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Something Different
Week of: August 6, 2012
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Contact: Alice Bender, (202) 328-7744

Taking Simple from Good to Great

By Dana Jacobi
for the American Institute for Cancer Research

The best simple cooking, for me, uses basic techniques and few ingredients. It takes minimal time or demands little attention while a dish bakes, simmers or sits. Ingredients called for are always available where I normally shop and are reasonably priced. Ideally, this means the best simple dishes taste great even when made with supermarket ingredients, no matter what the season, so I can rely on them any time.

Finally, at table these ideal dishes deliver more than crowd-pleasing flavor. Using ordinary ingredients and with easy assembly, they are exceptionally enjoyable, too.

Good simple cooking becomes brilliant when you get all this from an easy embellishment or, better yet, a single ingredient used unexpectedly. Think of how a quickly assembled fresh pineapple salsa elevates plain grilled chicken or how adding a little coconut milk gives a quickly tossed stir-fry a delightful twist.

Both of these examples illustrate how ethnic flavors can enhance simple cooking. And how ingredients like ginger, cilantro and sesame seeds, once exotic and esoteric choices, have become accessible supermarket staples.

Za’atar is a favorite example of how an easy embellishment can turn ordinary to extraordinary in multiple dishes. As common in parts of the Middle East as jarred salsa is in the United States, this dry blend of herbs and sesame seeds works magic in seconds. Here, for example, coating chicken breasts with this combo of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and lemon juice, then baking them on a bed of sliced onions makes a main dish equally good served hot or at room temperature. Leftover pan juices from this dish added to soups or used to cook sliced zucchini or sauté spinach transforms them, too. Also sprinkle za’atar on pita bread, yogurt (turning it into a dip) or hummus. Use it to coat kebabs, toss it with shrimp, or on any white fish, from catfish or tilapia to halibut. Even try it sprinkled on pineapple!

Za'atar Chicken

Za’atar Chicken

  • 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds (use unhulled, if available)
  • 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 Tbsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, mild and fruity
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 chicken breast halves (1.5 lbs total), with the rib, skinned

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

For za’atar, set cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add sesame seeds to dry, hot pan. Lift pan and hold it just above burner, moving it to swirl seeds until they start popping and color lightly, 2-3 minutes. Immediately spread toasted seeds on a plate to cool.

Place fully cooled sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle and crush lightly. Add oregano, thyme and salt, and work mixture just to blend. Mix in lemon juice then oil. Or, seal sesame seeds in plastic sandwich bag and crush using rolling pin, then place in small mixing bowl. Adding herbs, rub them between your fingers, a teaspoon at a time, and crumble them into bowl. Add salt, lemon juice and oil.

In baking dish just large enough to hold chicken pieces, spread onion slices over bottom. Make 2 diagonal slits in each chicken breast, cutting almost to the bone. Arrange chicken in baking dish. Using your fingers, coat chicken with za’atar, pushing some into slits. Cover baking dish with foil, sealing edges.

Bake chicken for 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees F. Let baked chicken sit for 10 minutes, or cool until warm or room temperature before serving.

To serve, place a chicken breast on each of 4 dinner plates, accompanied by onions. Pass pan juices separately, in a pitcher. Or, cool chicken and serve it in slices, with cooled onions and reserving liquid for cooking vegetables or for a flavorful addition to soups and sauces. Or tear it into pieces for chicken salad.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving:258 calories, 12 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 6 g carbohydrate,
30 g protein, 2 g dietary fiber, 304 mg sodium.

Something Different is written by Dana Jacobi, author of 12 Best Foods Cookbook and contributor to AICR’s New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life.


Our Mission: The American Institute for Cancer Research champions the latest and most authoritative scientific research from around the world on cancer prevention and survival through diet, weight and physical activity, so that we can help people make informed lifestyle choices to reduce their cancer risk.

We have contributed over $105 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. Find evidence-based tools and information for lowering cancer risk, including AICR’s Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, at www.aicr.org.


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