Monday, November 10, 2008

T'beet, or not T'beet; that is the question.

Years ago, when I had time to read lots of cooking blogs, I came across a recipe unlike any I'd seen before. Going back and finding the original entry, I discover this was now more than 4 years ago - every once in a while I'd think about making this, but I never got around to it. This week I bought a chicken with the express purpose of trying it, and MAN was it good. If it sounds good to you, don't wait 4 years like I did before making it. All the ingredients are easy to get, and its a fairly simple recipe, though it does take some planning and a bit of specialized hardware. Some background:

This is T'beet, the traditional Sabbath lunch of Iraqi Jews. Jews are forbidden by religious law from kindling or extinguishing a flame on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. Accordingly, any meal to be eaten hot on the Sabbath must be set on a fire before sundown the night before. The Jews of Europe have accomodated this imperative with cholent: a slow-cooked stew of meat, beans, and vegetables, which I find utterly revolting. My ancestors relied instead on the middle-eastern staple of rice in composing their Sabbath lunch: a stuffed chicken stewed in tomato sauce and spices and baked into a cake of aromatic basmati rice. After twelve or more hours of cooking, the rice forms a hard, delicious crust on the outside, while the rice surrounding the chicken becomes irresistably tender and absorbs all the flavors in the pot. A rice stuffing within the chicken is the most intense of all: it is heavily spiced and absorbs all the juices of the chicken as it cooks.

As you can see in the above image of T'beet deconstructed, you can have your rice three ways. The rice to the left of the chicken has hardened into a crunchy, nutty shell. At top right, you can see the pillowy rice that surrounds the chicken. At bottom right is the intensely flavored rice from the stuffing. Incidentally, a chicken cooked in this manner emerges from the oven tender enough to cut with a spoon.

Here follows my adaptation:

Recipe: T'beet
Total time to make: about 15 hours. Feeds at least 6.


* 1 whole chicken
* 4 tbsp olive oil
* 1 small-med onion, diced
* 1 plum tomato, diced
* 1 29-oz. can crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
* Iraqi Jewish five-spice powder, or Dave's Experimental Mexican 5-Spice Powder (see below)
* water
* salt and pepper
* 4 cups basmati rice

Iraqi-Jewish Five Spice Powder:
*2 tsp each of ground cardamom, ground cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and turmeric

Dave's Experimental Mexican 5-Spice (untried, but I think it'd be good)
* 2 tsp each of cumin, chili powder or ground chipotle, coriander, garlic powder, and cinnamon. Plus you'll want some jalapenos, black beans, and corn to add to the rice.

* 5 1/2 Quart Nonstick Oven-Safe or Enameled Dutch Oven
* Medium mixing bowl or plastic ziploc to make the 5-spice in
* Tongs for turning chicken during browning
* Big plate, bigger than the top of your Dutch Oven
* Wooden or non-stick-safe spatula, not flimsy

0) Invite some guests over for lunch on the weekend, unless you need lots of leftovers or have a large family. Do this Thursday.

1) The night before you want to eat this, start by making the 5-spice powder of your choosing. Make a stuffing for the chicken from the diced onion and tomato, 3/4 cup of the rice, 3 tsp of the 5-spice, 1/2 tsp salt, and ~2 Tbsp of the tomato sauce. If your chicken came with giblets, you can dice and include the heart and gizzard (not the liver). Mix in a bowl or ziploc bag and refrigerate.

2) Adjust oven rack to lower shelf. Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 125 Celsius. Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat dry with a paper towel. Salt and pepper the outside of the chicken generously. Place the dutch oven over medium-high heat on the stove and heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the chicken, breast side up, and brown on each side until golden brown, rotating with tongs every 3-4 minutes. When all sides have been browned, remove the dutch oven from heat and stuff the chicken loosely with the stuffing. It's OK if there's leftover, no need to cram it all in.

3) Put the chicken back in the dutch oven, breast side down, and return to heat. Add the rest of the tomato sauce, and add water to about 3 inches below the top of the pot. Add the rest of the 5-spice and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

4) Add the remaining rice and any leftover stuffing to the pot, pouring around the sides of the chicken so it doesn't pile up on top. If making the apocryphal Mexican variation, reduce the rice by a cup and add a can of corn, a can of black beans, and some chopped jalapenos and cilantro. Stir in the rice gently to even it out. Place the cover on the dutch oven and put it in the oven. Bake for about 14 hours or so, timing it so it'll be ready as lunch the next day.

5) Bask in the glorious baking aromas all night. In the morning, be sure to go out of your house for some reason for a few minutes so you can smell it all again when you come back in. When it's ready, pull the T'beet out of the oven and rest it on the stovetop for about 10 minutes with the cover removed. Put your big plate over top of it and invert T'beet onto the plate. With luck, most of it, including the delicious outside crusty rice, will go smoothly onto your plate. If not, use your wooden scraper or spatula to get the rest. You may want a second plate on the dinner table anyway for people to put bones on, so for now you can put the rice left in the pot there. Hopefully it looks kinda like this:

6) Serve to your family and guests. You will be able to cut the chicken with a serving spoon. Make sure everyone gets some chicken, and each of the three types of rice: exterior crust, middle rice, and stuffing rice from inside the chicken. Devour.

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