chicken ambition

Since it’s still resolution season, and my commitment to be a faster runner (which I should note has been my New Year’s resolution since I was five) has already been dashed by a bad cold, I have a brand new gimmick for 2011: 40 ways to cook a chicken.

I thought about doing a new chicken recipe every week for the whole year, but let’s be realistic. A chicken every single week? That’s a bit much. But last year I averaged over two posts per week, even though I didn’t post a single thing in the month of December (oops), so it seems like 40 chickens might be a good goal.

My favorite thing is recipes that start with a whole chicken, so I’m going to try to stick with those (none of this buying of bits of chicken flesh on styrofoam nonsense). A friend suggested that I call this new initiative “bitchin’ chickens” but I’m not sure if that sounds nice. All of this is not important. What is important is that you send me suggestions of your favorite chicken recipes for me to try out, combine, adapt, or dress up, and also that you read on for Chicken Number 1, Chicken Rafisa, which is maybe the best type of Moroccan-style chicken. Spiced with saffron and fenugreek and served with lentils and delicious flaky pastry-like flatbread, Rafisa a special-occasion dish in Morocco, and if you take the time to prepare one you’ll see why. It requires a few specialty ingredients, but it’s one of the few recipes I make regularly that does because it’s that tasty…

first chicken of 2011

I am also going to try to emphasize, from time to time, recipes that are especially good for making in large batches and then freezing for later. These types of recipes are especially good for grad students, young people who love to cook but live alone and are tired of the challenges of cooking small portions, or really anyone who finds it hard to make the time to cook every day but wants to eat more home-cooked meals. I’ll mark recipes that are ripe for freezing or preserving with a “save it for later” tag. The chicken is actually part of the inspiration for this feature: one of the reasons I love cooking whole chickens (apart from the fact that it’s more cost-effective and way tastier) is that unless I’m cooking it for a dinner party, it generally provides enough meat for several snacks, lunches and dinners throughout a week. After the first go round I like to take all the meat off the bones and store it in tupperware along with sauce and toppings, use the bones to make some extra stock, and munch on the leftovers for the next few days.

Chicken Number 1:
Moroccan Chicken Rafisa
adapted from Christine Benlafquih’s recipe on

You will need:

For the chicken:

1 chicken, quartered
3-4 medium onions, sliced thinly
1/3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
1 tablespoon ginger
2 teaspoons ras al hanut (if you don’t have any, you can substitute cumin)
1 teaspoon turmeric

For the lentils:
1/2 cup uncooked lentils
2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (available at Middle Eastern or South Asian food stores)
1 teaspoon saffron threads, heated briefly and crumbled
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
3 cups water
1 teaspoon smen or ghee (available at Middle Eastern or South Asian food stores)

For the msimmen (flatbread):
3 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup semolina
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup additional semolina
1/2 cup butter at room temperature

heating saffron threads for just a minute will help them crumble and dissolve into your dish


The night before:
Soak the fenugreek seeds in water in a bowl.

Take a large stock pot and spray the bottom with cooking spray or coat with olive oil.

Place the chicken in the pot and top with the onions, olive oil, salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric, and ras el hanut. Massage everything into the chicken (like you mean it), cover, and set in the fridge to marinate.

spice is nice

The day of:
Place the pot on medium-high heat, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the lentils, drained fenugreek, saffron, parsley, cilantro, and three cups of water. Cover and simmer for an additional hour.

Meanwhile, make the msimmen:

Mix the dry ingredients (flour, semolina, sugar, salt, and yeast) in a bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups of warm water (warm enough to hold your fingers in it for 10 seconds but no longer) and mix, eventually kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky. Add flour if necessary.

Divide the dough into small balls, about 2 inches in diameter, and lay them out on an oiled surface (like a cookie sheet).

With oiled hands, take a ball and roll it to a thin consistency. Dot the dough with small bits of butter, sprinkle it with semolina, fold it in thirds (first like an envelope, then into a small square), and roll it out flat again, till it’s about twice its folded size.

Repeat with all the balls of dough, then cook on a griddle or a nonstick pan, a minute or two on each side.

After an hour or so, check to make sure the chicken is cooked and adjust seasoning to taste. Add the smen/ghee and mix well. Cook for five more minutes before serving.

To serve, tear up bits of the finished msimmen and layer the bottom of a large serving dish with them. Arrange the chicken and lentils on top and drizzle with leftover sauce. Reserve a cup or so of the extra sauce to serve with the dish.


2 thoughts on “chicken ambition

  1. My mouth waters at just the mention of rafisa. Thanks for the recipe. I am making this ASAP. And I will send you some chicken recipes.

    Hope DC life and grad school are treating you well!

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