Chicken Tabaka and the beginning of the end of summer

Perfect for a weekend meal, Chicken Tabaka is a typically Caucasian pan-fried dish with plenty of herbs and spices. Serve it with tkemali sour plum sauce and a tangy cucumber and mint salad for a seasonal flavour of the Caucasus.

Just as July turned into August, it stopped being cherry season and started being plum season in Moscow. This is always a bittersweet moment, because plums herald the beginning of the end of summer. And bittersweet as well, because it means it’s time for tkemali, the marvelous Caucasian sour plum sauce spiked with garlic, coriander, and dill.  

Tkemali’s great ally is Chicken Tabaka. The name comes from the Georgian word tapha or heavy skillet, and refers to the cooking method of pan-frying a split bird, weighted down under an additional skillet and a heavy object. This versatile dish makes a perfect weekend lunch dish or Sunday night supper. It’s easy to make and one of my favorite ways to prepare small chickens or Cornish hens.

Ingredients

2 small chickens or Cornish game hens;

4 tbsp butter and 1 tsp of butter;

2 tbsp olive oil; 1 cup of white wine;

3 tbsp of chives or minced scallions;

1 bunch of mixed herbs: tarragon, basil, mint, flat Italian parsley, finely diced.

Marinade

1 cup of olive oil; Zest of one lemon;

Juice of one lemon; ¼ cup of tarragon;

2 tbsp salt; 3 cloves of garlic.

Rub

2 tsp sweet paprika; ½ tsp cayenne pepper;

1 tsp crushed coriander seeds;

8 cloves of boiled or roasted garlic cloves;

2 tsp of good quality kosher salt;

Several grinds of black pepper.

The dish is so popular in Russia that chickens are sold already halved in many stores. There are a few complicated ways of folding the wings into the breasts, but I never bother. Just split the breast bone and you are halfway home.

There are lots of ways to prepare Chicken Tabaka, and a major debate rages about two things: Should you grill or pan-fry the chicken and should you marinate it, or just rub it with garlic and spices? I’m a big griller, but I plug for the pan option, because the grill can’t create the crunchy fond that the pan can and the smoke from the grill doesn’t seem to work well with the flavors of the Tabaka.

As for marinating versus rubbing, I go the diplomatic route and do both: I never met a chicken that didn’t benefit from a bit of marinating, and the gentle bath of garlic, olive oil, and herbs infuses the meat perfectly.

Chicken Tabaka

1. Boil or roast the garlic cloves until they are soft and sweet. Set aside.

2. Prepare the marinade: Combine all the ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process for 2 minutes.

3. Use a large and very sharp kitchen knife to cut the chickens in half through the breast bone. Flatten the chickens and pound them with a meat tenderizer until they lie completely flat.

4. Coat the chickens on both sides with the marinade, then place in a plastic bag or non-reactive container with a tight lid. Marinate for at least 3 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.  

5. Prepare the rub by removing the roasted or boiled garlic from its skin and mashing it together with the remaining ingredients.

6. One hour prior to cooking time, remove the chickens and pat them dry with a paper towel. Smear the skin side of the chicken with the rub. Allow the chickens to sit and come to room temperature as they absorb the flavors of the rub.

7. Melt the butter and olive oil in a large sautépan over a high heat. As the butter begins to ‘spit’, place the chicken skin-side up into the frying pan. Sear the chicken for 3 minutes, then flip it over skin-side down. Sear for 3 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium/low. Cover the sauté pan with a circle of parchment paper, then place a smaller frying pan or heat-resistant plate on top. Weigh the plate down with something heavy, such as a large tin of juice, pressing the chicken down firmly onto the pan’s surface to create the essential fond.  

8. Allow the chicken to cook for an additional 6-8 minutes, depending on size, taking care to keep the heat low.

9. Remove the chickens to a cutting board and ‘tent’ them with foil for 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, raise the heat over the sauté pan to medium/high, then pour the wine into the pan. Allow it to come to a simmer, then lower the heat and use the back of a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits from the sauté pan. Whisk the mixture over the heat until it is reduced by one third, then add the butter, chives and mixed herbs.  

10. Serve the chicken in a shallow dish — pour the herb sauce over it. Garnish with additional fresh herbs. A warm potato salad makes an excellent accompaniment, as does a tangy cucumber and mint salad, fresh beef tomatoes with a bit of basil, and, of course, the tkemali sauce!

Priyatnogo Appetita!

Jennifer Eremeeva is an American writer who has called Moscow home for twenty years. She is the author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Concise History of Russia. She writes about Russian history, culture, everyday life and humor, and food at http://jennifereremeeva.com.

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