Harissa-Lemon Chicken and Couscous Salad or How it all began

 

Harissa Chicken 5Time for another little trip down memory lane! After I told you guys what inspired me to go tyrian in my kitchen from time to time, I thought starting with the first real thing I ever cooked up, the why of me spending so much time in the kitchen at all, would be a nice opener for my Midweek Special category. Fortunately the recipe for the salad has also been requested several times, so yay for hitting two birds with one stone.

Unlike most other foodies I know, I didn’t start my kitchen adventures by playing it safe. Instead of starting with something well known to me I cheerfully ran headlong into a brick wall of things I had only briefly encountered with no recipe or more than a general idea of how to turn on the stove and what the outcome should taste and look like.
I suppose it’s some sort of a clichee, but the ultimate location for life-changing events taking place in sappy self-search/romance/love generation novels and movies was in fact the spot where the cooking madness began for me, Marrakesh. When I was 16 I went on a family trip to Morocco. One of our hotel’s restaurants was specializing in traditional morrocan cuisine, so after ditching the stereotype buffet and ignoring the japanese teppanyaki restaurant that’s where we went soon after our arrival. I remember me being all puberty charm scanning the menu, reading hilarious (from where I was sitting) combinations of hearty meat with fruity sauces and odd spices, nuts and various dried fruit. After the initial urge to run I decided to embrace the crazy and ordered a chicken thigh tajine with lemons, harissa, almonds and dried prunes. Starting with the aromas wafting up from my plate when the waiter took off the cover I was completely blown away, a switch was permanently flipped and jammed for good measure.Needless to say it didn’t just smell good, up until then it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Much to my mother’s dismay it also sent me buzzing from one spice trader to the next in the bazaar of Marrakesh, smelling and tasting things I wouldn’t have touched with a pitchfork before.
When we got home I unsuccessfully tried to unearth a morroccan restaurant, something similar, any type of spice-heavy cuisine other than indian – I love indian food, don’t get me wrong, it just wasn’t what I was looking for. More than just slightly disgruntled by that fruitless endeavour I decided to take matters into my own hands and recreate the dish. With a few pointers and a tube of harissa paste from our turkish green grocer around the corner I got started. With all the attention food is getting today in any and all forms of media it’s hard to believe that just around 15 years ago cookbooks, food magazines, cooking shows on TV and supermarkets stocking up on international specialities were a rare breed, mostly ignored and sometimes frowned upon. I suppose by now I could do a quick google search and be bombarded with recipes for something similar, but I never have and never will in this particular case – this is mine.

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The Harissa (dry)
Unlike a lot of storebought condiments, harissa paste has never disappointed me. I do have one favourite brand, that just because I saw the brand logo in Morocco several times though, so it’s more a sentimental preference than a quality related. There are some differences in heat and texture, so if you have several choices, try them out and pick your favourite.
I also always have a dry harissa mixture at the ready which is based on the mix I’d originally thrown together back in the days. I use the dry spice mix for rubs, mariades and salad toppings. At this point, as far as „recipes“ go, I’ll have to apologize in advance. I found it very hard to pinpoint exact amounts of ingredients, simply because the outcome heavily depends on the base ingredients. The humble dried chilli flake for example, otherwise unnamed/unmarked, can range from almost sweet in flavour to hell setting up shop in your mouth. Country of origin, variations in subspecies, packaging and so on – all make a difference in your end result.
Whenever I make my own spice mixes, I start with a base, measured in teaspoons as „parts“ and adjust from there until I’m satisfied. In some cases, like with this harissa, tasting the raw, dry spices can be kind of revolting, so I fry up a couple of meat cubes (for spicy mixes) or get a bowl of yoghurt ready (for herby mixes) to make sampling the results easier. I also found this to be an excellent way to educate my taste buds, to introduce new spices and combinations to them. Word of advice: if you’re working with strong aromas or hot chillies, keep a glass of milk within armswinging reach (Ever had dried habanero powder sticking to your gums? Longest. Scramble. For milk. Ever.). So here goes, this is what I start with:

2 Parts dried Chilli Flakes
1 ½ Parts dried Bell Pepper Flakes
1 Part Sweet Paprika Powder
1 Part dried Garlic Flakes
1 Part fine grained Sea Salt
1 Part Cumin Seeds, toasted and crushed
1 Part Coriander Seeds, toasted and crushed
¼ Part Caraway Seeds, toasted and crushed
½ ground Cinnamon
Optional: ¼ dried Lemon Zest (they’re hard to come by, and I use lemons in one way or another most of the times I use harissa, so…)

1) Toast the seeds and move them into a pestle and mortar.
2) Lightly break down the seeds to the size of smaller chilli flakes.
3) Add the other spices while the seeds are still warm to use the residual heat and oils of the seeds to bring everything together more smoothly. Stir until the mix is flakey and well combined.
4) To make a paste out of this, stir 1 part of the spice mix into 1 part lemon juice and 2 parts olive oil.

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The Bird
4 Chicken Thighs
500ml Chicken Stock
1 Tbsp (or more, according to your taste) dry Harissa
1 Pinch of ground Allspice
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Lemon, zest and juice
1 Orange, zest and juice
1 Cinnamon stick
2 Star Anise
10 Peppercorns
1 small Red Chilli
1 Bay Leaf
2 thumbnail sized slices of Ginger
2l Water
120g Salt
2 Sprigs of Lemon Thyme to serve

One valuable piece of knowledge I picked up in recent years is the method of brining meat before marinading and cooking it to enhance flavour and moisture content. Dumping a piece of meat in a bucket of salt water seemed just wrong to me at first, having already had just about enough with the dried out results of salty marinades. One time I was preparing this dish I just stepped out of my comfort zone and went with it, with stunning results. On a side note: the effect is bigger on lean cuts, like a chicken breast, but when I get to plan ahead I usually brine other pieces of meat as well. So here goes:
1) Gently warm up the water and dissolve the salt. For a chicken brine a 6% salt content is best.
2) Add the cinnamon, 1 star anise, pepper, halved chilli, and roughly chopped ginger to the water while its still warm. Let the brine cool off completely and move it to a container large enough to hold everything.
3) Submerge the chicken thighs in it, make sure they’re completely covered. If you need more water you’ll also need more salt; measure out the volume your container needs to hold to cover them, then adjust the salt contents accordingly.
4) Keep the chicken in the brine for at least 8-12 hours for the best results, but the brine starts working it’s magic after 2-3 hours in my experience.
5) Once that’s done, take the chicken out of the brine, pat the meat dry, then seperate drumsticks from the thigh or leave them whole – I always seperate them because my pan isn’t big enough to hold them otherwise in the last stage of the process.
6) Chop up the chilli you had in the brine.
7) Stir together the dry harissa, olive oil, lemon zest (keep the juice for later), orange zest and juice, a pinch of salt and a pinch of allspice and brush the chicken pieces with this marinade all around. Let them rest in an airtight container in the fridge for at least 3-4 hours.
8) Next, fire up a pan that can hold all of the pieces in one layer on high heat and sear each piece all around. Do this in batches of two or three pieces at a time to keep the temperature in the pan steady to avoid boiling the meat instead of searing it. You may even end up with a crispy skin on top if you’re careful at this point.
9) Once all pieces are nicely seared, turn down the heat to medium-low, then deglaze the pan with the chicken stock and snugly fit in all of the chicken pieces in one layer – skin side up for the thighs or whole legs, prettiest side on the drumsticks.
10) Add the second star anise, a bay leaf and 1 slice of the lemon to the stock. Cover the pan with a lid and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Take the lid off and continue for another 10-15 minutes.
11) The 40-minute deal worked for me every time so far, but if you’re unsure or in posession of a particularely large specimen, designate one thigh piece as test subject, not to be served. After 37 to 40 minutes cut into the thickest area, down to the bone and check whether it’s cooked through or not and adjust your timing accordingly. If the meat is just slightly under, take it out of the stock – the residual heat in the bone will keep the cooking process going at a higher rate than usual.
12) Turn up the heat to high in order to reduce the stock into a sauce if necessary, fish out the star anise and bay leaf, taste and season it with harissa paste and lemon juice if necessary.

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The Couscous Salad
100g (dry) Couscous
100g Cashew Nuts, toasted
100g dried Figs
2 small Shallots
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 large Lemon, Zest and Juice
½ – 1 Tbsp Harissa Paste
Salt, Pepper, Paprika, Cinnamon
½ Red Bell Pepper
4-5 Sprigs of flatleaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped

This isn’t a salad in the traditional sense, greens and dressing and all that. It’s more like a savoury but light and citrusy accompaniment and contrast for the rather sumptuous chicken. I make this as a standalone dish for barbecues and brunches as well since it turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser – both freshly made and still lukewarm or prepared a day in advance.
1) Prepare the couscous according to the packet. I’ve got to admit, for this one I always use the instant couscous that comes in 100g baggies I get at the green grocer’s around the corner.
2) Place the couscous in a mixing bowl. Add the olive oil and loosen up the grains with a fork.
3) Drizzle the lemon juice evenly over the entire surface of the couscous.
4) Chop of the figs into thin slices.
5) Finely cube the bell pepper and shallots. Whenever I see couscous salad for sale I see spring onion rings in the mix, so I suppose you could swap the shallots for a spring onion. For some reason my stomach disagrees with spring onions in this kind of combination, so I swapped them out.
6) Fold the figs, bell pepper, shallots, parsley, harissa paste and the lemon zest into the grains with a fork.
7) At this point I can’t tell you the exact amounts of salt, pepper, paprika powder and cinnamon you’ll need to add, since the couscous soaks up a lot of the spice. From experience I can advise you to start with half a teaspoon of everything and go with the taste-adjust routine from there. It also helps to let it rest and absorb the spices for about 30 mins after the initial seasoning and have another taste then to determine whether it needs more. Before adding more juice or oil, keep in mind: it’s meant to soak up all the liquids, to be moist but not soggy.
Depending on the kind of couscous you’re using you might need more lemon juice as well – that’s been the reason for me to return to the brand of instant couscous I’ve been using; I used normal, dried couscous once and ended up going through about 3 lemons and ridiculous amounts of spices just to abandon the attempt in the end.
8) Just before serving fold in the cashews to add a crunchy texture to the mix.

To Serve
The couscous is very satiating, go lighter on the portioning here. Arrange the chicken on top, drizzle with the sauce and sprinkle the portions with a few lemon thyme leaves.
Enjoy!

I know this is not a traditional recipe or something dinner-party-fancy, but it’s what got me going on to the other things I’ll be sharing with you, the root of all evil as it were. I hope I haven’t scared you off with this somewhat lenghthy post either… I promise you, I won’t always be rambling on for this long!

 

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