In creating dinner specials for Restaurant Salaam, I have found inspiration in sometimes surprising places.
Of course, I am inspired by recipes I have found in the many dozens of cookbooks covering the regions of North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, India and Western China which I have in my collection. This goes without saying; when I am creating a set of dinner specials for a given week, and I become stuck, all I need to do to help the thoughts flow is reach for the overflowing bookshelves in my kitchen.
Sometimes, after I have read enough cookbooks, recipes will come to me in dreams; I will literally awaken in the middle of the night with a dish in my mind. I can often literally smell and nearly taste it, and I have a strong picture of it in my mind’s eye.
Such divine culinary visions cannot be counted upon. More often, inspiration will come to me when I think about an existing dish or recipe from another cuisine which I will then adapt to another, only tangentially related cuisine, or one which is completely different.
The salad pictured above, which we ran as a dinner special Saturday night, is an example of a recipe which came about as a reinterpretation of a classic recipe from another culture, and how it came to my mind in the first place is a good illustration of how the mind of a chef can work in roundabout ways.
There is no such thing in Morocco that I know of as a Moroccan Chicken Salad. At least, not like this one. The flavors, which include preserved lemon, roasted red pepper, harissa, garlic, olive oil, cinnamon and cumin, are certainly Moroccan; however, they are put together in a way which is from the South of France, in the classic dish, Salade Nicoise.
Now, I am not a huge fan of Salade Nicoise, which is a composed salad made of tunafish canned in oil, hard-boiled egg, blanched green beans, and black olives, arranged artfully (hence the term, “composed”–a composed salad is put together in a very aesthetic way) on a bed of crisp greens and dressed with olive oil, anchovies and lemon juice. To me, it always sounds better and looks better than it tastes, though that may be that I have just never had an excellent one. I have only eaten it a few times, and have only prepared it once, back when I was in culinary school, and while each version was good–it never made me want to jump up and sing or dance around in gustatory bliss. (A salad which does that to me is Yum Woon Sen–a Thai combination of cellophane noodles, vegetables, shrimp, pork and a very spicy, sour dressing with garlic, chile and lime juice.)
So, needless to say, Salade Nicoise is just not a dish which lives in the higher reaches of my personal taste memory banks.
This leads to the question: what exactly made me think of a salad I don’t even love in the first place in order to make a riff of of it that I absolutely love?
I have to point the finger at Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and lay the “blame” for my inspiration upon their shoulders.
See, it all came about last week when Morganna and I started watching one of the gifts I gave her for Christmas: the entire series of Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home on DVD.
This series was Julia Child’s last television cooking show and I have to say that while her stamina was obviously lessened with her age, and her formerly tall, broad-shouldered leonine physicality was stooped and diminished, her intelligence, culinary instinct, ability to teach technique and witty comic streak were not only intact, but very apparent. She was a charming and funny woman to the end, and her partnership with Jacque Pepin, a great chef and teacher in his own right, brought out the best in her. The two culinarians complimented each other perfectly, and it was great fun to watch them agree and disagree in their unscripted forays in Julia’s kitchen.
With each recipe, they taught two ways of completing it, sometimes using complimentary techniques, and sometimes openly disagreeing, in a friendly way, on how to proceed. Jacques, for example, was always using copious amounts of garlic (ah, how I love that man!) while Julia declared that she never much cared for so much garlic in her own food.
The recipes showcased in this series are mostly French, of course, but they also show some American classics, like hamburgers. But each recipe, no matter what the inspiration or root cuisine, is presented in such a way that they look delectable, doable, and very, very appetizing. When they did two version of Salad Nicoise–Julia’s the traditional one with canned oil-packed tuna, and Jacques” with seared fresh tuna steak, suddenly, I found myself hungry for the idea of that salad. Hungry enough that I dreamed of it the night after watching the show, and I woke up hungry for a salad–not exactly like it–but in the same vein.
So, that is how I dreamed up this Moroccan Chicken Salad.
With the help of two culinary Muses.
How did I decide to change it around:?
Well, I like poached chicken better than I like tuna–especially since I am still avoiding tuna because of the mercury content of it while I am nursing Kat. And while boiled baby potatoes are classic, I thought that, especially after the holiday feasting and binging on heavy foods, I would replace them with something lighter. Artichoke hearts appealed to me, so I chose them, but–I kept the green beans intact. They were, after all, my favorite vegetable when I was growing up, and I love them in salads, composed or otherwise.
Olives had to stay, but I let go of the boiled eggs. They would be too rich. I used a tiny bit of feta cheese, instead, in part, because I liked the texture and the intense salty, milky flavor. I thought it would go well with the chicken. Then, I decided to add cherry tomatoes for tang and color and some pine nuts for crunch.
As for the dressing–it is a combination of typical Moroccan flavors, though I still kept with the olive oil and lemon base of Salad Nicoise. In this case, I used preserved lemons which I made myself, and their salty juice. (I highly suggest that you make your own preserved lemons if you want to make this salad–the flavors of homemade ones are much superior, much fresher than the commercially available preserved lemons.) I have to admit that I put this dressing together experimentally, and so this recipe is not a final one, nor is it probably particularly accurate. In fact, for the dressing, you will note that I say, “to taste” a lot–this is because if I keep developing this salad, I will probably change the dressing slightly, if nothing else, to simplify it a bit.
But, the salad came out so beautifully, and made such an impression on everyone who tasted it, I couldn’t resist sharing it, even in its unfinished state, with my readers.
One more thing: the garnishes you see on the top–the scallion brush and cherry tomato lotus. I am not going to describe how to make these in this post, as I had no time while I was making them at work to photograph the process. Verbal description alone is fairly useless in teaching how to make vegetable or fruit garnishes. Even these, which are so simple that I can turn out dozens of them in minutes, are hard to teach without illustration.
So, here is the recipe, though the dressing instructions are probably not as exact as I would like. However, I suspect that if you follow them, you will be able to come up with a reasonable approximation of the salad I made this past Saturday night.
Moroccan Chicken Salad
2 whole bone in chicken breasts (about two pounds)
2 cups chicken stock, broth or water
1/2 pound grean beans, trimmed and stringed
1/2 pound frozen artichoke hearts, cooked according to package directsions, and cut into halves
handful cherry tomatoes
4 ounces feta cheese, drained and cut into very small cubes
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup pitted black olives–I used Kalamata
12 ounces fresh, crisp salad greens, washed, dried and cut into bite sized pieces
Ingrdients for Dressing:
1 preserved lemon, seeds removed
3 fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon harissa or chili garlic paste
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup preserved lemon juice
2 tablespoons jarred roasted red pepper, pureed
fresh dill to taste
ground cinnamon to taste
ground cumin to taste
2 cups olive oil
sugar or honey to taste
Start recipe one day before serving.
Remove skin from chicken breasts, and poach in the stock, broth or water until meat is just done–do not overcook. Remove from the cooking liquid–reserve the liquid for another purpose. When meat is cool enough to handle, remove from the bones, and reserve bones to make stock. Shred the meat into bite sized pieces and set aside into a storage container.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Add prepared string beans, and cook until they just brighten in color and barely soften. Drain, and rinse with cold water until they are cool. Drain well and set aside into a storage container.
Cook artichoke hearts according to package directions and drain well. Rinse with cold water and set aside into storage container.
Rinse olives for a few minutes to remove some of the salt. Set aside in a storage container.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet on medium heat until it is quite warm. Add pine nuts and shaking pan, toast nuts until just golden and fragrant. Pour onto a plate, allow to cool, and set aside in a sealed container.
Rinse the preserved lemon under cold running water for five minutes, rubbing to rid it of excess salt. Cut it up into small pieces, and put into a food processor along with all other solid ingredients. Process until pureed.
Put pureed ingredients, along with juices, into a bowl, and whisk together. Taste. Add olive oil and whisk well to combine. Add seasonings and sugar or honey to taste–the dressing should be a balance between sweet, sour and salty flavors with a bit of the spice and herb flavors to add zip.
Use just enough dressing to moisten the chicken–toss it together well, seal it up and refrigerate overnight. Repeat process with the green beans and artichoke hearts.
The next day, put the salad together just before serving.
Lay a generous bed of mixed greens on the serving plate, and top with a mound of chicken on the top. Along the sides, add green beans, and on both ends, add artichoke heart halves. Fill each half with a cherry tomato, then in the corners between the artichokes and the green beans, add a small pile of olives. Sprinkle pine nuts over everything, and top the chicken with a small amount of feta cubes.
Garnish however you like, and serve remaining dressing on the side.
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