Tunisian Stew, Moroccan Roast Chicken and Algerian Carrot Salad

Tunisian Stew

Michael and I cooked some impressive dinners for his parents and Kat’s parents, but we had to up the ante a bit for my family this winter. I’ve been cooking magazine meals with my parents for as long as I can remember. (I got my first subscription to Gourmet before I lost my first baby tooth. Not kidding.) So we decided to make a North African feast with lots of lamb, chicken and couscous.

I’ll say two words about this chicken: spice butter. Ok, I want to give you more words: Butter, cumin, coriander, paprika, cayenne and cinnamon. Rubbed all over. Now, I’m not normally a glutton for chicken skin, but spice butter. I ate everything but the bones.

Roast Chicken (Spiced Butter Rub)

And the dates and apricots in chicken jus? I didn’t even think I liked dates. (I tried one from the box the next day, and they’re nothing without being roasted in spice-buttered chicken jus. Just sayin.)

The stew was also great, even though we totally rushed the process. The Darwell family has too high of metabolism for slow food. Luckily the stew didn’t suffer. The broth was full of flavor and just barely spicy, even with a whole habanero. Though, I have to give credit to the Los Angeles grocery store and the country of Australia for the lamb, which managed to be fork-tender even though we lumped off probably an hour of cooking time.

Carrot Salad

We served the dishes with piles of couscous and a side of

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refreshing carrot and fennel slaw. For dessert, I kept the spice theme going by making dark chocolate tart with gingerbread crust a la Smitten Kitchen.

Choc Ginger Tart

Play some Algerian music from Cheb Mami, Rachid Taha or Khaled. Samira Said from Morocco is good too. If you can recommend any Tunisian artists, let me know.

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Honey-Sesame Chicken and Persian Rice

persian-chicken2

Friday is Norooz — the Persian New Year — and all through elementary and high school, I had this holiday off. This was because I grew up in Beverly Hills.

People outside Los Angeles have a certain image of Beverly Hills. More often than not, they envision a city of blondes. The truth is more than 20 percent of the population is Iranian. Nearly half the kids I went to school with were Persian, and most spoke Farsi at home.

When I was young, I wondered why my friends’ mothers always overcooked the bottom of the rice. My mom never had this problem. Then I realized it was completely intentional. The crispy bottom is called the tahdeeg, and it’s an Iranian delicacy. Margaret Shaida wrote in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, “The golden tahdeeg is the ultimate proof of (the cook’s) ability to prepare perfect rice.”

persian-rice

I used Shaida’s four-page description of proper rice cooking as a guide, and it worked. The process has a lot of steps, but it’s only overwhelming if you’re reading it as you go and trying to do a million things at once. Like I was. My biggest fear was burning the bottom, as I’ve seen many times before, but it came out just right. The egg and yogurt mixture made the bottom rich, golden and crispy. Now that I’ve done it once, I could probably go back and do it start to finish without a recipe.

persian-dinner

The stuffed chicken recipe from Elisabeth Rozin was great, too. (The fruit and bulgar mixture would make a tasty dish on its own.) Kat made a cucumber yogurt salad on the side, and for dessert was homemade pistachio ice cream. (Fun fact: Iran and California are the top two producers of the world’s pistachios.)

pistachio-ice-cream

So why not celebrate the first day of spring and the Persian New Year with an Iranian-inspired meal? Both are about clean starts, so try something new this week.

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Shrimp and Chicken Noodle Soup

I’m not sure where my head was when I made this meal. Luckily it turned out tasty, but I did so many silly things along the way, like forget several ingredients I bought specifically for the dish. Seriously, I didn’t remember to put ginger in until I went up for seconds. Who makes anything Asian-inspired without ginger?

thai-soup

But let me explain the little bit of thinking that did go into this dinner. I wanted to improvise another soup, this time with light Asian flavors. I started with Trader Joe’s all-natural vegetable broth, which I brought to a boil with some frozen shrimp shells I had the presence of mind to save last week. I just finished reading Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, and she talks about keeping bones and shells and other normally disposed items to use later in stock.

After a bit, I removed the shells and added chicken, carrots and green onions. Then came the hard part: figuring out how to make it taste like something. I added a good amount of soy sauce and some Singapore seasoning I brought from my parents’ house. I think it’s a blend of curry, pepper and lemon that is meant to go on fish or chicken. Then I remembered to add a few garlic cloves (you know, that ingredient that goes in pretty much everything. My mind was clearly somewhere else.)

It was starting to taste all right, but it took on new complexity when I gave it a glug of white wine. I figured I’d apply the same idea I learned a week earlier when I saw sherry listed in a stir-fry recipe. I’m not sure the soup would have been worth anything without it.

I added bok choy and peas. (Not snap peas, even though I had them in the fridge. No, that would have been the smart thing to do.) Then I put the shrimp in, followed soon by thin glass noodles.

We served it with bean sprouts, cilantro and spicy sriracha sauce.

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Sopa de Lima

Lime Soup

This NY Times soup was one of the first recipes I bookmarked when I started keeping a folder of online recipes. I loved the idea of this soup and although I probably thought about it every time someone said “soup,” it took me more than a year to get around to making it.

Once I started cooking it, I realized it was almost too simple. Bland even. No onion or garlic? No chilies? Midway through the simmering process, I threw in some garlic cloves, chili powder, cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes. It turned out just right.

The soup is not too heavy, but plenty satisfying in winter. The lime and cilantro give it freshness, while the cinnamon, cloves and chili offer warmth.

We highly recommend serving this with the incredible cornmeal crunch from 101 Cookbooks. Our friend Kat made it and it rocked our world.


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Getting Closer…

smart-chicken

I sometimes do my grocery shopping at 1am. I don’t know why, maybe I like having the whole store to myself (with the exception of the guy on the zamboni floor polisher thing). Everything is pristine, ordered, in their rows. Granted, I’ve noticed a higher percentage of older/bruised fruit and veggies, but the solidarity of the moment and the lack of pressure to think about what I want far outweigh the occasional so-so tomato.

Last night was awesome, as far as grocery shopping experiences go. I picked up some Harvarti, which I first had at Britt’s over winter break on a sandwich. New favorite cheese, hands down. That’s standard fare though, not uncommon.

What else I noticed was over in the meat aisle, a new option next to Tyson. Now, I don’t hate Tyson, I think the chicken (and cornish game hens) are quite delicious, but

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I can only assume that such a large company doesn’t really give a hoot about the animals, only getting it into those well designed packages. I also realize that most chicken processing facilities accept up to a certain amount of death due to the close quarters and spread of disease. According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book on meat, broiler chicken houses can have up to 30% death rate and be considered healthy. Thats 30% of 10,000 to 40,000 birds. (That book has been my bible lately, expect to see a ton of references to it).

I’ve always felt bad funding what I can only assume is the standard intensive farming practice, but never really saw an easy option presented alongside it. That changed last night. Maybe it’s new (or maybe I’m just blind), but a brand known as MBA SmartChicken was available. They offer two varieties, vegetable and grain fed free range, and a full blown organic, which is everything the first level is, but even more natural.

Supposedly.

I know the words organic and free range get thrown around lot, so I’m still skeptical, but the website claims the chickens and the feed are both from right here in Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. That means less cost to get the feed to the birds and less cost to transport the chicken itself.

I thought, “what the hell”, and got a whole chicken, 7 bucks. $2.85 more than the Kroger brand sold at Gerbes. Not too much more, for hopefully a chicken that lived a much happier life, died in a much less stressful way, and in theory should taste much better because of it. Now again, I’ll have to do some more research into the topic. MBA may be blowing smoke up our collective “green”-loving asses, but I have a feeling short of buying chicken at the farmers market or raising my own, it’s the best alternative right now. We’ll let you know how it tastes soon enough.

Oh, I also found some free range eggs too, only 80 cents more than the generic store brand. We’ll see if they make a better omelet.

Gumbo

Gumbo Pot

This is the meal inspired by a sausage and a song. When the campus meat market started offering andouille sausage, I knew we had to make gumbo. Then our friend Kat discovered a song listed under the genre “gumbo funk,” and we had a soundtrack.

We cooked up a big ol’ pot of gumbo for Michael’s parents when we went to visit, and maybe Michael’s mom just loves us, but she couldn’t stop talking about how good it was. I can’t say I’ve had a ton of gumbo in my day, but this was the best one I’ve tasted. The vegetables maintained their form and taste, instead of becoming a pot of mush. The chicken, sausage and shrimp each brought their own flavors too.

The best canned tomatoes available.  Don't even try to argue otherwise.
According to Michael, the best canned tomatoes available. Don't even try to argue otherwise.

This Food Network recipe just called for chicken and andouille, but I felt like there should be some seafood. You can do scallops too. The only other change we made to the recipe was adding a combination of Cajun spices to the flour in which we dredged the chicken. In addition to salt and pepper, I added paprika, chili powder, celery salt and oregano. If you have a packaged blend, that works too.

Gumbo Dish

Change whatever you want in the recipe, but make sure you have some gumbo funk on the playlist.

Britt and Kat Gumbo


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