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If you’ve never had the pleasure of dining at a Moroccan restaurant, then you’ve missed out on a delicious combination of drama and allure. Oh, I’m not talking about the obviously exotic Middle Eastern dancers — belly dancers in Western terms. But, rather, the dramatically diverse dining experience that a Moroccan restaurant offers. Who doesn’t love sitting on a fat cushion like a Pasha and eating with their fingers, or having a server pour steaming sweet mint tea from a standing position directly into a skinny glass, without splashing a drop on your head? And, can I have a standing O on the brilliance of the hot hand towels scented with rosewater? Those should be standard issue in all restaurants, thank you.

The first time I tasted Moroccan fare was eons ago in a San Francisco restaurant. My heart and palate fluttered, and I practically wept from the lush sensory overload. And when the first taste of chicken perfumed with cinnamon hit my tongue, sure, I was confused, but also smitten. I’m French, cinnamon doesn’t really make an appearance in savory foods. A little nutmeg, mais oui.

So, years ago, when I started teaching French cooking classes, I decided to put together a Moroccan dish that paired chicken with couscous. Pretty much the national dish of Morocco – the couscous at least. The French colonized North Africa, very briefly, leaving the two cuisines forever linked by a thin but unbreakable thread. Good news for me because, back then, the classes I was teaching were weekly and, happily, I had one particular group that decided to enroll in my classes for several years in a row, which meant that I was scrambling each week to come up with new recipes, for which I’m grateful.

I recently found that Moroccan-inspired recipe I created and it looked a bit weak. So, I spent a day pumping it up and infusing it with a little more complexity, flavor-wise, but still leaving it easy to prepare. In the original recipe, I used raisins in the couscous, which added some chewy bits of sweetness but not much flavor. In this new permutation, I swapped out the raisins for dried cranberries. They provide a sweet/tart balance as well as a more vivid pop of color. Personally, I think raisins can now retire. Bubye. We have dried cranberries.

I’m not an expert in Moroccan cuisine and, truthfully, I’m not a big fan of some of the spices used. For instance, turmeric is a taste I’ve yet to acquire, although I know it’s loaded with healthful benefits. And while I love lemons, the idea of pickled or preserved lemons leaves me cold. But I do like using couscous (think tiny specks of pasta, not a grain), and pairing it with assertive flavors.

The Moroccan-style chicken is essentially browned, then stewed in an aromatic broth flavored with vegetables, spices, including cinnamon, and a good jolt of heat that doesn’t whomp you over the head but, rather, makes a subtle sneaky pie entrance at the back of your throat. Once the chicken is cooked, a handful of other ingredients, including the couscous, is added and the culinary magic happens. If you’ve never made couscous, you’ll fall for its hands-off cooking approach. You simply add it to a boiling liquid, cover, take it off of the heat, then let it sit for about 5 minutes. That’s it. Take a look, then make some couscous.

The couscous:

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Here are three easy to find types of couscous. On the left is a whole wheat semolina couscous, which I like because it has more fiber than the regular semolina couscous. In the middle, the larger pearls are called Israeli couscous. They take a little longer to cook. And on the far right, Near East brand is available in most stores. It also comes in different flavors, but I tend to think of those as Rice-A-Roni of the couscous world. But, that’s just me. I’m judgy that way.

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Moroccan-Style Chicken & Couscous 

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs, with bone, without skin

1 medium onion, diced (I like mine diced pretty small.)

3 medium carrots, diced

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Fat pinch cayenne pepper

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

2 cups chicken broth

Kosher salt & black pepper

1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained, no need to rinse

1/3 cup lightly salted peanuts (I use dry roasted)

1/3 cup dried cranberries (sweetened is fine)

1 1/2 cups couscous

Handful of fresh Italian parsley, minced (not curly parsley, it has no flavor)

In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pan, add the butter and olive oil.

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You’re using both butter and oil because the oil burns at a higher temperature than the butter, but the butter gives a nice brown color to your meat plus added flavor. It won’t burn as quickly with the addition of the oil.

Cook over medium heat until the butter is brown and the pan is almost smoking.

Dry the chicken with paper towels, then salt and pepper both sides.

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Carefully add the chicken to the pan, but don’t let the meat touch or you’ll steam it rather than brown.

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Brown about 2-3 minutes per side, then remove from the pan and set aside.

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So, this is the point when you’d deglaze the empty pan with some liquid, from wine to brandy or broth. But, that’s not necessary here because the onions and carrots will sweat off enough liquid to deglaze and pretty much clean the pan.

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Add the diced onion and carrots to the pan.

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Stir and cook for about 4 – 5 minutes until the onions are translucent.

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See? The bits at the bottom of the pan have all dissolved, adding extra flavor to the veggies.

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Add the garlic, cumin, cinnamon and cayenne pepper.

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Meet the flavor trifecta that gives this dish its air of mystery: cinnamon, cumin and cayenne pepper.  And, yes, I’ve found plenty of uses for my little used Keurig Vue cups.

Stir well and cook for a few minutes, but don’t let the garlic burn. Lower heat if necessary.

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Stir in the tomatoes and let them cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.

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The mixture should look almost jam-like, and you’ll notice an intoxicating fragrance hanging about.

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Add the chicken broth, about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

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Return chicken, and any juices that have accumulated, to the pan. Cover tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.

Add the can of garbanzo beans after the chicken has cooked for 25 minutes.

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When chicken is tender, remove it from the pan and cover to keep it warm. Now is a perfect time to taste the sauce and adjust seasonings if needed.  (Note that you can make the dish up to this point and hold it. Then add the couscous, cranberries and peanuts just before serving.)

Turn off the heat. Stir in the peanuts, cranberries and couscous.

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Cover with a tight fitting lid and let sit for about 5 minutes until couscous has absorbed the liquid and is tender.

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And the miracle that is couscous comes to pass after only a few minutes on the back burner – literally.

Stir in the parsley, using a fork to fluff, and serve with the chicken.

Don’t bother with curly parsley, the type you find as a garnish at mediocre restaurants. The fresh flavor comes from these wide, flat leaves.

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Flat-leaf parsley is also known as Italian or Hye parsley. The latter moniker is more popular in areas with large Armenian populations.

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This is an effortless dish to make for guests, and if you want to dress it up even more, you can mold the couscous.

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Coat the inside of a small dish with a little olive oil or butter, then lightly pack the couscous to the top.

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Invert the bowl onto the serving plate and tap it lightly, then gently lift.

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There you have it. The molding technique is easy but it also shows off the pretty colors and textures in the dish. Be careful when you place the chicken on the molded couscous so that you don’t make it tumble.

(Printer Friendly Recipe)

Moroccan-Style Chicken & Couscous 

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs, with bone, without skin

1 medium onion, diced (I like mine diced pretty small.)

3 medium carrots, diced

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Fat pinch cayenne pepper

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

2 cups chicken broth

Kosher salt & black pepper

1 can garbanzo beans

1/3 cup lightly salted peanuts (I use dry roasted.)

1/3 cup dried cranberries (sweetened is fine)

1 1/2 cups couscous

Handful of fresh Italian parsley, minced (not curly parsley, it has no flavor)

In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pan, add the butter and olive oil. You’re using both because the oil has a higher burning temperature than the butter, but the butter gives a nice brown color to your meat and added flavor. Cook over medium heat until the butter is brown and the pan is almost smoking.

Dry the chicken with paper towels, then salt and pepper both sides. Carefully add the chicken to the pan, but don’t let the meat touch or you’ll steam it rather than brown.

Brown about 2-3 minutes per side, then remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the diced onion and carrots to the pan. Stir and cook for about 4 – 5 minutes until the onions are translucent.

Add the garlic, cumin, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Stir well and cook a few minutes, but don’t let the garlic burn. Lower heat if necessary.

Stir in the tomatoes and let them cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. The mixture should look almost jam-like. The kitchen should now have an exotic fragrance hanging about.

Add the chicken broth, about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring the mixture to a simmer.

Return chicken, and any juices that have accumulated, to the pan. Cover tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.

Add the can of garbanzo beans after the chicken has cooked for 25 minutes.

When chicken is tender, remove it from the pan and cover it to keep warm. Now is a perfect time to taste the sauce and adjust seasonings if needed.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the peanuts, cranberries and couscous. Cover with a tight fitting lid and let sit for about 5 minutes until couscous has absorbed the liquid and is tender. Stir in the parsley and serve with the chicken.