Djaj Bil Kastal Wal Barkok: Chicken With Chestnuts And Prunes

I’m a feeder.  It’s just in my genes, and I really can’t help that.  Five minutes after you’ve stepped foot inside my house it’s a guarantee that you’ll have a drink in your right hand and a plate of food in your left.  Such is the result of being born with both the Lebanese and Scandinavian hospitalities flowing through my veins.  An old friend once used to say about my ethnic heritage, “She’ll love you to death…..and then she’ll kill you.”  I don’t know which part of my half-breed self the latter statement referred to, so I just focus on the first part and laugh nervously until someone changes the topic.

It’s a good thing though, to enjoy entertaining, especially for this season.  December is usually a write-off for me, and almost every weekend is booked from late October straight through until mid-January – before Thanksgiving has come to pass….and that’s CANADIAN Thanksgiving, unfortunately.  By the time that we’re in the midst of January storms and the snow keeps us barricaded and unable to get out of our driveways for 24 hours or more, I’m actually usually quite delighted with the uncommon respite of having no option but to sloth-out on the couch for three (3!) eight hour intervals.

In the last three weeks we have hosted plenty of dinners and houseguests, for about 30 people all told – which really isn’t too bad if you break that up over 3 weeks.  Also, if you didn’t catch the first part, I love entertaining and having company over.  This past weekend we had two of my very near and dear girlfriends (Al and Nanco) and their partners over for a few days.  I do love those ladies like water, and we really try and make a concerted effort to get together a few times per year – which is no small feat when there is a 4.5h and a 12h drive between us.  But that’s friendship, right?  It doesn’t matter how far the drive (or flight) is, you make it happen.

The other thing that I adore is flexible eaters.  Don’t get me wrong, we all have that friend who is gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, allergic to anything green and only eats foods which start with the letter ‘P’….and of COURSE they can’t touch.  I don’t mind, because it pushes me to try new things and step outside of my comfort zone of go-to dishes. However, it’s also nice to have people over that you don’t need to worry about.  There are no glaring food allergies or restrictions, they’ll try just about anything, and they’re happy to experience a new cuisine or flavor combination.  Such was the case with my ladies last weekend.  We brainstormed on what they felt like having for dinner on Saturday night, and the general consensus was, “….meh, whatever.”  So we condensed that to a choice of Indian, Italian, Moroccan or Thai….and then down to Moroccan or Thai.  Moroccan won, so that’s what I’ll be posting about this week.

Djaj Bil Kastal Wal Barkok is a combination of two of my favorite Moroccan chicken dishes:  Chicken with chestnuts, and chicken with prunes.  There are a lot of anti-prune folk out there, but I think that’s unfortunate.  Prunes have so much more merit than their nursing-home affiliations would have you believe. They’re sweet and toothsome with a nice rich flavor and such a glorious color.  It’s really a shame to cancel them out of your repertoire just because of the whole dentures and toilet paper thing.

Djaj Bil Kastal Wal Barkok

Serves 8-ish, or thereabouts

For the chicken:

  • 12 assorted bone-in chicken pieces with skin*
  • 3 + 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cinammon sticks
  • 1 cup (~200 g) prunes
  • 1 cup (~200 g) cooked chestnuts **
  • 1 tbsp cumin 
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp crushed coriander
For the couscous:     

  • 2.5 cups couscous
  • 2.5 cups water
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 medium red onion
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1/2 small handful of fresh mint
  • 1 small handful of parsley
  • 19 oz can chickpeas (optional)
  • 1/2 cup pinenuts

* Dark meat works particularly well for this dish, and I used 4 thighs, 6 drumsticks, and 2 breasts.

** You can roast the chestnuts yourself or buy the ones which are vacuum sealed from the grocery store.  Just please stay away from the tinned ones, those things are ungodly.  Also, chestnut puree is NOT what you’re looking for, we want the whole chestnut or chestnut pieces if need be.

Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil on medium high heat in your Dutch oven or very large heavy bottomed skillet.  When it is sizzling and dangerously hot, place 4 chicken pieces (skin side DOWN) into the pan and brown them.  Turn the pieces over after a minute or two and sear the other side.  Remove the browned pieces to a plate and let them rest.

Please note that the intention is not to cook the meat, just to sear it and seal in all of the juices.  If you feel like your chicken is starting to cook through, take them off immediately and turn up the heat to cook them on a higher temperature for a shorter time.  Also, oil splatters.  Hot oil, particularly so.  Please use caution and if you have a splatter-guard, this would be a good time to pull it out.

Repeat the process (using 1 tbsp of oil each time) for the next 2 batches until all of the chicken is nicely browned.

Chop the onion into a thinnish quarter inch dice and mince the garlic.  Have you noticed that I never take a picture of the onion chopping in progress?  I know.  There are 2 reasons for that:

1) Onion chopping is the bane of my existence, and despite the fact that kindly people and the Food network have tried to educated me on every trick in the book for how to do this efficiently and easily, I fail every time and end up desperately trying to manage the onion as (horrifically large) pieces fall off accidentally and stray layers sway in the breeze and avoid my knife altogether, seemingly on purpose.

2)  Onions don’t make me cry.  They make me WEEP.  It’s a good 10 minutes after chopping an onion before I can see straight again.  And trying to do this underwater (see point 1.  Who came up with this idea?!) doesn’t help, and lighting a candle is only rudimentarily better.

Turn the heat on the Dutch oven down to low and give it some time for the metal to let go of that residual heat.  When things are calmer, drop in the two tablespoons of butter and 1 tbsp of olive oil.  Very gently caramelize the onions and garlic using low heat for a long period of time.  Stirring the onions occasionally, let them slowly cook down until they’re a nice golden brown color, and deliciously soft and sweet.  This will take at least 1/2 an hour and up to 45 minutes.

In the picture below, the onions seem a bit light.  They’re not, I’m just a bad photographer.  They are (and should be a nice soft brown color.

Sprinkle the spices over the onions and give everything a nice stir to combine.  Drop in the cinnamon sticks and layer the chicken over top of everything, starting with the breasts on the bottom.  Add in the chicken stock (I actually used homemade for once!  Wheeeeee! I feel like I’m growing as a person.) and cover the dish.  Raise the heat up slightly (to a medium low instead of low) and let this cook away undisturbed for 25 minutes.

After 25 minutes have elapsed, give everything a quick stir and check on the breasts.  Are they just about cooked through?  If so, take them out and tent them loosely with foil as the rest of the chicken keeps on cooking.  Let it simmer away for an additional 15 minutes with the lid on.

Now the chicken is almost entirely cooked through.  Season with salt and pepper to taste before dropping in the chestnuts and prunes as well as the chicken breasts which were removed.  Close the lid, and let this continue to cook for an additional 10 minutes.  

As the chicken finishes cooking, it’s a good time to start on the couscous.  And please ignore the chicken stock in the background, it’s just that sometimes counter space is at a bit of a premium.

Chop the dried apricots up into 1/4 inch chunks.  In a medium large bowl, combine the dry couscous, apricots, raisins and allspice.  Put about 3 cups of water on to boil, just to be on the safe side.

When the water is boiling, add 2.5 cups to the couscous mixture, give it a quick and perfunctory stir, and cover the dish with saran wrap or tight fitting tin foil.  I like to season the couscous with salt and pepper at this point (note:  couscous LOVES salt and pepper, so please don’t be stingy) but if you’re a bit nervous then you can do it at the end.  Let this sit for at least 5 minutes to absorb all of the water.

I’ve read many recipes before which ask you to boil or steam the couscous (sometimes twice) and I can’t even imagine that.  The couscous that I have would end up looking like polenta.  Most couscous that you buy in a North American supermarket does not require a long cooking process.  That doesn’t mean that it’s labelled “Quick Couscous”,  it just….the standard, I suppose.  I find that the best way to avoid overcooked couscous (particularly when you’re using it as a vehicle for saucy dishes so you don’t want to encourage too much moisture to gather) is just to add an equal amount of boiled water, cover/seal it, and let it absorb the heat and moisture while you work on other things. 

Speaking of other things, chop the red onion into a very thin and fine mince, and chop the red pepper into an 1/8 inch dice.

Add the red onion and pepper to the couscous and give it a good stir to break up any clumps and make sure that everything is evenly incorporated.  

Chop the mint and parsley as finely as you can and add them to the mix.  If you have not yet adjusted the salt and pepper, do so now.

Taste the flavorful broth that the chicken was cooking away in, and adjust the seasonings if necessary.

To serve the dish, pile up a mound of couscous with a well in the center.  Snuggle the chicken into the well and pour some of the sauce around it.  Sprinkle on the pine nuts, and enjoy your delicious Moroccan meal.

The heady aroma of cinnamon, garlic and spice is practically intoxicating.  That’s one of the reasons that I love Moroccan food so much, because it’s a sensory feast straight through the cooking preparation.

The chicken is fall off the bone tender, as braised chicken is wont to be.  

Oh, good lord.  It’s so simple, really, but delicious….and a little bit different. We all have our recipes for braised chicken, roasted chicken, and whatnot.  But with chestnuts?  And prunes?  And cinnamon?  And DELICIOUSNESS?!!!!  Just sayin’……

More Moroccan recipes to come!!

  • Jam

    Looks gorgeous!

    If you can wrangle the timzones, by the way, you might want to try Allegra McEvedy’s cookalongs— it’s a two-person job, one to stir the pot and one to hit refresh on the blogpage, take pictures and frantically leave comments like “Do we put the saffron in now?” or “is it meant to be steaming?”

  • Nanco

    This dish was fantastic, as were all the accompaniments. Thank you again for a super fun (and very tasty) weekend!

    I’ve bookmarked this site for my mom, so you have one more loyal reader!

  • noble pig

    I am the same way, I’ll stuff you to death with food. My husband is considering canceling his Life insurance becuase he’s convinced I’m trying to faten him to death! Ha! This looks delicious, just delicious.

  • dirtykitchensecrets

    That’s too funny! I have the same reputation as you do… and I’m lebanese! It’s totally a lebanese thing! Looks delish! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Mike

    15 pounds in less than 12 months, people. I used to be a runner! Now all I run for is the gravy to put in my coffee.

  • Ivy

    It seems it’s in the Mediterranean to be hospitable. I have been drooling reading all way through your recipe. It has all the ingredients I like in, prunes, chestnuts, cinnamon and of course chicken. I just copied your recipe. I wish you had a printable recipe option on your site.

  • Gill

    I don’t know if anyone’s ever mentioned this trick for the onion-crying, but it totally works for me. I just wear my swim goggles. It gives me a faint red line around my eyes, and my roommates tease me mercilessly, but no pain and no tears!
    Love your site.

  • Tina

    Jam – Thank you! And that blog sounds hilarious, I’ll check it out for sure!

    Nanco – I adore you, and it was so great that you guys were able to come down this weekend!! The Rock Band was priceless, I wish I had taken some video. Also, HI MRS. S!!!!

    Noble Pig – Mike is also convinced that I’m trying to fatten him up!! Which might be true, he’s still far to lean to roast over a spit in the back yard.

    Dirtykitchensecrets – So true! It must be something in the blood….

    Mike – I put on and take off 15 pounds in the average month. And you always look good to me 😉

    Ivy – we DO have printable recipes on the site!! There’s a little icon on the left side, just below the date and author. Sadly the recipes still have my meandering dialogues, but it spares you the pictures if nothing else.

    Gill – I am utterly shameless and the thought of public ridicule is rarely enough to stop me, but the swimming goggles actually didn’t work for me!! First I tried safety glasses (total waste of time) and then the goggles. I couldn’t see particularly well and ended up snipping off two of my finger nails in the process (and promptly threw out the violated onions) but still wept like making dinner was a cataclysmic tragedy that I would never recover from. If only Visine made anti-onion drops…..

  • Kristie

    My special trick is to wear contact lenses. I put them in and leave them in, and about every three months I have one night where I take them out, throw them away, sleep BLIND, and then put in a new pair in the morning. The virtue of this is that I’ve been doing it since 8th grade, and my eyes are pretty much unchanged. Also, the contact kind of hermetically seals to your eyeball, making a wall that onion fumes can’t penetrate. So I never cry when cutting onions.

    My contact habits appall Chris, who regularly states that I have to get Lasik soon, but he doesn’t intervene or discuss any further than that on account of he’s absolutely terrified of eyeballs. And feet.

    Oh, and your dinner looks awesome. I love prunes so much, but every time I buy them at the supermarket, I always feel like the cashier is staring at me and thinking “OMG, I bet she totally poops.” And I don’t, for the record.

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  • [eatingclub] vancouver || js

    Flexible eaters, yes. Nothing makes me happier than feeding people who appreciate different flavours and cuisines and who eat mostly everything. Or at least, will eat to try even if they don’t wholly like it. Unfortunately, flexible eaters are diminishing in numbers, I fear.

    I would gladly eat this dish: it looks delish.

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