Cooking in clay is one of those things you’ve got to do to truly get the gist of. Like cast iron, clay adds a certain je ne sais quois to a dish that you can’t get any other way – it’s a subtle earthiness and added depth that’s truly captivating.
Romertopf cookers are a great way to get into clay, and there’s no better dish to make in one that chicken. It’s truly difficult to end up with anything other than one of the juiciest, most delicious things you’ll ever cook – that alone is worth the entry price.
While the inside of the body of a Romertopf is glazed, the lid is not – The porous, soaked clay and higher oven heat, (425° F rather than 325°) combine to provide a steam/roast cook – the secret behind that super juicy bird.
The next joyful surprise is this – literally no oil, stock, or water need be added to end up with a succulent chicken. Same goes for veggies you to add to the dish – the steam/roast process will generate copious quantities of juice and rendered fat without help.
Fact is, you can add nothing but salt and pepper and still come out with stunning results, but for this dish, I wanted more – a nod to Middle Eastern cuisine was in order, since clay cookery is ubiquitous there – as are stunningly delicious spice blends. Besar (also Bzar and Bezar) was the perfect choice.
There are variants of besar in several cuisines, of which I favor the Emirati style – it’s a stunningly aromatic blend with deep notes of warm spices and a touch of heat. Besar is wonderful with chicken, but might even be better with fresh roasted veggies – a win-win for this dish. Often used to spice ghee, it’s fantastic dry on everything from squash to soups, stews, and flatbreads. This is my swing at the blend.
2 Tablespoons whole Black Peppercorns
2 Tablespoons whole Cumin seed
2 Tablespoons whole Coriander Seed
2 teaspoons stick Cinnamon, (about 1/2” or so)
2 teaspoons whole Green Cardamom pods
2 teaspoons ground Ginger
2 teaspoons ground Hatch Chile (hot or mild as you prefer)
1 teaspoon whole Fennel seed
1 teaspoon Turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl.
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, toast spices until golden brown and deeply fragrant, stirring steadily with a fork to avoid scorching.
Remove blend from skillet and return to a bowl to cool – allow 30 minutes or so for things to marry further.
Leave the blend whole and store in airtight glass until you need it – that’ll keep everything fresh. I prefer making smaller batches like this more often, rather than storing larger quantities long-term.
Urban’s Clay Cooker Chicken & Veggies with Besar
3-4 fresh Chicken Leg Quarters
3-4 Gold Potatoes
2-3 stalks fresh Celery with Leaves
1/2 small Sweet Onion
3 Tablespoons ground Besar spice blend
3 finger pinch of Kosher Salt
Soak your clay cooker (including the lid) for 30 minutes prior to use. (If this is your first use of the cooker, follow makers directions for seasoning to the letter!)
You will start with a cold oven, to avoid thermal shock and cracking of your clay cooker.
Rinse and peel potatoes, then halve or quarter, depending on size.
Rinse, end trim, and cut carrots into roughly 3” chunks.
Peel, end trim, and quarter onion.
Rinse, end trim and cut celery stalks into roughly 5” chunks – remove and reserve leaves.
Arrange veggies in a solid base layer in your cooker.
Sprinkle very lightly with salt, then with a teaspoon of besar.
Arrange leg quarters evenly across the top of the veggies, skin side up.
Toss on the celery leaf, then lightly sprinkle with salt, and liberally dust with the remaining besar.
Cover the dish and slide into a middle rack position in a cold oven.
Set oven temp to 425° F and let ‘er rip for 45 minutes.
Carefully remove the hot cover from your cooker and check internal temp on the chicken – you should be around 150°-155° F.
Cook for 10-15 minutes more, uncovered, to allow things to brown and crisp up a bit.
Carefully remove cooker from oven and allow a 5-10 minute rest.
Serve piping hot, with just some flatbread, or rice, or couscous, or whatever you love best.