Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tajin al Dajaj wil Couscous

The term "tajin" may bring to mind cylindrical stewing pots common throughout North Africa (with a similar vessel found in Cyprus) but here it simply means "stewed" or "braised" as in, Stewed Chicken with Couscous. And of course the cooking pot is actually spelled "tajine" or "tagine" but the idea is the same: meat (or vegetables) cooked slowly in order to break down connective tissue and make the chosen ingredient melt like butter. But enough of that, this recipe also has couscous, which I adore but don't use too often. Rice is the staple starch here in the Middle East (though bread is a close second) while couscous is the national food of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria - a North African food. The particular recipe I am sharing today is from Egypt, that land which oddly straddles the fence between Africa and the Middle East. This is not the place for arguments on geographical and cultural identities (though I do find it intriguing that both of my cookbooks include Egypt at the expense of the rest of North Africa, though they are similarly Muslim and Arabicized, which practically shouts at the insistence of Egypt to be identified with the Middle East rather then (black) Africa) so suffice it to say that until I receive my requested Moroccan cookbook for Christmas there won't be much couscous on this site.

All right, I can't resist: I am one of those Africanists who believe that North Africa is part of Africa as a whole regardless of distinct cultural differences, but taking into account shared geography and history.

Also a note on dates: I read once that Medjool dates are "the most prized of all dates." Boo. I don't like dates that are overly soft and sweet, which Medjool dates tend to be. In Kuwait I mainly eat the dates you see pictured above because they are a bit more firm (albeit still soft) and with a barely sweet, almost starchy flavor. I know them as Saudi dates but they look similar to Empress dates. However, these are some of the cheapest dates you can find here so I highly doubt they are an import from California. They look like the dates that grow from the date palms along the roads so I imagine they are local. My verbose point is: the firm and starchy quality works perfectly in this dish because they don't break down and they compliment the chicken rather than overpowering it.

And because I seem to be rambling on today, that's all I am going to say other than the chicken comes out meltingly tender and the overall flavor is so simple, yet so delicious. Hearty and warming, which makes it especially wonderful for those of you currently living in colder climes.

Tajin al Dajaj wil Couscous (slightly modified)
 The Middle Eastern Cookbook

2 1/2lb chicken drumsticks, skinned
1/2tsp black pepper

1tsp cumin
1/2tsp chili powder
1/4cup vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2tsp cornstarch dissolved in 2cups water
1 cinnamon stick

12 fresh dates, pitted

1tbsp lemon juice
1/2cup chopped blanched almonds, toasted, to garnish (optional)

1. Combine the chicken with the pepper, cumin and chili powder. Cover and marinate for 2 hours in the fridge.

2. Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed pot and cook the chicken drumsticks until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside. (May have to do this in batches.)

3. Heat the oil again in the same pan, add the onion and cook until transparent. Return the chicken to the pan and stir in the cornstarch and cinnamon stick. Cover and simmer gently for 40 minutes, until chicken is tender.

4. Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using chicken of vegetable stock instead of plain water.

5. When chicken is cooked add the dates and lemon juice to the pan and cook for a further 5 minutes. Transfer the couscous to a serving dish, place chicken and sprinkle with toasted almonds (if using.)

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