This Chicken and Celery Sauté in Sephardic Sweet and Sour Sauce reflects several seder traditions.
Some Sephardic communities dip celery leaves, not parsley, into salt water. Ancient writings sometimes confused the two plants, and early eastern Mediterranean celery was much more bitter than today’s vegetable.
In Greece, Turkey and the Balkans, it became a custom for some to have celery poached in lemon sauce as part of the holiday meal. The recipe below builds on that custom. Instructions for doubling or partially making ahead follow the main recipe.
Chicken and Celery Sauté in Sephardic Sweet and Sour Sauce
- 8 large, crisp celery stalks with leaves
- 2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 tsp. salt, divided
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper, divided
- ½ tsp. crumbled dried oregano leaves, divided
- About 4-5 Tbs. oil
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- ¼ tsp. paprika or cayenne
- 2 cups sliced carrots (cut into ¼-inch rounds)
- 2 cups small cauliflower florets (cut larger florets into quarters)
- 1 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. grated lemon zest, divided
- 1½-2 cups water, divided
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed
- 1-2 Tbs. sugar
- ¼ cup coarsely chopped reserved celery leaves or parsley
Remove and reserve celery leaves. If desired, lightly peel celery to remove strings. Trim off bottom and tops of stalks. Cut into 1-inch pieces (4 cups). Coarsely chop celery leaves to use as garnish.
Cut larger thighs in half. Toss thighs with ¼ tsp. each salt, pepper and oregano. Heat 1-2 Tbs. oil in a deep 12-inch fry or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches (adding oil as needed), brown chicken and sauté until almost cooked through. Set aside. Cover.
Wipe out excess liquid from pan but do not clean. Add 1 Tbs. oil, lower heat to medium and sauté onions until just softened, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pan. Add garlic, ¼ tsp. each salt, pepper, oregano, paprika and the carrots. Sauté 2 minutes, add ¼ cup of water and cover, stirring occasionally until carrots have begun to soften, adding another ¼ cup of water if needed. Stir in cauliflower, celery and 1 tsp. lemon zest. Add ¼ cup water and cover, stirring often until vegetables are tender but still crisp, adding another ¼ cup of water if needed as they cook. Taste. Correct seasoning. Transfer to bowl. Stir in any liquid released by the reserved chicken. Cover.
Add 2 Tbs. oil to pan (again without cleaning). Heat over medium heat. Add 1 cup water, the lemon juice, 1 tsp. zest, 1 Tbs. sugar and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer, uncovered, until reduced by half. Taste, adding sugar, salt or lemon juice as needed. The sauce should be pleasantly sweet and sour. Raise heat to medium. Stir in vegetables and chicken. Sauté until chicken is fully cooked and everything is heated through. Serve hot or warm. Place in serving bowl. Spoon any remaining pan sauce over dish. Garnish with chopped celery leaves and 1 Tbs. lemon zest.
To double recipe: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Sauté chicken in batches. Cook vegetables in batches. Transfer chicken and vegetables to baking pan and stir in lemon sauce until coated. Bake until chicken is fully cooked and dish is heated through.
To partially make ahead: Refrigerate the almost cooked chicken and the crisp-tender vegetables separately. Bring to room temperature. Heat 1-2 Tbs. oil in fry pan. Add chicken and when almost heated through, add vegetables. Sauté until all is heated through. Remove from pan and cover. Continue as directed.