New York is full of smells…some of them good, some of them not so good, but one of the all time great scents is the halal cart. Seen from blocks away, the colorful LED signage drawing in patrons like moths to a flame. Everyone has their favorite guy, the one with the best hot sauce, the one who makes their chicken over charcoal, the one with the fresh pickles on the salad. Everyone has their order down too, some people go for lamb, some go for falafel, but me, I’ve always been a chicken and rice, white sauce hot sauce, extra pita.
Bonus, you don’t have to go all the way to NYC now to get this amazing dish! Super flavorful chicken marinated in a bunch of spices and yogurt, amazingly simple and flavorful homemade yellow rice, and the all important white sauce. You’ve got the recipes…now go make them!
Marinating In Yogurt
Let’s talk marinating for a minute. The goal of marinating is to increase the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. I like to think about marinades in two categories: quick marinades, and slow marinades. Quick marinades are 30 minutes or less. This category would include a simple soy sauce, honey, garlic, lime marinade for steak or a quick lemon juice, garlic, spices marinade for shrimp. The quick marinades are all about coating and seasoning right before cooking, and they are more likely to include an acidic component (which will begin to ‘cook’ meat and fish, think ceviche).
Slow marinades are similarly about getting flavor into the food, but also about chemical processes and tenderizing. Meat (and veggies!) are really just a web of interconnected molecules. Some of them are tougher than others, some of them are lined up, and some of them are holding more moisture. I like to think about marinating as a box of legos. When you first open the box you have a big pile of mismatched pieces, some long ones over here, some short ones over here, some wheels over here. Marinating is the process of taking those legos, and sorting them so that we can easily build the final masterpiece (cooking).
For this marinade I use greek yogurt. The texture of the yogurt and the tangy flavor it brings are excellent additions to this dish. More importantly, because the yogurt is a cultured milk product it’s full of lactic acid which helps to break down the proteins in the chicken, giving us a super juicy end product. The same could be said for brining or using buttermilk.
Spice Up That Rice
You know those delicious boxes of rice from the grocery store? Yes, they’re super easy, but they also cost a pretty penny…and they’re made up of ingredients you have at home. Next time you’re in the store take a look at the back of the box, and you’ll recognize nearly everything in there. This rice takes that grocery store yellow rice and pumps it up a notch.
Toasting rice ahead of time is an easy way to enhance the natural flavor of the rice, and decreases the cooking time. Adding the spices in while we toast the rice will make sure that every grain is flavorful and coated in the deliciousness. Finally, cooking the rice with stock instead of water gives a richer more rounded flavor profile to the finished rice.
Sear and Deglaze
In my opinion, deglazing is one of the most important kitchen skills. It’s one of the tricks you pick up along the way that turns the kitchen in a much less stressful place. All of those browned bits on the bottom of the pan that used to be a pain in the ass to clean up, now become a pan sauce, or an additional flavor layer.
For this dish we’re trying to imitate the street carts of NYC. Those guys are all cooking on flat tops, but if you spend enough time watching them make their chicken shawarma, you notice they’re being tricky tricksters and constantly deglazing their cooking surfaces. As the chicken browns on the flat top, they spray it with water, and scrape off the brown fond from the griddle. We’re going to do the same thing, only we’re going to do it in our pan…and we’re going to use chicken stock because why not?! (And because chicken stock will thicken up a bit and give us an amazing sauce to finish cooking the chicken in.)
All Hail The White Sauce
The white sauce might be the most important part of this dish. It’s a closely guarded secret and every street cart has their own little twist on the theme. I’ve tried for years to make it without the mayo (surprise, I’m not the hugest fan of mayonnaise), but it’s impossible. Turns out there’s nothing super special about the sauce, it’s basically just pumped up mayonnaise with a couple of spices, fresh herbage, and greek yogurt. I add in a little bit of fresh garlic because I love that raw garlic spice, but you can leave that out if you have a hot date coming over.
Halal Cart Chicken and Rice