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Grilled za’atar chicken thighs are a cinch, with or without a grill

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I reluctantly pulled out a sweatshirt the other day, and on my morning walk with my dog, Frito, I watched as a few leaves, golden brown as well-baked pie crust, fell from the old oaks and elms on my street. The days are quickening as the sun sets sooner and sooner. A new season is nearly here.

I’m already missing the seemingly carefree days of summer, long and lazy, full of plump fruit and sunshine. As I start to get ready for a season of coziness, I’m hanging on to one of summer’s traditional pleasures: cooking outdoors. Summer may be known as grilling season, but isn’t cooking outside actually more enjoyable in the fall when it’s no longer too hot to stand in front of a fire?

When I spotted this recipe in Nigel Slater’s “A Cook’s Book” for chicken thighs marinated in za’atar and garlic, grilled and served with a tahini-yogurt sauce, I knew it would be ideal for this bridge period between summer and fall.

If you don’t have a grill, as I didn’t for many years, don’t worry. Slater’s original recipe is called “Grilled chicken with za’atar and tahini,” but he calls for a grill pan on the stove. I adapted the recipe, below, so that you can make it indoors or out, any time of year.

Get the recipe: Grilled Chicken with Za’atar and Tahini

As I read through “A Cook’s Book,” I started to notice that Slater uses his grill pan quite a bit. “You are allowed to keep a sharp knife and single piece of kitchen equipment. What would it be?” Slater writes. “A question I can answer in a single heartbeat. ‘My ridged, cast-iron griddle pan, if I may … my tiny griddle the size of a dinner plate, with just enough room for a couple of chicken legs. A neat tool, blackened by years of service to lamb chops and eggplants, this single piece of iron will allow me to make my favorite dish on earth.”

His favorite dish on earth? A piece of deboned, skin-on chicken, seared skin-side-down on that little cast-iron skillet until it’s crisp on the outside and juicy within. Slater’s original za’atar chicken recipe called for whole chicken thighs, which you were to debone. In the recipe below, I opted for boneless, skinless thighs to speed things along.

From there, you make a simple marinade of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and za’atar. It’s a mix that Slater doesn’t reserve just for chicken. He uses it on eggplant, pork chops, lamb ribs, zucchini and mushrooms, too. After their za’atar bath, the chicken thighs go onto a ripping hot grill or grill pan. The goal is to get any bits of fat that are clinging to the chicken to render and baste the meat as it cooks. This is no time for gentle heat: You’re aiming for chicken that’s charred in places so that it picks up the flavor of smoke. Lemon halves get grilled alongside the chicken, so that they pick up some char, too, and stay wonderfully juicy in the process.

Once it’s cooked, you’ll serve it with the easiest sauce I’ve ever made: tahini stirred into plain yogurt. The nuttiness of the tahini pairs wonderfully with the tangy yogurt. Slater recommends you serve the dish with warm flatbread, perhaps also kissed by the grill, to scoop up any chicken juices that mingle with the creamy sauce.

Get the recipe: Grilled Chicken with Za’atar and Tahini

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