Each week as I am deciding on our meal plan for the coming week I ask for input from my family. This is a technique I have used for years not only so that I don’t have come up with every single idea, but also because I have found that if everyone knows that one of their favorites is coming in the next few days, I get more buy-in for trying new or different recipes. For my boys the requests are always the same: spaghetti and meatballs, Grappa’s macaroni and cheese, taco/burrito night, hot dogs, and baked chimichangas. Similarly, my husband has a couple of go-tos that he likes to request and one of them is Moroccan chicken.
As a Jew with Sephardic routes, he has always been very drawn to North African and Middle Eastern foods. He loves (as do I) the spices, the plentiful use of rice, and the balance of savory and sweet. I think for him these flavors resonate very deeply because they remind him of his grandmother and her amazing cooking. She was an amazing woman. When she was only 5 years old her family left Turkey for Argentina, where she grew up in a tightly-knit Sephardic community that continued to cook their traditional foods. Then, in the 50s, she and her husband had to flee the Peron dictatorship and moved, with their two young sons, to Brazil. Restarting her life in a country where she did not speak the language and was a religious minority must have been absolutely terrifying and yet she remained a sweet, loving, and warm woman who expressed much of that love through food. The stories of dinners at her house and the special recipes she made are talked about regularly amongst my husband’s family. Those meals, that food brought their family and community together. It kept the cultural and community ties strong. And so, for my husband, the flavors of North African and Middle Eastern foods are deeply comforting and nourishing, both to the body and the soul—these are his comfort foods. So at this time of year as the days get shorter and colder and we tend to seek out comfort in food, this dish is one of my favorites to make because it is so warming and nourishing and can honor my husband’s family history, too.
This recipe is special enough to be served at a dinner party but simple enough to be made on a weeknight, since much of the time this dish is just left to cook undisturbed. I hope you’ll give it a try and let me know what you think! I’d also love to hear from you: do you have a cuisine or special dish that nourishes you and brings you back to memories of family?
- 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium or large onion, thinly sliced
- 2 ¼ - 2 ½ lbs bone-in chicken thighs
- 2 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 ½ cups basmati rice
- 2 ½ cups water
- ½ cup chopped dried figs (or currants or raisins)
- ¼ cup chopped Italian parsley (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350. Heat 1 Tablespoon of the olive oil in a 4-quart dutch oven over a medium heat. When shimmering, but not smoking, add the onion and cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it has softened and is starting to brown, about 5-7 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, put the chicken on a plate and sprinkle with 1½ teaspoons of the salt and the pepper. Pat it into the skin so it sticks.
- When the onions are ready, remove them from the pot to a small bowl.
- Return the dutch oven to the heat, adding the second 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika, give it a quick stir, and then add the chicken and sear for 5 minutes on both sides (this is important because it starts the cooking process).
- Remove the chicken from the pot, add in the garlic, and let it cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add in the rice and give it a good stir so that all of the rice gets coated in the oil. Then add the onion, chopped figs, last teaspoon of salt, and water and stir well. Turn the heat up to high and bring the water to a boil.
- When it has come to a boil, turn the heat off and place the chicken in, on top of the rice, skin side up. Put the lid on the dutch oven and move it to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, check to make sure the liquid is all absorbed. If not, remove the lid and let it cook for 5 more minutes. When all the liquid is absorbed and the chicken is cooked through, remove from the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes, with the lid on. Serve with chopped Italian parsley.