Sunday, September 25, 2011

Recipe: Sheltering Sky Chicken (Moroccan-Style Chicken with Prunes)

Or: In which I am a culinary genius. Trust me. TRY THIS RECIPE.
(Vegetarian and gluten-free options are suggested below)

The September issue of Esquire had a cooking feature entitled "Eat Like a Man." It had several recipes, lots of great cooking tips, and essays on cooking - because apparently home cooking is now hip for men. I'll ignore the fact that when I was growing up my dad did all of the cooking and when he was out of town we got to eat McDonald's or creamed tuna on rice.  The point of this feature, if I can sum it up, is "manly cooking is risky, because men don't like to follow directions. They're men!"

That's kind of a stupid point, as all those Top Cheftestants who went to culinary school will tell you, but if that's true, then I cook like a man. Of course, I did learn to cook from my dad, who was all about getting an inspiration and then testing variations until he reached perfection.  Recipes to my dad were like melodies are to jazz musicians - just something to riff on.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it's to share the backstory of this recipe, which I have named Sheltering Sky Chicken after Paul Bowles' drug-hazy novel about Morocco. This recipe is a riff, just like my father's used to riff on things like spaghetti with meat sauce and Thai peanut chicken. It's my homage to a dish we used to eat at the only Moroccan restaurant in my town. Here's how it came to be:

  • Last Sunday I woke up and I thought, I would like chicken with prunes tonight. That was literally my first thought upon waking.
  • So I thought for a bit - what's a cuisine where you might eat chicken with prunes and what would that be like? Moroccan was my first thought.
  • So then I Googled "Moroccan chicken" and read a whole bunch of recipes. I often start a recipe this way, by doing some random internet research. If you're not quite comfortable with the idea of cooking on the fly, but want to try it, this is a good way to check yourself and make sure that the flavors you're thinking about go together. 
  • I looked at the spices in my cupboard, thought for awhile, and then went to the store.
  • At the store, I let the produce choices guide me a bit. A lot of Americans choose their recipes for the week, then go to the store with a pre-made list. If you're concerned about greening your kitchen, however, it's good to have some flexibility when it comes to produce - so you get what's more local and in-season (and if you've got a farmer's market, that's best of all). For example, I was sort of envisioning celery in this dish, but they only had organic celery in a huge bundle that I knew I would end up wasting, so I didn't buy it. But I saw a giant potato that looked great, so I amended my mental image to contain potato.
  • I went home and started cooking.
A couple of notes:
This recipe uses a blend of spices that I suggest you mix up ahead of time. It's similar to the mix that's known as "Ras al hanout". In general, I like my food less-sweet/more-savory, so I tilted the mixture in that direction. Take that into account as you're creating it - for example, if you don't like spicy, omit the cayenne. Just dip your finger in and lick it to see if you're getting a mix you like - remember that the uncooked spices will be more bitter than the final, cooked product.

This recipe is also similar to a tagine, or a Moroccan stew that's made in a big earthenware pot (also known as a tagine). If you have a tagine, you can use it to cook this, but I just used a ceramic baking dish.

Finally, I used a technique to cook the chicken that I learned from my dad. Sear it first in a saute pan and then bake it. This holds in the moisture, and I'd recommend trying it for other chicken dishes you might make as well.

So now - the recipe!

Sheltering Sky Chicken

Spice Blend
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cumin
1/2-1 tsp. toasted cumin seeds (heat a small pan over high heat - don't use any oil - and add the seeds. Cook 1-2 minutes, shaking the pan frequently, until the seeds become fragrant.)

Mix all of the spices together in a small dish and divide in half.

Everything else:
Around 1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic (it's hard to find these organic, sometimes, so it's helpful if you have a butcher at your grocery store who can help you - plus, you use less packaging if you buy from the butcher counter)
1 large baking potato, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 small carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow onion, cut into large pieces
About half a bag of prunes, chopped into halves and quarters, or more if you really like prunes. Which I do.
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can rinsed chickpeas
1-2 c. vegetable broth
Olive oil

Cous cous
Cilantro and toasted slivered almonds

Pre-heat oven to around 425 degrees.

Step 1: Add half the spice mix to a gallon zipper bag. Add the chicken and shake to coat evenly with spices (I know that plastic bags are the devil, and you could also do this by mixing in a bowl - but this method works really well and I think since I gave up paper towels, occasionally using a zipper bag that I don't reuse is fair).
Step 2: Heat about 1 tbsp. olive oil in a saute pan. Add the chicken and sear, cooking for 1-2 minutes on each side, until the skin is no longer translucent. Arrange the seared chicken evenly in a large ceramic or glass baking dish coated with olive oil.
Step 3: Add the chopped potato, carrots, onion, and prunes to the baking dish, arranging them around the chicken.
Step 4: In a bowl, mix the tomatoes, chick peas, and the remainder of the spices. Add about one cup of broth. Pour this mixture evenly over the ingredients in the baking dish. It should almost cover the chicken, but not quite. If you need to, add a little more broth.
Step 5: Put in the oven and cook until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are soft. Serve over cous cous, garnished with almonds and cilantro.

Vegetarian option: I wouldn't use "fake meat" with this meal - it's so fresh tasting, I would add more veg instead. Butternut squash is the option I would go with. Cube it, and skip steps 1-2. Butternut squash stands up well to Middle Eastern spices, and it's hearty, so you won't feel deprived.
Gluten-free option: Instead of cous cous, which is pasta, serve over brown rice. Be sure to check the broth and spices to make sure they don't have any added flour.

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