Dried fruits are a speciality of the Levant, and bring festive luxuriousness to these dishes of fragrant roast chicken and nutty, chewy jewelled pilau rice
Last modified on Tue 21 Dec 2021 17.29 GMT
Fresh and dried seasonal fruits such as quinces, cranberries, figs, apples, pears, raisins, prunes, dates and currants are obvious choices for cakes and pastries, but shouldn’t be reserved exclusively for puddings. When they are combined with heady spices such as saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, they bring an ambrosial lusciousness to roast meats and poultry, stews and curries, and rice and grain pilafs. This imaginative and delicious way of adding fruit to savoury dishes has long been popular in North Africa and across the Middle East, and feels opulent and celebratory, making it ideal for the festive period.

Across the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean, quinces are highly prized, but in Britain we don’t really seem to know what to make of this sweetly scented fruit that’s inedible when raw. Here, as the chicken cooks, the quince caramelises in the fat, honey and spices, and imparts its own unique perfume and flavour to the dish.
Prep 45 min
Cook 1 hr 10 min
Rest 15 min
1 x 1½kg chicken
Sea salt and pepper
100g unsalted butter
1 heaped
tsp ground ginger
1 heaped
tsp ground cinnamon
tsp allspice berries, ground
1 tsp saffron strands, pounded
½ tsp turmeric
A generous grating of nutmeg
5 fat garlic cloves
, peeled
1 preserved lemon
tbsp clear honey
1 red onion
, unpeeled and cut in half
1½ lemons, the ½ lemon juiced and the whole lemon cut in half
2 bay leaves
4 quinces, peeled and cut into wedges
200ml chicken stock
A few drops of good-quality rose water
(I like Cortas)
Season the chicken all over, including inside the cavity, with salt and pepper. Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan/390F/gas 6.
In a saucepan, melt the butter over a low heat, then stir in the ginger, cinnamon, allspice, saffron, turmeric and nutmeg. Blitz the garlic and the flesh and skin of the preserved lemon until finely chopped, then add to the melted butter. Stir well and leave to infuse gently over a low heat for five minutes. Whisk in the honey, then set aside to cool.
Massage the skin of the chicken, pinching and loosening it over the breast area, then push your fingers under the breast skin and pull it away from the flesh, taking care not to tear it. Anoint the chicken with the melted butter, and push the pulpy lemon and garlic mix under the loosened breast skin. Stuff the onion, lemon and bay leaves in the cavity.
Lay the quince in a roasting tray, then pour over the lemon juice. Lay the chicken breast side down on top and pour the stock over the fruit. Roast for half an hour, then turn the chicken breast side up and baste with the cooking juices. Cover tightly with foil and roast for another half an hour (by roasting it upside down first, the juices from the fatty skin underneath the chicken drip down and baste the meat, meaning the breast will be moist and succulent).
Remove the foil and roast for 10 more minutes to crisp up the skin. Remove, sprinkle with rose water, cover tightly with foil and rest for 10–15 minutes before carving. The rose water will add a wonderful perfume and gentle sweetness to this already fragrant dish.
UK readers: click to buy these ingredients from Ocado
The rice is cooked in the Persian-style to get a crust, or tahdig. Along with the textural contrast of fluffy rice, soft fruits and crunchy nuts, this makes for a sensational crowdpleaser that’s delicious as a side to the chicken or even on its own with a dollop of yoghurt.
Prep 15 min
Soak 30 min
Cook 50 min
Serves 4-6
300g basmati rice
Sea salt
, to taste
60g ghee
(I love Superghee)
50g flaked almonds
6 cardamom pods, bruised
1 tsp cumin
1 cinnamon quill, broken up
1 red onion, peeled and finely sliced
5cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced into matchsticks
50g each dried cranberries and golden raisins, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, then drained
1 large pinch saffron, soaked in 150ml hot water
50g nibbed pistachios
1 large handful finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Soak the rice in a large bowl of cold water for 30 minutes. Drain, then par-cook in a pan of boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water to refresh, drain again and set aside.
Heat the ghee in a wide casserole over a medium heat. Fry the almonds until golden, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
Add the cardamom, cumin and cinnamon to the pot, fry briefly until fragrant, then add the sliced onions and saute until caramelised.
Add the ginger, fry until fragrant, then add half the rice and spread evenly in the base of the pan. Cook, without stirring, until a golden crust forms on the bottom – this will take eight to 10 minutes – then scatter over the cranberries and sultanas, and pile the remaining rice in the centre of the pan to form a mound. Do not stir.
Pour in the saffron water, cover the pan with a lid and leave cook for 15 minutes. Take off the heat and set aside, still covered, to steam for about five minutes. Garnish with the nuts and parsley, and serve warm with the chicken.
UK readers: click to buy these ingredients from Ocado
Fiona Beckett’s drinks match I’m tempted to suggest an orange wine to go with this exotic recipe – it tends to go particularly well with quince – but that might be a step too far for Christmas. White Rhône or Roussillon would be a less challenging choice: try Domaine Lafage Centenaire 2020 (£11.60, a luscious blend of grenache and roussanne or, from next month, Aldi’s Vacqueyras Blanc 2020 (£9.99, 13.5%), which is part of that supermarket’s new Winemaster’s Lot range.


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