I love having people over for dinner. Love it! Throwing a “dinner party,” inviting “guests,” that’s kind of stressful and I develop this performance anxiety about it (though, I find it exhilarating at times as well). But, having folks over, gathering them around the table, making new connections, strengthening old ones, and most importantly filling everyone up with delicious food, now that is one of my favorite things in the world. In fact, I think it may actually be one of my greatest life aspirations, more so than work or other achievements, to make sure that my table is a warm and comfortable place where people always feel welcome to drop in for a moment and then stay for a whole meal and conversation.
Because of this, I have a tendency to improvise and experiment when I’m cooking for friends who come over, just as much as when I cook for myself. I know the general wisdom is that you should never try out a new recipe when you’re having company, and in concept I agree. But, I still find myself standing at the stove, pulling out random spice jars and saying to myself, ‘let’s see if this works’ even as I’m waiting for the ring of our doorbell (which, on a side note, is the most awful doorbell sound you could possibly imagine and always makes me jump a foot and half when it goes off) and know that people are about to come piling in, excited to be fed. Sure, there have been a couple of unfortunate incidents with rubbery, flavorless chicken, or curdled mango-cream sauce, but life went on, and overall it has worked out for the best. And there’s been more fun for everyone!
Last night a couple of our wonderful friends were coming over for a casual supper, and there I was, contemplating what I could do with a pumpkin and a jar of harissa. Harissa is one of my current food obsessions; it’s a North African chili and spice paste and it’s amazing. It will whop you over the head with a blast of flavor, and then slowly fill your mouth with a warm sensual burn, like the glow of hot charcoals (as opposed to the blazing fire of a South American chili). I have been rubbing it onto meats (though if you put it on a steak and then pan sear that steak, be prepared for the fact that the capsacin in the peppers can volatilize and create a smoke that sting your eyes and lungs and starts a coughing fit. It’s better on slow cooked meats or things including liquid), whisking it into salad dressings, spreading it on pieces of bread, and stirring it into sauces.
I know that pumpkin, or a similar squash, is used in North African cooking, so I figured I could make a sort of pumpkin tagine with tomato and pieces of chicken. Then I created a garlicky couscous with raisins, nuts, and chunks of preserved lemon to act as a foil to the spicy stew. (Preserved lemon is also a typical addition to North African cuisine, and as I’ve mentioned before, is one of the most amazing flavors out there. If you have not yet taken my advice to either purchase or make some, we may not be on speaking terms any more.) The result was a fabulous culinary voyage, somewhere far far from the the chill of the Boston winter night. But, we all made it back in plenty of time for a little piece of chocolate cake!
Pumpkin and Chicken Tagine with Garlicky Couscous (serves 6)
- olive oil
- 2- 2 1/2 lbs. chicken breasts, cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
- 1 small pumpkin, peeled (yes, you can peel a pumpkin!) seeded, and cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks (should yield about 4 cups)
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 heaping tsp. of harissa paste (harissa is available in some grocery stores and in Middle Eastern specialty store. If you’d like to make your own, try this recipe)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 14-oz can of diced tomatoes
- 2 cups chicken broth (or 2 cans of tomatoes and 1 cup chicken broth)
- a couple of cups of chopped greens of your choice (spinach, chard, kale, or others)
- garlicky couscous (see recipe below)
In a large pot, heat about a Tbs. of olive oil over medium-high until it’s shimmering. Add in half the chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and let it cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is browned. Remove the chicken onto a plate, cover and set aside. Repeat with the second half of the chicken (you don’t want to do it all in once batch because it will be too crowded and will wind up steaming instead of frying!). Add another splash of olive oil to the pot, and toss in the onion and garlic. Stir, and cook for a couple of minutes until they soften, then stir in the harissa and cook for one minute. Add the pumpkin pieces and stir to get them coated with the harissa. Cook for a few more minutes, then pour in the tomatoes, the chicken broth and the salt. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir in the greens, put the cover back on and cook for another 10 minutes. At this point, hopefully the pumpkin should be starting to get soft. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and simmer until the pumpkin can be pierced by a fork, then stir in the chicken and cook for about another 3-5 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Add salt and pepper to taste, then serve the stew in shallow bowls, over the couscous. We discovered that it actually tastes even better the next day, after the flavors have had time to hang out a bit and get to know each other!
- 2 boxes of Israeli (large grain) couscous
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 3 Tbs. garlic, minced
- 3 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- 1 Tbs. chopped preserved lemon (if you absolutely don’t have any, add 2 tsp. of lemon zest, and a Tbs. of lemon juice)
- 1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans or pistachios
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium, stir in the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, until the garlic is golden. Stir in the dry couscous, then add in the chicken broth. Bring to a boil and boil for about 8 minutes, uncovered. Stir in the raisins, turn down to simmer and cook until the couscous is tender and the liquid is evaporated, about another 6 minutes. Once the couscous is tender, remove it from the heat, cover it and let it sit for 4 minutes. Then, stir in the chopped lemon, pecans, and parsley. Serve with the tagine.