Wednesday 1 December 2010

Feeding a crowd: North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad

Expecting a crowd this festive season? Here's a bountiful salad crammed with deep flavours, interesting textures and the sunny, spicy flavours of North Africa.  It's the first recipe in a series I'll be running between now and Christmas, containing my favourite crowd-pleasing dishes.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
I'm such a fan of big, generous salads, those wonderful meals-in-one that you can prepare in advance and dish up in gargantuan portions to the festive hordes. And let's face it: not many who live in the Southern Hemisphere feel like sitting down to a rib-sticking hot meal in the sultriest days of December. (Although, because I and two of my three sisters are married to men from England, Wales and Scotland respectively, we always pull out the stops and come together on Christmas Eve to produce a ham, a turkey with several stuffings, and the obligatory roast spuds, gravy, minted peas, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, and so on.)

But back to salads. Over the past  few decades, salads have become simpler, fresher and lighter -  my own idea of a perfect salad, for example, is fresh, peppery rocket and watercress dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and Parmesan - but there are times I miss the abundant salads we ate as children and teens in the Seventies & Eighties.

This was the age of the square-meal salad, when a Proper Salad contained a bewildering salmagundi of ingredients: all the usual crunchy greens, plus bacon, cheese, avocado, nuts, seeds, peas, mushrooms, pasta, tuna, chicken, olives, onion rings, boiled potatoes, anchovies, and so on. And if that wasn't enough, a salad of this sort was topped with croutons, parsley, chives, a garlicky dressing and home-made mayonnaise - everything, in fact, but the kitchen sink.  It usually came in a big perspex-like bowl (which grew cloudy over time) or a shining wooden salad dish, with carved salad spoons to match.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
I quite often make salads like this for my family, using a shop-bought roast chicken and anything I find lying around in the fridge and store cupboard.  My kids call it 'Everything Salad' because it contains, well, everything.

Here is my 'everything' couscous and roast-chicken salad, which has a Moroccan/Tunisian feel, with a bit of the nearby Mediterranean thrown in for good measure. The recipe is easily doubled, or even tripled, and it's very versatile, because you can add just about anything you please.

Please don't feel hesitant about combining ingredients that you wouldn't normally put together: for example, the recipe below contains roast tomatoes and fresh orange juice and Turkish apricots, three things I usually wouldn't put in the same dish, but they are all bought together by a peppy, citrussy dressing containing all the deliciously perfumed flavours of the region.

Obviously, you will need to use common sense when adding extra ingredients: tinned tuna, for example, or  prawns, or bacon or avocado will not work here. But I would have no problems adding any or (in the spirit of things) all of the following: raisins or sultanas, feta cheese, pine nuts, toasted sesame and sunflower seeds, preserved lemons, fresh orange wedges, pitted black olives, roasted peppers, pomegranate seeds, and so on.

This is a long  recipe, but do take your time over it, because it is the wonderful aromatic stock created while the chicken is roasting in water and flavourings that gives the couscous a special depth of flavour. Also, roasting the chicken this way results in flakes of perfectly tender flesh that you can't achieve by, say, poaching chicken breasts in stock. You will need to buy very fresh spices, and do try to get your hands on dried mint, which has a flavour quite distinct from that of fresh mint.

This salad improves upon standing for an hour or two, but add the coriander, parsley and toasted almonds just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad

For the chicken and stock:
a large free-range chicken, trimmed of all excess fat
1 carrot, thickly sliced
a stick of celery, sliced
6 parsley stalks (reserve the leaves)
10 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
a large, unskinned onion, quartered
half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, peeled

For the spice paste:
1 Tbsp (15 ml) cumin seeds
2 tsp (10 ml) coriander seeds
1 tsp (5 ml) flaky sea salt
1 tsp (5 ml) black peppercorns
4 fat cloves garlic, peeled
1 large red chilli, chopped, or 2 tsp (10 ml) chilli flakes (to taste)
the finely grated zest of a large lemon
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) ground cinnamon
6 Tbsp (90 ml) olive oil

For the salad:
2 large, shining aubergines (see Cooks' Notes, below)
olive oil (see recipe)
600 g ripe cherry tomatoes
3 cups (500 g) couscous (see Cooks' Notes, below)
1 punnet snow peas, sliced
12 Turkish apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) pitted green olives
a tin of chickpeas, drained
a bunch of fresh coriander (about 40 g) [cilantro]
a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley

For the dressing:
the juice of a large lemon
the juice of an orange
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) ground cumin
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) sweet paprika
½ tsp (2.5 ml) chilli powder (or more, to taste)
2 tsp (10 ml) dried mint
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
a pinch of cinnamon
6 Tbsp (90 ml) olive oil

To top:
extra parsley and coriander
100 g slivered almonds, lightly toasted until golden brown
a little powdered cumin and paprika

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
Heat the oven to 160º C. (If your oven is not fan-assisted, preheat it to 170º C.)

First make the spice paste. Heat a frying pan and toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. Place them with the salt and peppercorns in a mortar and grind to a powder (or put them through a spice- or coffee- grinder). Now add the garlic cloves and the chilli and pound to a paste. Stir in the lemon zest, cinnamon and olive oil.

Put the chicken into a large, deep roasting pan. Take one heaped tablespoon of the spice paste and, using a spoon, smear it inside the chicken. Put the carrot, parsley stalks, peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves and onion into the pan. Fill the pan with water to a depth of two centimetres -  or deep enough so that the water just touches the tip of the pope's nose. Make sure that the water level is well below the open cavity of the chicken, so that the stock doesn't flood into the chicken during cooking and wash out the spice paste.

Take another tablespoon of the spice paste and, using your hands, smear it all over the skin of the chicken, extending it down to a centimetre above the water line. Squeeze the half-lemon all over the top of the chicken, then push the squeezed-out half into the cavity, along with the two garlic cloves.

Set aside while you prepare the aubergines. Remove the stalks and cut them into neat 3-cm chunks. Place these on a separate baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Now add a heaped tablespoon of the spice paste and, using your hands, toss well to coat. Season with salt. Place the chicken in the oven, on the top shelf, and the baking sheet with the aubergines on the lower shelf. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, take the aubergines out of the oven and add the cherry tomatoes, mixing together with your hands so the tomatoes are well coated in spicy oil. (Add a little more olive oil if the aubergines seem dry.)

Place the vegetables back in the oven and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes are just beginning to collapse, and the aubergines are soft. Remove the vegetables from the oven, cover with foil and set aside.

Continue roasting the chicken for another 35-40 minutes, or until it is cooked through. (Note: the total roasting time for the chicken is 1 hour 20 minutes, for the aubergines 45 minutes, and for the tomatoes 20 minutes.)

Remove the chicken from the oven, cover the dish and allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Carefully lift the chicken from the stock, making sure not to spill any of the cavity juices into the stock. Put the chicken into a large shallow dish and tilt it so that the juices run out. Cut off the breasts, with their skin, and slice into neat pieces. Pull away all the remaining chicken flesh and tear into bite-size pieces. Discard the bones, fat and non-crispy skin (or keep for making stock). Turn all the chicken pieces over in the juices, cover, and set aside to marinate while you finish making the salad.

Strain the stock left in the roasting pan into a bowl and leave to settle. Discard all the stock vegetables and flavorings. Skim any excess fat off the top of the stock. Measure the stock into a bowl, adding enough hot water to bring the quantity up to 4 cups (1 litre) in total.

Place the dry couscous in a very large mixing bowl and pour in 800 ml of the warm stock. Do not stir. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and set aside, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. After this time, taste a grain of couscous. If it's at all gritty in texture, add a little more warm stock, and leave to stand for another ten minutes. Using a fork, fluff up the couscous to separate the grains. (See Cook's Notes, below).

In the meantime, make the dressing. Place the remaining spice paste into a bowl, add all the remaining dressing ingredients, and whisk well to combine.

Now assemble the salad. Put a quarter of the aubergines, tomatoes, chickpeas, snow peas, olives and apricots to one side, for topping the salad. Gently mix the remaining three-quarters into the couscous. Pour three-quarters of the dressing over the salad, add the coriander and parsley and toss very thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary (this salad needs more salt than you would think).

Tip the couscous salad onto a very large platter, letting it fall into a loose volcano shape. Scatter the reserved aubergines, tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and apricots over the top. Pile the chicken pieces around the edges of of the dish.  Drizzle the remaining dressing all over the couscous and chicken. Scatter the toasted almonds, and some more coriander and parsley, all over the salad, and dust generously with cumin and paprika. Serve immediately.

Serves eight.

Cooks' Notes
  • You can salt the aubergines to remove any bitterness if you like, but I don't find this necessary when using young, fresh aubergines.
  • I always make couscous using warm (not boiling) stock, and I never cook it or steam it, but if you're not confident about this method, follow the instructions on the packet, using the stock you've made instead of water. The amount of liquid that your couscous will absorb depends on the brand you're using. If you find you've added too much liquid, drain the couscous in a large sieve for a few minutes.

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Nina Timm said...

I'm ganna need these "big salad" recipes soon when we all gather in Hermanus for our annual holiday!!

This one is also big on flavor!!

Homemade Heaven said...

I have managed after 15 years to convince my folks that having a European Christmas in South African is just plain STUPID! We now have the roasts - all cold and lots and lots of salads. Much Much better! This salad will work well with the left over turkey we're always stuck with.