06 February 2009

David Tanis' North African Comfort Food

On a day when I had no idea what I wanted to eat, much less cook for a dinner party, Tanis' cookbook, A Platter of Figs, solved everything and let me create one of my best meals to date. I tweaked his menu to fit what looked good at the grocery store.

spiced carrot salad
warm chickpeas
chicken tagine with butternut squash
harissa oil
and although he recommends walnut cigars, which did look wonderful, we enjoyed a fantastic chocolate cherry cream cake brought by Erin instead.

The Recipes, Basically (with a bit of my own spin)

For the chickpeas

1 pound dried chickpeas, picked over and soaked overnight. The next day, drain them, and put them in a pot with 3 quarts of water along with an onion chopped in quarters, 1 cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a splash of olive oil, and some salt. Bring to a boil, and then lower to a simmer until the chickpeas are tender, about 1 hour. If you usually use canned beans, you'll notice this method produces meatier, more flavorful beans. Leave it to cool. You'll use the cooking water for the tagine. When the tagine's almost done cooking, reheat the chickpeas in whatever liquid's still in the pot. Drain, reserving the liquid for lubricating the couscous (if you want). Dress the chickpeas to taste with butter, cinnamon, salt, lemon juice, and chopped parsley.
For the tagine

Peel a 2 lb+ buttnernut squash (or any other winter squash like pumpkin), remove seeds, and chop into large slices. Season them all with salt, pepper, and ground cumin (toast and roughly grind the seeds yourself if you can. you know when they're toasted when they fill your kitchen with fragrance). Then season 2 lb+ of chicken legs (with thighs) with salt, pepper, fresh mashed ginger, and more ground cumin. Dice 3 large onions, and sauté them in a combination of olive oil and butter (2 Tb each), seasoning with salt. When golden, turn off the heat and add a large pinch of saffron (crumble between your fingers), and 6 sliced cloves of garlic. Season to taste with red chili flakes. Spread the onions in a bottom layer in a shallow earthenware casserole (but a glass one can work too), then top with the slices of squash. Arrange the chicken, skin-side up on top. Add 3-4 cups of the chickpea cooking liquid, barely covering the chicken. Cover the casserole (tin foil works), and bake for 30 minutes at 400˚F. Uncover, and cook at 375˚F until the chicken in golden brown on top.

** It's great vegetarian too. Simply omit the chicken and take 5-10 minutes off both ends of the cooking time.

harissa oil

Toast a tablespoon each of cumin, coriander, caraway, and fennel seeds (however I only had the first 2, and augmented it with sesame seeds) over medium heat until they are fragrant. With a pestle and mortar, smash 2 garlic cloves with a tsp of salt so that it forms a paste. Add the toasted seeds and grind them up. Add 3 Tb. sweet paprika, 1 tsp red chili flakes, a bit of red wine vinegar, and up to a cup of olive oil. Stir well. This keeps in the fridge for up to a week. Spoon the oil over the tagine, couscous, and chickpeas to taste while serving. It adds the essential North African spice kick.

spiced carrot salad

Take a bunch of beautiful, peeled carrots. Using a vegetable peeler, turn all the carrots into long curls. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Add 2 cloves of finely minced garlic. Add 2 tsp. each of toasted and ground cumin and coriander seeds. Season to taste with red pepper flakes, lemon juice, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and chopped parsley. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.


Cook couscous according to the packet instructions. Or: toast it lightly in a large pan or pot, pour an equal amount of already-boiling water in the pan and stir while the couscous boils and asorbs it. Add more water as needed until the couscous is tender and fluffly, yet still has a nice bite. You may also want to cook the couscous in any left over chickpea stock!

** We're drinking an excellent Chilean Cabernet-Sauvignon: Veramonte, a 2006 Riserva from the Colchagua Valley. It's $11 at my wine store.

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