Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous

Yesterday, I gave my final exams for the first term.  I am always amazed at how much gets packed into the first trimester.  An open house here, a stack of papers there, a set of student-parent conferences to follow, and I am just about wiped out.  Whew.  We're eyeballing Thanksgiving with a bit of glee, but in the mean time, I am making decidedly non-Thanksgiving fare.  Be prepared!

So we begin with this Moroccan Chicken with Dates.  Dates are really just an excuse to mainline sugar with dinner.  Those of you with sweet tooths (teeth?) know what I am talking about.

But before we get too far, let's indulge in some fun facts about the date:  Apparently there are 1500 varieties of dates--a dateganza, if you will--and the most popular American date, the Medjool date, came to California in 1927.  A singular Dr. Walter Swingle, an American horticulturalist for the Bureau of Plant Industry, took a little trip to the French-colonial-controlled Bou Denib oasis in Morocco to "save" the Medjool date palm, which was facing extinction from a little soil-fungal disease called Bayoud.  Nine of eleven offshoots from one date palm survived in sunny California and Arizona. (I love how much you can learn about the date!).  Nowadays, Coachella is not just the home of a sweaty-and-dehydrated-hipster music show; its valley is also the home to hundreds of acres of date palm orchards (quaintly called date gardens).  We Americans boast about 250,000 fruit-bearing trees, which seems pretty paltry when compared to the once 30 million date palms in Iraq--a number slashed by 8 million in the past three decades of war.  Suitably, it is the Arab world that has the rights to boasting about the date.  The Moors brought the date to Spain, Muslim tales tell of god feeding Adam dates in the garden of Eden, and dates are often the first food to break the fast of Ramadan each night.

This dish is not necessarily one of the gods nor does it transplant you to the shores of North Africa, but it is delightful and very simple to make.  Alice Waters, cookbook author extraordinaire, in all her foodie glory recommends using the Zahidi (a semidry date with fibrous flesh) or the Halawi (small, golden-brown, sugary date with a very sweet, concentrated flavor) dates.  I merely used what was available at the local grocer, which happened to be Medjool.  Futher, Alice calls for grating the onions, but I think that a simple chopping would be fine.  After plumping up the dates for fifteen minutes in the broth, I cooked the couscous in the liquid rather than spooning it over the couscous.  I wanted it to be soaked in saffron and cilantro, some of my favorite flavors, rather than merely topped with it.  All of these adjustments did nothing to ruin the simplicity of something so infallibly good.

Finally, indulge me for a moment.  I have always wanted to go to Morocco.  A friend of mine in passing has mentioned her time spent studying abroad there.  She brought back tiles that she then inlaid into her steps.  She doesn't know it (well, I guess she knows it now!) I am in love with those tiles.  I, of course, realize that I am sublimating my desire to travel into a desire for tiles.  But I can live with that.  She just may not be able to to live with it when she wakes one morning to find her tiles transferred into the inlay of my front steps.

And now to enjoy the sweetness of this simple dish.  Happy date feeding!

One Year Ago: Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons (Fish Fillets Poached in White Wine With Mushrooms)

Moroccan Chicken with Dates and Couscous
Adapted from  Chez Panisse Fruit

2-3 Servings [I made a 1/2 recipe.  Alice calls for double of all of this, but I am merely feeding me and the husband]

2-3 chicken breasts
salt and pepper
1 onion
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 cup cilantro
1/4 pound dates--about 6
2 cups couscous, cooked

1.  Season the chicken well with salt and pepper.  Peel and grate the onion.  Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot.  Add the onion, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and chopped cilantro; season with salt and stir over high heat for 2-3 minutes.  Add the chicken and cook another few minutes before pouring in enough water [I used chicken broth] to just cover the chicken.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking.  Add water if necessary.

2.  When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and set aside while you finish the sauce.  Skim the fat from the liquid left in the pan, taste for salt, and adjust as needed.  Add the dates and simmer for 15 minutes over medium heat.  Stir occasionally, but be careful not to break up or smash the dates.  Return the chicken to the sauce.  After 5 minutes or so, when the chicken is hot again, arrange on a platter over a bed of couscous and pour the sauce over the meat. [Like I said above, I cooked the couscous in the sauce and then transferred all to my plate and then my gullet].


  1. OMG! First of all, I heart this classic Moroccan dish... maybe I'll make it during the long-awaited Thanksgiving Break! Second of all, I had no idea you coveted those tiles, my dear. I have just dug out my Morocco photo album this semester, in order to find pictures of me on a camel to show my students as we studied Timbuktu. And for the record, the fabulous tiles were picked up in Sevilla, where the Moors made their mark on the Spaniards. So they are actually Spanish tiles, but with a heavy Moroccan influence for sure. I would so love to go on a trip to Morocco with you someday! We can dream, right? This is not surprisingly IMHO your best posting to date (pun sort of intended). Miss you!

  2. Thanks, Nicole! Well, it looks like in my trip to Morocco (with you!), we'll need to stop off in Sevilla. But then we're off to Morocco.


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