Whether I’m writing a poem, reading a novel, or walking at dusk, I like to take my time and savor every moment of the experience. I also love the thrill of conquering a new challenge. So when I got my eager hands on Donia Bijan’s Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen (pub: October 11), I jumped at the opportunity to make Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and Eggplant, a recipe that requires marinating the chicken overnight, soaking the rice for two hours, executing other steps for over an hour, and finally baking the composed dish for two hours. Given our culture’s penchant for the quick and easy, I likely sound like a crazy person. But when I was a child and my mother spent an entire day laboring over Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, I could taste every minute of time, care, and love that she poured into the meal. I learned quickly that the rewards of an ambitious dish far outweigh the hours it takes to make.
My mother taught me how to prepare a variety of culinary delights—baked brie, pesto, sweet potato curry, berry pie with homemade crust, etc.—but she never served anything like Bijan’s saffron yogurt rice dish. In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing saffron in our cupboards. This exotic spice instantly attracted me to the recipe, and when I read that the finished product resembled a “yellow cake” in appearance, I was hooked. I remembered making pineapple upside-down cake with my mother—in particular, the magic of transforming the cake by turning it over, revealing a golden-brown surface once the pan was removed. Bijan’s recipe uses that same technique, but the dish is aromatic and subtly tangy, not sweet.
I strongly recommend enlisting the help of a loved one when preparing this dish, not because the steps are difficult (they’re really quite simple, and Bijan’s directions are clear), but because the process is so interesting that you’ll want to share it with someone. And believe me, this dish is FUN, both to make and to eat. My partner Ryland’s and my experience moving through the recipe was like visiting another country: there was a period of adjustment, but then we came to appreciate both familiar aspects and surprises.
My favorite step, apart from stuffing my face at the end of the night, was layering the rice, eggplant, and chicken until I reached the top of the pan. I used a spatula to sweep the yellow yogurt-rice over the previous layer, and—you guessed it—it was like icing a cake! Once I had a piping hot piece of what I will lovingly call “chicken cake” in front of me, I relished in slicing through the layers, smelling the citrus and saffron, and tasting the complexities of a multi-tiered bite. Like the whole of Bijan’s memoir, this dish is mouth-watering and undeniably special. It will remind you of those who cared for you, even if you’ve never tasted anything like it.
– Lauren Moseley, Publicity Assistant
Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and Eggplant
Equally delicious with braised lamb shanks, the saffron and yogurt marinade is essential to the subtle tartness of this dish, with egg yolks used as a binding for the rice. For serving, the ta-chin is turned out onto a serving dish and cut into square pieces, as one would cut a cake. As a child, I found this resemblance to yellow cake very appealing.
4 free-range chicken breasts and 4 thighs, boneless, skin on
3 cups Greek yogurt
Zest and juice of 2 lemons and 1 orange
1teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in ⅓ cup hot water
3 cups basmati rice
2 globe eggplants or 5 Japanese eggplants
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 egg yolks
6 ounces (11/2 sticks) butter, melted
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
2. Soak the rice in water (enough to cover by 1 inch) and 1 tablespoon of salt for 2 to 3 hours.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
4. Wash and peel the eggplants and slice them lengthwise 1/4 inch thick. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper brushed with olive oil and overlap the slices of eggplant in a single layer. Brush the eggplant with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender. Remove from the oven and cool.
5. Remove the chicken from the marinade and save the yogurt mixture in the refrigerator. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown the chicken pieces on both sides in an oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Place the skillet in the oven and bake the chicken for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside, reserving any juices from the pan.
6. Boil 2 quarts of water with 1 tablespoon of salt in a large nonstick pot. Wash and drain the rice, then pour into the boiling water. Boil for 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, then strain.
8. Pour half the melted butter into a 14-inch ovenproof dish. Place a layer of yogurt rice on the bottom, then a layer of eggplant, cover the eggplant with another layer of rice, and place the chicken pieces on top. Continue with a layer each of rice, eggplant, and chicken, finishing with a layer of rice. Sprinkle with the remaining butter, cinnamon, and chicken juices. Pat gently with a spatula and cover with foil.
9. Place on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake 2 hours. If using a glass dish, you will be able to see when the bottom turns golden.
10. Remove from the oven and keep covered until ready to serve. Using the edge of a metal spatula, loosen the baked edges. Hold a serving dish over the baking dish and turn over to unmold the rice.