This za’atar chicken, made with the earthy, nutty, warming spice blend of the same name, disproves the notion that simple can’t also be stylish and supremely satisfying.
This za’atar chicken recipe with a Middle Eastern spice blend lends its warm, earthy flavor to both the chicken and the easy onion sauce that looks and tastes oh so elegant.–Renee Schettler Rossi
*What Is Za’atar?
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that contains thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. Sumac has a lemony smack that’s pretty darn potent. The amount of sumac in a particular za’atar blend can vary dramatically, so you may want to play around with a couple different brands of za’atar or homemade za’atar recipes you toss together yourself.
For the Israeli couscous
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups Israeli couscous (or ptitim)
- 2 1/2 cups cold water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the chicken and sauce
- 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts halves
- 2 tablespoons store-bought or homemade za’atar*
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 large yellow onion cut into 1/4-inch (6-mm) slices
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or canned chicken broth
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Heat the butter over medium heat in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Once it has melted, add the Israeli couscous and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the water and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer until the couscous is tender and has absorbed the water, 12 to 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, slice each chicken breast into 2 pieces, as if you were butterflying the breast open, but instead cut all the way through. Pound each piece between 2 pieces of parchment paper or plastic wrap with a mallet or the heel of your hand or the bottom of a heavy skillet until it’s as thin as possible. The chicken should be between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick. Season both sides with a generous amount of za’atar and, if desired, salt.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the chicken. Cook until browned and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the chicken fillets. Remove the chicken from the skillet.
- Add the butter and the onion to the skillet in which you cooked the chicken. Sauté, tossing often, until the onion softens and begins to pick up some color, 6 to 7 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and cook, stirring constantly for about a minute to eliminate the floury flavor. Pour in the stock to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom of the skillet with a spoon. Turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil. Reduce until thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Return the chicken to the pan and spoon the sauce over the top to warm it through. Remove from the heat.
- Place some of the Israeli couscous on each plate and top with a chicken breast, some onions, and a drizzle of sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
Flavorful boneless chicken breasts? Za’atar to the rescue! This recipe pounds thin-cut chicken, cloaks it in spice, flashes it in the pan, and then pulls out a oniony pan sauce like a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat. Even couscous is exciting again when those usually-teeny grains are super-sized. You don’t even need a magic wand—just trade regular couscous for one labeled “Israeli” (mine was in the same aisle). Be generous with the seasoning, and err on the side of undercooking the chicken the first time around as you can always leave it in the pan sauce a little longer if you’re not sure. The only change I’ll make next time is to use chicken broth instead of water in the couscous, as I was already using some for the pan sauce, and the couscous could’ve benefited from the extra flavor. I was skeptical that this would serve 4, but the recipe makes quite a bit of couscous, and the chicken and sauce are so flavorful that they both go a long way. Served with a hearty serving of a side vegetable, this recipe yielded a perfect portion size.
This delightfully spiced chicken dish gives us another option in our poultry rotation. The 3 components (chicken, Israeli couscous, and onion sauce) looked beautiful on the plate, with a taste to match. The recipe also gave me a chance to use more of the za’atar I bought at Penzey’s! I would make a little less of the Israeli couscous next time, as there was more than necessary for the amount of chicken and sauce. We served this with a big green salad and pinot grigio. I had to add a little more water to the Israeli couscous because it was sticking to the bottom of the pot. I added a little water, stirred, and put the lid back on for the pot to sit while I proceeded with the recipe, and that got the couscous unstuck.
I’m always looking for weeknight-friendly meals that don’t take hours to get together, and this couldn’t be simpler. It probably took about 1/2 an hour from start to finish since I prepared the rest of the dish while the couscous was cooking. The ingredients were fairly simple to source; I always have za’atar on hand to use in dips, and I’m able to find it at Whole Foods. Israeli couscous is in the international section of most grocery stores, so that’s not a problem either. I loved how few ingredients were in this dish but how much flavor there was. Za’atar adds such a bright, lemony-tart note to dishes and is a great way to easily add intrigue to something. I loved the pan sauce, and keeping the onions in intact rounds made the sauce more substantial. This is another simple but impressive pan sauce for home cooks to have under their belt. Typically I find recipes serving sizes to be on the small side, but we definitely got 4 servings out of this one, with plenty of leftover couscous for the next day. I will keep this recipe around as a cheap and easy meal, one that someone of any skill level can master.
I love za’atar and use it a lot, so this chicken dish fit the bill. The spice on the chicken with the onion sauce over the couscous made for a tasty dish. No problems with the timing of the chicken and sauce. There was a lot of couscous left over, and I was generous with each serving. Definitely would make this again.
This za’atar chicken was delicious and does look like a lot more went into it than what you put in. The chicken was heavily seasoned without being overpowering and was very tender with nice coloring, almost like it had been cooked on a grill. I was not able to find za’atar at the store so made my own. Most grocery stores in my area (I checked 3) did not have this spice. I luckily had sumac and sesame seeds in my pantry. The dish came together relatively quickly. While the couscous was simmering, I cooked off the chicken breasts, which took about 5 minutes per side. The pan sauce was a cinch to make and picked up good flavor when deglazing the spices from the chicken. I will definitely make this again—it’s quick and goes a long way for a family meal. It produced a little more than 4 servings. My family was very pleased with the result. The couscous was also good. The 12 minutes of simmering the recipe calls for was not quite enough; I actually had to let it go for 20 minutes, and even then, the couscous was still very moist. Once I turned off the flame, the additional liquid was absorbed. It was both tender and chewy.
This recipe is well worth trying for two reasons: a delicious dinner for four is ready in under 30 minutes, and you’ll have za’atar in your pantry for future use. Fragrant and nutty and ever so subtly lemony, this wonderful spice and herb blend will become one of the most versatile seasonings in your kitchen. It’s particularly nice in this recipe (as you can see, you don’t need much else). It seasons the chicken, then the pan sauce, which will flavor the couscous when you plate the whole thing. And you’ll get there very quickly with a little planning and coordinating. As soon as you put the butter for the couscous on the stove, measure the chicken stock, slice the onion, chop the parsley, cut the chicken and season it (mine didn’t need to be pounded), and move on with the rest of the recipe.
The Turkish market in town had multiple kinds of za’atar. The appearance ranged from red (heavy on the sumac berries) to dark brown to green. The ingredients varied as well, but the common ingredients were thyme, sumac, sesame seeds (whole or ground), and salt. I used green za’atar, which has roasted wheat, roasted thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. I don’t know what “roasted wheat” is; “roasted thyme” is probably just dried thyme. The sesame seeds were whole, not hulled or ground.
I adore the taste of za’atar. The Middle Eastern spice mixture is a combination of sumac, sesame seeds, and salt, and it gives a unique warming flavor to whatever you choose to sprinkle it on. It’s wonderful on meats, veggies, and even toasted pita bread. I recently purchased a jar from my local spice shop and haven’t looked back! When I saw this easy chicken dinner flavored with za’atar alongside a nice pearled couscous salad, I was sold. Not only do the chicken cutlets take no time at all to cook, they will have your dinner guests wondering where they got their amazing flavor from. Answer: za’atar. The chicken and salad alone would be tasty, but the recipe goes even farther and has you make a simple pan sauce from the chicken drippings. Amazing and velvety, the sauce is simply made from a dab of butter, onions, a touch of flour, and chicken stock. The couscous sops up the sauce very well, as does each bite of chicken. Flavorful and simple—my kind of weeknight meal!
This is a weeknight-friendly dish that you can serve as a simple Sunday dinner. It’s very easy to scale up or down, for 2 people or a crowd. For pounding, I put the chicken in a heavy-duty resealable plastic bag to make sure no bits of raw chicken escaped in the kitchen and used an un-tapered wooden dowel rolling pin to gently pound the chicken. Sacrificing a bag keeps any surprises from landing someplace undetected.
Get the couscous going and then start straight away on the chicken. The searing will happen if you’ve evenly pounded the meat. I had a slightly thick area that I hadn’t pounded enough, so it took a few extra minutes to reach the internal temperature of 165℉. I removed the chicken to a warm plate in the oven. The trick is to brown the onion without burning the fond in the bottom of the pan, so you may want to cook it on medium-low heat. The sauce will thicken almost instantly in a wide, shallow skillet, especially one that holds heat well.
As is, we thought this was good, though the za’atar seasoning was milder than expected. Za’atar blends can vary quite a bit. I had recently run out of the Penzey’s version, which is more heavily sumac-based, and my freshly purchased one (different brand) looked more thyme-dominant (a more green za’atar). That explained my surprise at how mild this seemed. If your spice is more green than red, you may want to add some extra sumac. I think a bit of extra sumac or lemon is the bright note required to make this a regular item on rotation for weeknight dinners—a bit of lemon zest or even chopped preserved lemon with the parsley would be perfect!
This dish is simple, fast, elegant, and delicious. It’s perfect for any hectic weeknight where you need dinner in a hurry. The package of chicken breasts I picked up had 3 breasts, and I chose to use all 3 since they were quite small. I made the Israeli couscous as directed and found that after 12 minutes, it was tender and had absorbed almost all of the water. I gave it a stir, and by the time I served it when the chicken was finished, it had absorbed all of the water. The chicken yileded 6 halves when cut. Since they were so small, they took 3 minutes to cook on the first side and 1 minute on the opposite side. The result was an elegant, delicious weeknight supper easy enough for everyone from a novice cook to the very experienced. Just a note that this would work just as well but perhaps a little faster with regular couscous, as it cooks so much faster and not every store carries Israeli couscous. We served this with a Middle Eastern-style chopped salad.
Originally published January 12, 2016