This is a story of an obscure ingredient, and what it means to me.
Nap Week began my freshman year of college. My roommate and I would designate a few weeks each semester and forbid ourselves to go to class. (I know that my parents are some of my only readers so, to you guys, I apologize for Nap Week. It was dumb, and a waste of the wonderful opportunity I had to go to college. It was also not the dumbest thing I did that year, and I apologize for all the dumber things, too.) But Nap Week was the bestttttttt. We got one of those weeklong memberships at the Blockbuster down the street from our dorm, the kind where you could rent three movies at a time and you could trade in your three as often as you wanted. And then we basically just holed up, hanging out and fake tanning for days at a time. We watched entire seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and Desperate Housewives. We ate jalapeno cheetos and drank gigantic Dr. Peppers from the 7-11 down the street. We wondered why we were getting fat. (Um, hello, duh.)
One thing that we watched, every single Nap Week, was my roommate’s favorite movie, Batman Begins. She loved Christian Bale. Her favorite scene was the one after he gets in shape, but before he’s properly Batman, when he falls into doing pushups. I have seen that scene at least a million times. I actually really liked the movie. (Comic book nerds and everyone with good taste everywhere will cringe when I say, it was pretty good. And also, the first Batman movie I ever saw.) The evil villain decides to make the citizens of Gotham tear each other apart by releasing a hallucinogenic toxin through the water system and then using a stolen vaporizer to release the toxin into the air. The villain’s name is Ra’s Al Ghul and he was totally creepy.
A few years later, when I first started looking into moroccan cooking, I stumbled upon the spice blend known as ras el hanout. Guess what was the first thing I thought about? You got it. Christian Bale doing push ups and creepy ol’ Liam Neeson. Always happy to find an excuse to revisit Michael Caine in a coat and tails, I watched a few clips and decided to pick up some of this obscure moroccan spice blend.
I wish I could say that what happened next is I discovered Morgan Freeman working in my basement and we worked together to save my city from an evil mastermind. I got a cool spelunking suit that made me fly, and my voice turned weird and gravely, but authoritative. What actually happened was I made some chicken. But it was some really good chicken. Same-same but different?
Usually, I would advise treading lightly when buying new spices. It is easy to get excited about, oh say, juniper berries, and then suddenly a year has gone by and you realize that you have a ton of stupid juniper berries and you open them up and your Roommate gags because UGH they smell like gin and ever since that one-night-in-college she hates gin and WTF are you supposed to do with all those juniper berries now?
This spice isn’t like that. At least, I have found that ras el hanout is universally loved. And this recipe will earn its way into your rotation — I served it to four friends last weekend. Someone didn’t do her background research before picking her menu, and it turns out two of those friends don’t eat olives and one doesn’t like chicken. But they all liked this dish! Which was a Dinner Party Miracle.
- 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1 onion, sliced into thin rings
- ¼ c. water (I used whey leftover from my homemade ricotta and it made everything ... creamier)
- 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 large handful garlic-stuffed green olives
- 1 T. res al hanout
- ¼ preserved lemon, minced (but not rinsed -- I just let this salt the whole dish which a good, if borderline salty, decision. If you don't like salty things, I would rinse the lemons and add a pinch or two of salt to the chicken mix before it starts cooking.)
- 3 T. olive oil
- Handful of parsley, for serving
- 2 cups cooked rice, for serving
- Layer the chicken and onions in a pot with a tight-fitting lid (like a tagine, if you have one, which I don't. I used a dutch oven and it was great.) Pour the water or whey over the chicken and onions. Sprinkle the garlic, olives, res al hanout, preserved lemon, and olive oil on top. Cover and turn the heat up to medium high; simmer for 25 minutes, stirring once about half way through to redistribute the spices, olives, and lemons. The onions will sweat out liquid, and you should get quite a bit in the pot. If the liquid ever looks like it's boiling, turn down the heat until it's just simmering. You don't want to boil the chicken for any long period of time.
- Once the chicken is cooked through, serve over rice with a handful of parsley.