December 2, 2014

Moroccan Chicken and Lemon Herb Couscous

Moroccan Chicken and Lemon Herb Couscous

I had a lovely, but quiet Thanksgiving dinner with my family this year (just 3 of us this time). Small though it was, we had turkey and all the trimmings – candied sweet potatoes, creamy mashed potatoes, a super-rich homemade green bean casserole, loads of fluffy stuffing, and everything topped with a boatload of gravy. Yum! It was an excellent meal on Thanksgiving Day, and delicious for a second round Thanksgiving evening. 

For lunch the following day, there were turkey sandwiches piled high with stuffing and cranberry sauce. Then more pumpkin pie (again) for dessert after supper. By Saturday night, I went to bed with the stark realization that having such a small gathering for Thanksgiving really left us with more leftovers than I had anticipated! By Sunday, my turkey enthusiasm had waned, and I was ready to move on to something – different. As much as I love my maple-y, sage-y, pumpkin flavor food goodness, I was ready for a change.

This recipe is inspired by the chicken tagine recipe of a family friend, who was from Morocco, and worked as a chef at the wonderful Moroccan restaurant at Epcot in Disney. At the time I first tasted Moroccan food, I was young, and freshly down from the mountain where I grew up. Let me tell you, it was a revelation. My taste buds had never experienced these exotic kinds of flavors before – cinnamon with cumin and coriander - I was smitten. I proceeded to learn some basic Moroccan cooking techniques from the chef, and have kept a few Moroccan recipes in my repertoire ever since. 

Moroccan Chicken Tagine

Now let’s take a minute to talk about the budget here. At first glance, this may not look like a budget-friendly recipe. It has tons of spices, and two pounds of meat. Plus there’s the couscous – you probably either love it already, or you are wondering what the heck it is and how expensive it might be.

So first of all, couscous is fairly inexpensive. It is a type of tiny little pasta that looks and acts more like a grain. The kind we are familiar with in the U.S. is instant couscous, and that is exactly what I use in this recipe. You can find it in any supermarket, usually near the rice, for about $2-3 a box. If you have a Trader Joe’s or and Aldi nearby, you can get a bigger box (bigger than the usual grocery store brands) for about $2. If you have a store that sells it in bulk, you can pick some up even cheaper. It comes in regular and whole wheat varieties, although I prefer the whole wheat.

Now I realize that spices can be expensive, and the cost of this recipe is going to depend on how well you stock your pantry. I keep my pantry stocked with a wide variety of spices, and in the cold weather months, I also keep some dried herbs on hand. Of course I love fresh herbs, but I can’t grow herbs in the winter, or buy them at the farmers’ market, and I’m not about to pay grocery store prices for them!

If you already have the spices for this recipe in your pantry, you are all set. The amount of spices the recipe calls for will cost just pennies – just a little bit out of each jar. If you don’t already have the herbs and spices I use in this recipe, the cost per serving is the same, but initial cost up front will be more (since you would need to go out and buy the spices). If this is the case for you, and you are trying to cook frugally while still enjoying a world of flavor, I would encourage you to start stocking the pantry with a variety of spices and herbs. You don’t even need to rush out and buy a bunch all at once – just pick up a jar or two when your budget allows. Buy the brands that your wallet can afford. I have no problems at all with buying a $1 jar instead of the pricier brands.  Badia is an affordable brand that I often purchase (no, I am not a paid endorser), and even the dollar stores often have a good selection.

Ok, so there are two more budget concerns I want to address with this recipe. First of all is the chicken. I used boneless, skinless chicken breast because that's what I had in the freezer. For a more frugal meal, however, chicken thighs are a better choice. You can buy your chicken at the supermarket, or at a warehouse store, or from a local farmer – the decision is yours.  I will say, however, that I find it to be more frugal to buy meat when it on sale and then freeze it, than to go and buy it when I need it,  when it may or may not be on sale. Stock up when the prices are low!

Lastly, I will mention the chicken stock. I will use a box of stock or broth in a pinch, but I really find that this is least economical option. I much prefer to use homemade stock, or a bit of chicken base mixed with water. I buy the no-added-msg versions of beef and chicken base in a jar, and keep them in my fridge for when I need them. A little jar costs about $4 and goes a long way, needing just 1 teaspoon per 8 ounces of water. If this isn’t your thing, then homemade stock is cheap and easy to make using leftover chicken carcasses and bones. It’s easy enough to store the stock in the freezer for whenever you need it. This recipe uses just 1 cup of stock, so you could really just substitute water if you don’t have any stock handy.

Lemon Herb Couscous

Serves 4-6


For the Chicken
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup chicken stock
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs (if using breasts, cut each breast into 2 pieces)

For the Couscous 
2 1/4 cups water
1 tablespoon of olive oil or butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups instant couscous (if using flavored couscous, stick with the olive oil/herb/garlic variety)
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon dried parsley or mint (or small handful of fresh)


1. In a Dutch oven, or heavy skillet with a lid, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat, and cook the onions until translucent (about 6-7 minutes). Add in the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Stir the spices into the onions and garlic, and cook, while stirring, for another minute. 

2. Stir the chicken broth and tomatoes into the pan with the onions and spices. Add the lemon juice, sugar, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Cover pan, and turn to low. Allow to simmer while you prepare the chicken. 

3. In a grill pan or large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium-high until slightly shimmering. You want the oil to be hot, but don't let the olive oil smoke. Season with chicken with salt and pepper, and grill until lightly browned on each side, but not cooked through. 

4. Nestle the chicken into the simmering sauce. Cover, and and allow it to gently bubble for about 25 minutes, while you prepare the couscous. 

5. Add the water, salt and oil to a saucepan with a lid. Heat to boiling, then stir in the couscous. Immediately remove from the heat and cover with lid. Allow to sit for 10 minutes, then fluff couscous with a fork. Stir in herbs and lemon zest. Salt and pepper to taste. 

6. When the chicken is cooked through, serve chicken and sauce with a big scoop of couscous. 

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