I’m feeling a little wanderlusty lately. I’ll go to check my email and suddenly realize I’ve drifted over to a travel site and am now four pages deep into an article on Istanbul or Patagonia. (I can daydream with the best of them, but with my brand of internet somnambulism, I should go pro.) I’m itching to crawl over crumbling ruins, trudge through the Andes and the Himalayas, slug tea with sun-leathered nomads, get lost in the clamorous souks and bazaars of the Mid-East. I want to be Margaret Mead, Isak Dinesen, Indiana Jones. (Well, Indiana Jones without the Nazis and the snakes and the dramatic near-death scrapes. I’m not feeling that adventurous.)
With no immediate travel plans on the horizon, dinner is the closest I’ll get for now. Would you believe that just last night I jetted off to smoky, spicy Morocco without leaving the comfort of my San Francisco flat? (Me either. Let’s just go with it.) Harmoniously sweet (dates, cinnamon, shallots) and savory (well-browned chicken, a deeply seasoned broth) and wildly spiced, this craveable braised chicken makes an unexpected and worldly centerpiece for a small dinner party. (Make ahead, tidy up the kitchen and rewarm the chicken in its sauce on the stove.) I’d serve it with a Riesling or a Roussane or a young, spicy red (both the Chard and the Cab we happened to have open totally clashed with it), maybe some glazed carrots as a side, and my almond tart or store-bought baklava for dessert.
If in reviewing the ingredient list you find you’re without tumeric or cardamom or any of the other spices (skip the saffron, it’s too dear to purchase just for this dish) you can substitute the whole list for a tablespoon or so of ras el hanout (literally “top of the shop” in Arabic, the spice merchant’s prized blend), a complex Moroccan mixture of up to 30 spices. (Well-stocked supermarkets and Arabic or Mid-Eastern specialty shops should carry it. It’s fab on lamb, too.) And for a faster weeknight version, reduce the cooking time a bit and use skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 2″ pieces. Marrakesh and Casablanca, here we come!
Moroccan Braised Chicken
adapted (liberally) from Bon Appétit, 2010; serves four
- 2 lbs chicken pieces (small drumsticks, thighs and/or breasts)
- 2 Tbsp neutral-flavored oil (grapeseed or corn)
- 1/2 lb shallots, peeled and sliced
- 12 pitted dates, cut in half
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice (from about 1/2 a lemon)
- 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 1/4 C sliced almonds
- 1/4 C cilantro, finely chopped
- 2 C chicken stock (plus more for couscous, recipe follows)
- salt and pepper
for the ground spice mixture:
- 1 tsp tumeric
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp cayenne, plus more to taste
- 1/8 tsp cumin
- 1/8 tsp white pepper
- 1/8 tsp cardamom
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- pinch of cloves
- few strands of saffron (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the oven is at temperature, toast the almonds on a baking sheet for 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Meanwhile, peel and slice the shallots. Pat the chicken pieces dry and season generously with salt and pepper. Prepare the spice mixture (or if you’re a multi-tasker, wait until the downtime whilst browning the chicken, below).
In a large dutch oven or sauté pan with sides, heat the oil over medium-high heat and brown the chicken parts, working in batches if necessary, about 15 minutes total. Transfer the toasted almonds to a small bowl and set aside; transfer the browned chicken pieces to the now-empty baking sheet.
Add the shallots, season with salt and pepper, and cook until golden and softened, about three minutes. Add the spice mixture and mix to combine, cooking for another minute. Add the chicken stock, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and reduce back down to a simmer.
Transfer the chicken back to the pan and simmer, covered, about 12 minutes, or until the juices run clear and the chicken has an internal temperature of 165 degrees. (Wash the tongs before reusing to avoid cross-contamination.) Meanwhile, prepare the couscous (recipe follows). Transfer the couscous and chicken to a serving dish.
To the stock, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Taste and adjust the salt and cayenne to your liking. Add 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch and stir to combine; cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the dates and warm through, one minute. (If you prefer a thicker sauce, add a bit more cornstarch.) Pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with cilantro and the toasted almonds. Serve with harissa for extra heat, if desired.
- 2 C chicken stock
- pinch salt
- scant Tbsp olive oil
- 1 C + 1/3 C pre-steamed couscous
Heat the first three ingredients to boiling in a medium, heavy saucepan. Add couscous, stir to combine, take off heat and cover for five minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.