"Oh I make a mean roasted chicken," my co-worker Robin boasted Monday as we walked to lunch. She had asked me what I did this past weekend and I was telling her about this fantastic chicken I roasted Sunday night. A conversation ensued about how roasting chickens was the easiest thing ever a cook could do. I explained to her that normally, my go to-for roasting chicken is to simply stuff the cavity with a halved lemon, a head of garlic, sliced in half, and a handful of fresh thyme, but this time I tried something a little different.
Mark had gone up to Santa Maria to visit his mother for Mother's Day weekend and I was unable to go, so I wanted to prepare a nice Sunday dinner for us for when he got back. It was one of those days where I wanted to make SOMEthing but had no idea what. I'd even gone to the farmers' market that morning and nothing specific struck my fancy, even though they had a bunch of nice asparagus and fava beans. I had half a head of cabbage in my refrigerator that I pondered doing something with. A slaw maybe? In my stack of recipes to try I had one for a slaw with a spicy peanut dressing. What to make to go with slaw? I narrowed it to pork or chicken. Perhaps with an interesting barbeque sauce. I started flipping through cookbooks. Nothing I found struck a chord. I tells you, it's so frustrating when you really WANT to make something but NOTHING seems very compelling. Then I turned the page and saw this recipe in Tyler Florence's second cookbook, Eat This Book. I remembered that every time I browse through this book and encounter this recipe I think to myself, "Oh that sounds good. I'll have to make that sometime." Well it turned out the time was now. Sorry, cabbage. I'll have to get to you later.
(For the spice mix)
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in small pieces
16 whole cloves
4 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon whole black pepper corns
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon kosher salt
(For the chicken)
1 free-range chicken, about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds
1 lemon, halved
1/4 bunch of cilantro
1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
(For the Apricot Couscous)
1 cup couscous
1 1/2 cups cold water
10 dried apricots
1/2 cup whole almonds, toasted at 365 degrees F for about 10 mintues
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 handfuls fresh mint, chopped
2 handfuls fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
(For the Green Olive Sauce)
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 shallots, sliced
1 fresh red chile, split lengthwise
1/2 pound large green Spanish olives, pitted
1/4 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley, stemmed
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Lavash bread or pitas
First, make the Spice Mix. In a dry skillet, combine the cinnamon, cloves, cumin, corinander, fennel, peppercorns, and sweet paprika and toast for about 1 minute, or until you can smell the spices, making sure to shake the pan back and forth a little so the spices don't scorch.
Transfer to a spice mill, add the salt and grind to a powder. (The mixture can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 months)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Rinse the chicken inside and out with cool water, then pat dry with paper towels. Generously sprinkle over the spice mixture and rub into the skin, all over, making sure not to miss any spots. Stuff the lemon halves, the garlic and the cilantro into the cavity of the chicken.
Fold the wing tips under the bird, drizzle with olive oil and grind over some black pepper. If you have time, let the chicken marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes. When you are ready to roast, remove the chicken from the fridge, and place on a rack in a roasting pan, breast side up. Slid it into the oven and roast for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer, stuck into the thickest part of the thigh, reads 160 degrees F. When the chicken is done, remove from the oven and let rest for about 20 minutes, so the juices can redistribute into the meat.
While the chicken is baking, make the couscous. Pour the water in a small pot, cover and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, place the couscous in a large bowl. Once the water boils, pour it over the couscous, cover, and let sit until all the water has been absorbed, about 10 minutes or so. Uncover and using a fork, fluff the couscous, then stir in the apricots, almonds, lemon juice, and olive oil. Wait until the couscous has cooled and then stir in the green onions, mint and cilantro. If you add them herbs while the couscous is still warm, they could turn an sad, depressing green-brown. We don't want that. Season with salt and pepper.
Finally make the green olive sauce. Heat a skillet over low heat and add about a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When the oil is glistening, add the shallots and chile and cook, stirring, until caramelized.
Scrape the chile and shallots into the bowl of a food processor and add the olives, parsley, vinegar, lemon juice and 1/2 cup of olive oil. Puree for 3 minutes, until nice and smooth.
When the chicken has cooled a little, carve it into 8 pieces - 2 breasts, 2 wings, 2 drumsticks and 2 thighs. To serve, brush a pita with a little olive oil and grill in a grill pan, until warm and marked with grill lines from the pan. Place the pita on a plate, mound with a couple spoonfuls of couscous and then top with a piece of chicken. Serve a small dish of olive sauce on the side.
To eat, you can create a sort of gyro style sandwich, by pulling the chicken meat from the bones and rolling it in the pita along with the couscous, and then topped with some of the olive sauce. However I enjoy going all bite size, tearing off pieces of pita, slathering them with the olive sauce, spooning over a little couscous and then a couple small shreds of the juicy chicken.
Like some of my favorite dishes on this site, many of which come from the brilliant mistress of layering, Suzanne Goin, this one is a pastiche of flavors and textures, each tasty and interesting on it's own, however when combined, the elements become a whole that is really unique and exciting. There's a lot going on, but not so much that it becomes a hodgepodge. The chicken is warmly spiced with the cloves, cinnamon, corinader, fennel and cumin but also has a brightness from the lemon and a pungency from the garlic and cilantro. The pungency is echoed in the green olive sauce, which to be honest, isn't exactly "saucy." It's kind of like a smooth, garlicky, vinegary tapenade. In fact, I should think it would be delicious slathered on a crostini that has been smeared with a mild goat cheese. The couscous contrasts the sauce and chicken with a toast crunch of the almonds and a chewy bit of sweetness from the apricots, while the trio of herbs adds a welcome lightness. I always love how couscous clings to the outside of and nestles into the crevices of whatever it's served with. The toasted warm pita gives the whole thing a sort of base.
Even though it may seem like there are a lot of components to this dish, the nice thing about it is, much of it can be done ahead of time and a lot of the ingredients are pantry staples. Plus it's one of those meals that can be made and then served at room temperature or even cold from the fridge. Tyler writes in the book that it's good for a picnic and I'm inclined to agree. I may be making this again for one of those screenings at Hollywood Forever Cemetery or for a warm night the Hollywood Bowl this summer.