During earlier years of Food Network, the contestants vying to become “the next Food Network star” were actually given a contract to host their own cooking show, usually slotted for Sunday mornings. That was before the network became its entirely competition-based format, where everything has to be done in 20 minutes and somebody always “wins.” I still watch, but I miss the days when more of the chefs (or cooks, in the case of ever-popular Rachael Ray) walked you through the steps of making a meal in what looked like a real home kitchen. They still have some weekend morning “how-to” shows, but the rest of the time, it’s either a big ol’ showdown, or a bunch of chefs talking in bold color about the food at places they visit (I’m looking at you, Guy Fieri). 😉
Speaking of bold color, I’ve been working on restoring some color to things around here in the tail end of a very gray January. The recipe I’m sharing today has been a favorite of mine since the third season of said “Food Network Star,” and I learned it by watching an episode of the show hosted by Amy Finley, the first woman to win the network’s competition.
Amy’s show, endearingly named “The Gourmet Next Door,” showcased elegantly simple French cooking methods, and Amy exuded confidence in the kitchen. I was disappointed, along with everyone at Food Network, when Amy decided not to return for a second season. During her six episodes of TV fame, she managed to get through to me with this simple and really flavorful recipe, which she said was inspired by the foods of French Morocco, on the northern coast of Africa. The bone-in chicken thighs are marinated in a spicy blend of chiles and seed spices—known in those parts as “harissa”—and surrounded by tender and colorful vegetables, plus dried fruit and fried almonds. If it sounds like a weird combination, trust me, you will change your mind after you taste it. It’s spicy and savory, yet sweet with fruit and wholly satisfying.
Traditionally, a Moroccan dish such as this would be prepared in a clayware vessel called a tagine, which looks like the red pot above. The shape of the tagine keeps moisture inside for perfectly tender roasts and stews. I’ve had this tagine on display for several years, but have only recently considered cooking in it, at the urging of my husband, Les. However, after much discussion with my aunt, who spent decades as a clay potter, we concluded that the finish on this one probably makes it purely decorative and unsuitable for cooking. No worries, I’ve prepared the dish today as I always have, in a simple cast-iron skillet.
This dish is pretty and delicious, as spicy as you want it to be, easy to make and a welcome flavor change-up from the usual weeknight chicken dinner. I hope you like it!
2 Tbsp. neutral oil, such as canola
2 tsp. harissa blend spices* (see notes)
4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 small sweet onion, chopped into large pieces
1 small zucchini, cut into uniform chunks
1 small yellow squash, cut into uniform chunks
Handful of fresh baby tomatoes, whole
Small handful each dried plums (prunes) and apricots
1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 tsp. neutral oil, such as canola
1/4 cup whole, raw almonds, unsalted
Cooked couscous for serving
Traditionally, harissa is presented as a paste made from fresh whole chiles, and it really tips the scale on Scoville heat units. My dry blend of harissa spices allows for some flexibility in the heat department and includes red chile, garlic, black pepper, cayenne, and what I call the “three C spices,” which are caraway, coriander and cumin. The seeds should be slightly toasted and then ground into a rough powder before blending with the other ingredients. If you prefer, substitute a ready-made harissa blend, or use the harissa paste seasoning available at Trader Joe’s (brace yourself, it’s hot). My harissa dry spice blend recipe is listed at the end of this post.
You will need an oven safe skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe. Alternatively, you could make it in an electric skillet with a lid. Or a tagine, if yours is safe to cook in. 🙂
Let’s walk through it together in pictures first. You’ll find written instructions below, and keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF version for your recipe files.
- Combine the oil and spice blend in a large, deep bowl that is large enough to hold the chicken thighs for marinating. Season the chicken pieces on both sides with kosher salt. Add them to the spice marinade and turn several times to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours.
- Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center.
- Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When skillet is warm (but not hot), add chicken pieces, skin side-down. Do not move or turn the pieces for about 10 minutes, until the fat is rendered and skin is golden and crispy. Cook the second side about 5 minutes, until browned. Remove pieces to a plate and keep warm.
- Add the chopped onions, then zucchini and squash to the remaining oil in the skillet, tossing briefly to coat and lightly sauté them. Salt to taste. Remove skillet from heat.
- Arrange the baby tomatoes among the skillet vegetables, then tuck in the dried fruit pieces evenly throughout the skillet. Place the chicken thighs on top of the mixture.
- Swirl broth in the bowl that held the chicken pieces, to grab all the flavors lingering there. Pour the broth down the sides of the skillet, so that it flows underneath to the vegetables.
- Cover the skillet and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until vegetables and fruit are soft and chicken pieces are tender. Prep the couscous near the end of the cooking time.
- Heat teaspoon of oil in a small skillet until it’s quite hot and shimmery. Add raw almonds and toss them about for about two minutes. They will pop and sputter a bit, so be careful. When they are toasty and fragrant, use a slotted spoon to remove them.
- Serve the vegetables and chicken over cooked couscous, and spoon the fried almonds over the top.
Want to print this recipe?
Harissa Dry Spice Blend
1 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes (more or less to your heat preference)
1 Tbsp. granulated dried garlic
1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper (adds bite with minimal heat)
1 1/2 tsp. whole coriander seed, toasted and ground
1 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 tsp. caraway seed, toasted and ground
2 or 3 shakes ground cayenne pepper (adjust to your heat preference)
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