Shakriyyeh is usually made with lamb shank, but many prefer a lighter version of the yogurt-based dish made with chicken. This recipe comes primarily from my mom and grandma, with measurement help from Manal Al-Alam, a cooking personality in the Arabic-speaking world. It’s a dish we love dearly – our ultimate comfort food.

Serves 4.

Broth
½ Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion cut into eighths
1 chicken, about 2-2.5 lbs, cut into eight pieces
2 tsp salt
6 pods cardamom
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp white pepper (can substitute black pepper)
1 stick cinnamon
1 bay leaf
Water

Yogurt sauce
3 cups full-fat yogurt
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 egg
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
½ poached chicken
1 Tbsp butter

Garnish
2 Tbsp pine nuts

Vermicelli rice
1 Tbsp butter
¼ cup vermicelli noodles
1½ cup rice
3 cups water

Broth: In a large pot, sauté onion until translucent. Add chicken. Sprinkle salt, allspice and pepper on top and give it a quick stir. Add cinnamon stick and bay leaf and cardamom pods (I like to put my loose cardamom pods in a tea infuser so they’re easier to take out at the end).

Add enough water to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat, and then turn down to medium for at least an hour and up to 90 minutes to make the broth.

Remove the chicken from the pot. It will probably be falling apart by now. Once it cools, remove the meat from the bones and set aside. Using a slotted spoon or a sieve, remove and discard the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick and bay leaf.

Yogurt sauce: In a medium-sized pot, combine yogurt, cornstarch and egg and whisk together thoroughly. Place over medium-low heat, and slowly stir the yogurt with the whisk in the same direction until it begins to bubble. The yogurt should be thick and smooth. Once it starts bubbling, add about half the chicken – a mix of white and dark meat. Slowly, about ½ cup at a time, add chicken stock, including onions, and stir after each addition. After you’ve added two cups of stock, check the consistency of the sauce – it should be creamy, not watery. If it’s too thick, add more stock, ½ cup at a time, and check consistency again.

Let the sauce simmer briefly, then turn off heat and cover.

Garnish: In a skillet over medium-low heat, melt butter. Add pine nuts and sauté until golden brown. Set aside.

Rice: Soak rice in cold water for 20 minutes, then rinse in a sieve. In a large saucepan, heat butter, add vermicelli and sauté until golden brown. Add rice and sauté with vermicelli, mixing thoroughly. Add salt, then water. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat, keeping the pot uncovered until water disappears from the surface of the rice (you’ll see little dimples form on top). Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 20 minutes.

Serve the shakriyyeh over the rice. Sprinkle pine nuts on top.

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