Ain't life grand? It's been a while since I've sat down to write about something yummy I've created for my family simply because I've been preoccupied with life. This past year has been quite the adventure, full of uncharted waters and wonderful surprises. I had the honour of walking my oldest daughter down the aisle, held my first grandchild, (AMAZING by the way), and started a new business venture. It's been a trip!
While I'm not in the habit of making New Year's Resolutions, I did make a promise to myself to make more time for ME, to do more of the things that bring me happiness, peace and joy and for me, that meant get back to exploring new flavours and cuisines, creating new dishes and sharing those creations in the hopes of inspiring others. My friends and family often amuse at how animate and passionate I become when talking about food and cooking. Cooking is my passion, my creative outlet and I truly believe, if you approach cooking with passion, the love comes through on the plate and that's an ingredient they don't stock on the grocery store shelves!
One night last week, I stood in my kitchen staring at a tray of boneless chicken breasts, my blank convas. I wanted to create something that would transport me to a far away, exotic and intriguing land. Immediately Morocco came to mind. I've never been to Morocco, but it is on my bucket list. However, the movie 'Casablanca' is one of my all time favourites and while technically set in Morocco pre-World War II, it was actually completely filmed on a set in California. But I digress. I had my inspiration.
It was a miserable cold, wintery day outside and the last thing I wanted to do was to haul on my snow boots, winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves, start up the car, scrape an inch of ice and snow off of all of the windows and drive in a cold car to the grocery store. Surely I had to have enough seasonings on hand to transform bland chicken breasts into a jubilee of flavours that would belly dance on my tongue! (OK, so belly dancing is more Middle Eastern and Arabian than Moroccan but Moroccan cuisine is highly influenced by it's interactions with other cultures and nations over the centuries and it's typically a mix of Mediterranean, Arabic, Andalusian and Berber, so I'm going with it!)
A mixture of a wide range of spices is used extensively in Moroccan food, such as saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, pepper, paprika, sesame seed, coriander, mace, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, oregano, cayenne pepper and bay laurel. In fact, there is a widely celebrated Moroccan spice mixture, ras el hanout, that is a combination of no less than 27 spices!
Off to the spice cupboard I went and I took out cumin, paprika, ginger, cinnamon and, in the absence of cayenne pepper, chili powder. I hesitated at the garlic powder and decided I'd use fresh garlic instead. I also decided that I wanted my Baked Moroccan Spiced Chicken Breasts to cook on a higher heat for a lower amount of time than I usually would do, so I decided to make my spice combination more of a Wet Moroccan Spice Rub than a dry mixture of seasoning. In a small bowl I combined 2 tsp ground cumin, 2 tsp paprika, 2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp chili powder, 1/4 tsp kosher salt, 2 Tbsp olive oil, and 2 cloves of garlic, minced. This is how it looked:
Already my kitchen was smelling pretty darn yummy! I spooned about 1/4 of the Wet Moroccan Spice Rub onto each of the four chicken breasts. Then came the fun part....adding the love! I gently massaged the rub into every nook and cranny of each chicken breasts, making sure they were all completely coated. Here are my 'loved' Moroccan Chicken breasts before they were cooked:
I covered the plate of rubbed and loved chicken breasts with plastic wrap and placed them in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to marinate. I'm sure you could marinate the chicken breasts for longer and in my limited experience, the longer something marinates, the more flavour-infused it becomes, but I was working with some time restraints and the 20 minutes I allotted, worked just fine!
While the chicken breasts were in the refrigerator. I pondered my options for side dishes and then it struck me: nothing says Morocco more than couscous! Over the summer I had purchased a cold Moroccan Couscous salad to serve with rotisserie chicken and everyone loved it so I decided I'd try my hand on a warm Moroccan Couscous side dish. The thing that stuck out in my memory of the cool couscous side salad was that it was blend of savory shallots and dried fruit. So I decided I'd chop up some dried fruit and finely chop a couple of shallots. I usually always have couscous in my cupboard simply because it is so easy to make on a moment's notice. I always opt for couscous that simply gets added to boiling water or broth rather than a boil in the bag variety. As for the dried fruit, once again, rather than haul on my winter duds, I decided to use what I had on hand. I had a container of mixed dried fruit that had apricots, prunes, peaches, pears and apples. I took out a small handful of apricots, prunes and peaches and diced them up small and then I set all of my ingredients to one side. Couscous literally only takes 5 minutes to make and there was no point in having it all ready before the chicken was even in the oven.
Some time ago, I saw a chef on one of those cooking shows cook chicken breasts in the oven on a very high heat for 20 minutes. He said the chicken breasts would be cooked through but still moist. Now was my time to test that theory or point of view. I took my chicken out of the refrigerator and placed them on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and preheated my oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Being dubious of the 20 minute cooking time, I actually left my Moroccan Spiced Chicken Breasts in the oven for 25 minutes.
I then moved on to my Moroccan Style Couscous. In a medium size saucepan over medium high heat, I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil was hot, I added the shallots and sauteed them for 1-2 minutes until the shallots were soft and fragrant. I then added in the chopped dried fruit and gave them a quick saute before adding 1 and 1/4 cup of no salt added chicken broth and brought it to a boil. (The brand of couscous that I was using directed using 1 and 1/4 cup liquid: 1 cup of dry couscous, but follow your package directions). I usually use a broth when making couscous instead of water just because I believe it adds a little more flavour, but in the absence of broth, water works perfectly well.
Here's the beauty part of couscous: once the liquid comes to a boil, simply add in the couscous, give it a quick stri, put a cover on the pot, remove it from the heat and let it stand! Prior to serving, simply use a fork or spoon to stir the cooked couscous and serve! Easy right?
So, there I was, couscous all ready to go, chicken in the oven, when I decided I'd like a little sauce for the meal.Rather than trying to figure something completely different out on the fly, I decided to make a sauce using the recipe for my Wet Moroccan Spice Rub, add a little sauteed shallots and prunes, saute that all up and then add in some no salt added chicken broth. I heated a tablespoon of olive oil in a small nonstick skillet, sauteed two finely chopped shallots for a couple of minutes, whipped another batch of wet spice rub, tossed that into the pan and let it cook out a little bit, threw in some diced dried prunes and added about a cup of no salt addd chicken broth. I brought all of that to a simmering boil and let it reduce and thicken until I was ready to serve. Here's the before and after:
In no time, my Baked Moroccan Spiced Chicken Breasts were ready to come out of the oven and let me just say, the aroma that filled my kitchen by this point was absolutely amazing!! I kid you not, it had my family coming to the table without me having to call out to a single one of them!
Here's the chicken fresh out of the oven:
Tell me that doesn't look delicious! Are you kidding me? I let the chicken breasts cool for a couple of minutes, (and I will admit that my fear of undercooked chicken and subsequently having to jockey with the rest of the family for a spot around the toilet for the evening, forced me to slice into the chicken to make sure the juice ran clear, which they did), before slicing each breasts width-wise to serve.
To serve, I spooned some of the Moroccan Style Couscous onto the plate, placed a sliced Baked Moroccan Spiced Chicken Breast around the couscous and spooned a little of the Moroccan Spiced Sauce over the chicken.
This Baked Moroccan Spiced Chicken Breasts with Moroccan Style Couscous and Moroccan Spiced Sauce was even more delicious on the tongue than it was beautiful on the plate! The spice combination took the chicken from bland to 'ya salam', or amazing,! The couscous with it's juxtaposition of savory and fruity was the absolute perfect side dish while the sauce added another layer of wonderful to the palate.
From start to finish, this whole meal can be prepared in under 50 minutes. If you season and marinate the chicken breasts well ahead of time, you can have an exotic dish on the table in under 30 minutes. Even chicken nuggets and fries takes longer than that to cook!
When you think about it, this dish is very low in sodium, fat and salt and while it tastes indulgent, it's actually loaded with goodness, which is just the way I like it! Nothing wrong with a little stealth health!