Moroccan night in the little red kitchen. My very dear friend Robert leaving town for a year and a half and a few other friends thrown in to make it a proper little dinner party. The menu: Bisteeya (Moroccan chicken pie), couscous with mint and a little Moroccan salad on the side. Terrifying. The first time I had Bisteeya was at The Sultan’s Tent in Calgary over eleven years ago. Sadly, I’ve heard it’s since closed down, but it was an epic five course, four hour feast that I’ve never forgotten. I distinctly remember tasting coriander for the first time and how strange it was that carrots tasted so good with cinnamon. Robert was there that night and was so excited for me to try the bisteeya (Bastille Royale it was called on that menu). He had tried to explain what it was, but when I heard the words “chicken” and “icing sugar” in the same sentence, I sort of shut down (I was young, and still reeling from the coriander). I was so wrong. So don’t be scared. It’ll take a few hours, you’ll sweat, you’ll swear, but everyone will adore it. And if they don’t, they’ll lie when you tell them it took you four hours to make it.
Tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper salad
This salad is perfect. Perfectly healthy, perfectly tasty. And not the kind of salad you eat when you feel guilty because you haven’t eaten anything green in a week. You’ll want seconds, possibly thirds. It’s that good. From a cookbook that I bought a few years back called Fresh Moroccan by Nada Saleh (Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2006)
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
4 mint leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, sliced into thin rings
1 lb tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1/2 small cucumber, unpeeled and diced
handful finely chopped parsley
pinch black pepper (optional)
To make the dressing, put the garlic, salt and mint in a mortar and pound with a pestle until creamy. Gradually incorporate the lemon juice and oil. Put the onions, tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber and parsley in a salad bowl and sprinkle with pepper, if using. Add the dressing and toss well before serving.
Don’t hurry it and skip out on the mortar and pestle bit. The garlic, salt and mint really does get creamy when you pound it all together, it’s kind of fun. I chopped everything and put it in the fridge, tossing it with the dressing right before serving. I was pretty pleased with myself at this point. You know, that I had chopped a few vegetables and made it all seem so serious by breaking out the mortar and pestle. I thought that maybe I’d even have time to shower after I popped the chicken pie in the oven. Silly.
Bisteeya (Moroccan Chicken Pie)
200 g (6 1/2 oz) butter
1.5 kg (3 lb) chicken, cut into 4 portions
1 large onion
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads soaked in 2 tablespoons warm water
1/2 cup chicken stock
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup chopped almonds
3 tablespoons icing sugar, plus extra, for dusting
375 g (12 oz) filo pastry
Preheat the oven to moderate, 350 F. Grease a 30 cm (12 inch) pizza tray. Melt 40 g (1 1/4 oz) of the butter in a large frying pan, add the chicken, onion, 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, all the other spices and the chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken from the sauce. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, discard the skin and bones and shred the meat into thin strips.
Bring the liquid in the pan to a simmer and add the eggs. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until the eggs are cooked and the mixture is quite dry. Add the chicken, chopped coriander and parsley, season well with salt and pepper and mix. Remove from the heat. Bake the almonds on a baking tray until golden brown. Cool slightly, then blend in a food processor or spice grinder with the icing sugar and remaining cinnamon until they resemble coarse crumbs.
Melt the remaining butter. Place a sheet of filo on the pizza tray and brush with melted butter. Place another sheet on top in a pinwheel effect and brush with butter. Continue brushing and layering until you have used 8 sheets. Place the chicken mixture on top and sprinkle with the almond mixture.
Fold the overlapping filo over the top of the filling. Place a sheet of filo over the top and brush with butter, continuing to layer buttered filo over the top in the same pinwheel effect until you have used 8 sheets. Tuck the overhanging edges over the pie to form a neat round parcel. Brush well with the remaining butter. Bake the pie for 40-45 minutes until cooked through and golden. Dust with icing sugar before serving.
(From a little red kitchen favourite, The Essential Mediterranean Cookbook, Bay Books, 2005)
By far the best meal of 2011. The kind of meal where it gets all quiet around the table and everyone just looks at each other. Making the four hours worth it, of course. Served with minted couscous (dead simple, follow the instructions on the box, use broth instead of water if you like, then toss in some fresh chopped mint) and the salad on the side. I didn’t blend the almonds, cinnamon and sugar…no time, no spice grinder, just tossed them together. I froze the leftover skin and bones (that sounds so gross) to make a saffrony type chicken broth. That was a few weeks ago and just took it out last night to make a broth for a chicken, potato, sausage, chickpea stew-type concoction. At ten bucks a pop for about two tablespoons of saffron, you’re going to want to get all the bang for your buck that you can. Stew was great and I felt very resourceful. And it made the little red kitchen smell like Moroccan night all over again. Nice.