Sumac, a spice crushed from a tart red berry that thrives all over the Middle East, tempers the sour and the sweet, adding a mild earthy fragrance along the way.

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It’s one thing to wish your family and friends a sweet new year. But at Rosh Hashana, Jews bring the sentiment to the table throughout the meal.

You’ll get honey drizzled on apples, sugar in the gefilte fish, orange juice in the tsimmes (a dish of carrots and prunes), and possibly all three in brisket. And that’s not even mentioning the honey cake for dessert. A sweet new year’s meal is one of the finer aspects of Jewish tradition.

The only problem: when things veer from pleasing to cloying. The job of the cook is to play up the sour as well as the sweet and let them temper each other into a happy balance.

Usually this means a splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon or lime. But sumac, a spice crushed from a tart red berry that thrives all over the Middle East, accomplishes the same goal, adding a mild earthy fragrance along the way.

I started cooking with sumac after a trip to Turkey several years ago, where it’s sprinkled over all manner of salads, grilled meats and olive-oil-rich dips. The coarse, ruddy powder is celebrated in the region for its brightness in both color and taste.

In this recipe for roast chicken, I use sumac as part of a garlicky spice rub to season the birds (there are two), along with allspice, cinnamon and black pepper.

It’s also in the honeyed plum chutney that cooks simultaneously underneath the birds. As the chickens roast, their sumac-imbued drippings season the plums, adding just the right sour and complex note. Then the plums become the a sweet-tart sauce for serving. Perfect for Rosh Hashana, or any other festive gathering where a touch of sweetness is desired.

I made this recipe with two chickens because it is meant to feed a crowd, and roasting two birds at once is no harder than roasting one. You just need a bigger pan. A large roasting pan with a rack, the kind you’d use at Thanksgiving for the turkey, is ideal, and it’s nice to put it to use before November rolls around.

As with many dinner-party-friendly recipes, you can and should do most of the prep work for this in advance, up to a day ahead. Then pop the pan into the oven as your guests arrive. Other than carving, your work is done.

Which will give you plenty of time for dipping apples into honey, and other sweet pursuits.


For the Chicken:

2 large lemons

2 tablespoons ground sumac

4 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, grated or minced

2 chickens, 4 to 4½ pounds each

1 bunch thyme, more for garnish

For the Plums:

2¼ pounds plums, halved or quartered if large

4 shallots, sliced into ¼-inch-thick rounds

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon allspice

1 bay leaf, torn in half

1. Grate the zest from the lemons and place in a small bowl. Set aside the zested lemons.

2. Stir sumac, salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice into the lemon zest. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and the garlic. The mixture should feel like wet sand. Rub it all over the chickens, including inside the cavity.

3. Divide thyme bunch in half and place in the chicken cavities. Place chickens on a roasting rack set over a rimmed baking sheet, and let marinate, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

4. When ready to roast, let chickens come to room temperature for 30 minutes. Heat oven to 450 degrees.

5. In a large roasting pan, toss together plums, shallots, honey, oil, salt, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaf and 2 tablespoons water. Spread out plum mixture evenly over the bottom of the pan. Place chickens on the rack over the plums in the pan. Roast for 30 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, squeeze 1 tablespoon juice from reserved lemon and mix it with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Drizzle this over the chicken, then continue to roast until the birds are golden-skinned and cooked through, about 30 to 45 minutes longer.

7. Let chickens rest, covered lightly with foil, for 10 minutes. Carve and serve with the plums and more thyme for garnish.