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Adventures in Slow Cooking: Moroccan Chicken Stew

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Moroccan Chicken Stew made in a slow-cooker (aka a Crock-Pot)

Since starting my adventures in food here at Rural Intelligence, I’ve received a few requests from readers. Some I’ve tried to address, some I’m still working on, and one, until now, had me stumped: recipes designed for a slow cooker. I am, theoretically, the perfect demographic for this appliance (often known generically by the brand name Crock-Pot): I’m a frantic working mom with small children, who spends too much time carpooling and often needs to accommodate divergent appetites on a tight schedule. Maybe it was snobbery, maybe just a desire avoid adding more gadgetry to my crowded kitchen, but until last week, I never owned one. Somewhere in the post-vacation, back-to-school haze, I realized that the slow cooker might be the answer to my crazed Monday afternoons. I headed to a local housewares store, and bought the cheapest model available that also had a timer.  And then I started my recipe research.

I discovered that there are two schools of slow cooking. One relies on as little active prep work or cooking time as possible. It’s the Hail Mary approach: throw it all in, turn it on, hope for the best. For certain recipes, this works fine. I made a decent chicken posole this way, literally layering sliced raw onions, chunked chicken breasts, canned hominy and dried chiles in the cooker, bathing the whole mess with chicken stock, and turning it on low for six hours. It was good, if not amazing, and some chopped cilantro and avocado at serving made it both more complex and more satisfying.

The other way to approach a slow cooker is to imagine it as your oven set at a low temperature. When I told one friend I was working on this piece, he asked me exactly what I’d been silently wondering: why not simply set your oven to 250F, stick a covered Dutch oven in for a nice braise, and take it out when you get home? My husband, whose house burned down when he was a teenager, is opposed to leaving ovens on unattended, and it’s hard to argue with him (at least on this point.) Also, the slow cooker has one advantage over at least some ovens—it will stop cooking at the designated time, and then revert to a “keep warm” setting designed to keep the food at a safe temperature until you’re ready to eat. (My cooker advises no more than four hours on this setting, but since most recipes need five or six hours cooking time at least, you’ve still got a nice long window of time, if you want to start cooking dinner in the morning.)

If you’re using your slow cooker essentially as a braiser, you’ll get the best results if you put some time into your preparation: browning meat and caramelizing onions go a long way to creating a depth of flavor that the quickie method I used for my posole won’t deliver. I looked for a recipe to recreate for the slow cooker that would be quick to prep, and deliver flavors that would be improved, not diluted, by the long cooking time. This recipe is adapted from one that is meant to cook on top of the stove over very low heat; made in the slow cooker, it’s even more unctuous, with richer flavor and extremely tender (falling of the bone) meat—in this case, chicken thighs. It’s relatively inexpensive, simple, yet exotic, with a warm sunny quality that’s perfect for these snowy days. It’s best served with harissa, a North African chile paste. This divine condiment enlivens the flavors of the stew with a nice garlicky hit that’s hot, but not painfully so. I served this with last week’s Kasha with Preserved Lemon and Currants, and my guinea pigs—err, friends—agreed that it was a winning combination. I hope you will, too. —Paige Orloff

Moroccan Chicken Stew
adapted from The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook  by Amelia Saltsman (Blenheim Press, 2007)
Serves 6 - 8

This stew includes kumquats, the tiny sour-sweet citrus fruit that you eat whole. Wash them thoroughly, and do your best to remove all the seeds—it takes less time than you think. I was able to prep this stew in about 30 minutes: while the chicken browns, you have plenty of time to assemble the other ingredients. The harissa is a cinch to prepare—don’t skip it. You can make it while the stew is reheating just before serving.

1 tablespoon olive oil
12 chicken thighs (about 3- 31/2 pounds)
1 large onion, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup (packed) dried pitted prunes
1 pint kumquats, quartered lengthwise and seeded
3/4 cup oil cured black olives, pitted
3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium and brown the chicken thighs on both sides, sprinkling each side with a pinch of salt and pepper. Do this in two batches; it will take about ten minutes per batch (five minutes per side.) When the pieces are done, remove to a dish to rest.
Drain off all but 1-2 tablespoons of the oil in the pan, and add the chopped onion and garlic. Sauté gently over medium-low heat until the onion begins to turn golden. Scrape up the browned bits of chicken on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the wine and bring to a boil to deglaze the pan (making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan thoroughly) then reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes. Place the chicken pieces into your slow cooker, and pour the onion-wine mixture over. Add the chicken stock, the prunes, and the kumquats. Cook on low heat for six hours. About 30 minutes before serving, add the olives, and bring up to high heat for 30 minutes.  Remove the chicken pieces to a deep platter and spoon the remaining sauce and fruit mixture over. Sprinkle with the parsley before serving.

adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin (Knopf, 2005)

3 dried ancho chiles, seeded, stems removed
2 dried pasilla chiles, seeded, stems removed
1/3 cup canned crushed plum tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (hot, not sweet)
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Toast the chiles in a dry skillet over medium high heat for three or four minutes, until they become fragrant and start to change color (don’t let them burn.)
Place the chiles in a heatproof bowl and cover with nearly-boiling water. Soak for fifteen minutes. Drain well, and place in the bowl of a food processor.
Return the skillet to the stove and add the tomatoes. Cook over medium heat for several minutes, until the tomato starts to bubble and thicken and darkens just a bit. Add the tomato to the food processor.
In a second skillet (or the first one, if you’ve taken the time to wash it already!) toast the cumin seeds for two or three minutes, until they become fragrant and darken just a bit. Grind them finely in a mortar and pestle.
Add the ground cumin, the garlic, the paprika, the cayenne, the sherry vinegar and a teaspoon of salt to the food processor and pulse to blend thoroughly.
Add the olive oil in a steady stream with the motor running until you have a smooth paste.
Add the lemon juice, and pulse once or twice to combine.
Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary—the flavor should be warm, garlicky and spicy, but not burning hot. The sauce keeps well in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container. If it separates before serving, just stir it a bit.

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 01/22/09 at 09:31 AM • Permalink