Halal Cart Chicken & Rice

While you'll still find the classic Sabrett hot dog carts on the streets of New York City, so-called halal carts have become a more common sight. Halal usually refers to the method of slaughter that makes meat acceptable for Muslims to eat, but in NYC it's shorthand for the halal carts serving street meat, most often a plate of chicken and rice topped with a pair of contrasting sauces and served with a simple iceberg and tomato salad.

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For about $8 it's an affordably delicious meal in a notoriously expensive city. Street food's history in New York goes way back, and there's more about the evolution of the halal carts online if you're interested. We spent a week in the big city recently, and I liked the chicken and rice so much I wanted to make something like it. Here's my version:

The chicken is usually boneless thigh, but any chicken cut from the bone works. Since there are two sauces to keep the whole thing juicy, this might be the best use for the often-dry breast meat from a rotisserie chicken. Toss the uncooked chicken with olive oil, salt, and, if you feel like it, one or more herb or spice (cumin, oregano, coriander, thyme or a vaguely middle eastern spice blend). Cook uncovered in a 350F oven until done, about 20 minutes for boneless thighs. Let cool a little and chop into bite-sized pieces.

Halal cart rice is always yellow, so I boiled some Kokuho Rose brown rice with a chunk of fresh turmeric (cook rice at an active boil for 35 minutes, drain, cover, let sit).

For the creamy white sauce, mix about 2/3 cup Greek-style yogurt with 1/3 cup mayonnaise, and a splash each of Katz Sparkling Wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Some finely chopped mint or parsley is a good addition, or a pinch of dry herbs. Ditto garlic. Some say the red sauce came from north African harissa, but the halal carts' versions are more sweet, less spicy. Make your own (google harissa for recipes) or buy it.

I love iceberg lettuce, but wanted a more substantial salad, so I shredded my favorite vegetable, green cabbage, for the salad. I had a few tomatoes from the garden, but if it's past the season, just skip them.

Scoop some rice into a large bowl alongside about the same amount of finely sliced green cabbage (soak it ice water for a few minutes to make it even crisper) with the tomatoes if you've got them. Add a layer of the cooked chicken, a few spoonfuls of the white sauce and a slightly smaller amount of the red. Drizzle with olive oil, pull up a curb, and eat.

Ass-backward Spatchcocked Chicken

Spatchcocking means cutting the back out of a chicken, spreading it open and cooking it, sometimes under a brick. Spatchcocked birds can also roasted, grilled, or cooked on the stovetop. Heat penetrates the flattened flesh faster, and a whole chicken can be done more quickly.

The back itself is usually discarded (or saved for stock, if you’re conscientious). But if you’re married to an Italian American, especially one whose Sicilian nonna showed her how to wring every morsel of edible goodness from a chicken, you want to cook that back.

So, when I decided to deviate from my usual approach to roasting chicken, I opted to split the birds down the front. It’s actually easier than cutting out the back, requiring a single knife stroke through the keel bone. I call it the ass-backward spatchcock. Put the chicken on a firm surface, breast facing you and neck down. Cut from the opening of the cavity down through the neck, keeping the keel bone close to the cut. Pull the chicken apart and flatten it out.

Once the bird’s been cut, I salt it (roughly 2-3 tablespoons for 3-4 pound chicken; should look like a light snowfall) and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for at least a few hours, preferably overnight. I roast mine in a big cast iron skillet, almost always on a bed of vegetables that soak up the juices. Onion and cabbage works, potatoes are unbelievably good, but almost anything will taste great. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in the skillet, add the vegetables, and put the chicken on top.

Roast at 350F for about an hour or until the skin is nicely browned, the joints are loose, and the juices that run out when you stick in knife in next to the thigh are clear. Let the chicken rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting it up.