I have mixed feelings on the subject of Lent.
I come from a family whose participation in organized religion has ebbed and flowed over the years, and my interest in being a member of any church is just about non-existent.
My grasp of the Catholic doctrine is murky at best, my idea being that it involves lots of sin with very little redemption; a fair amount of kneeling; incense; and confession-hearing priests who are closeted in more than just the literal sense.
And abstention isn’t, nor has it ever been, really my thing.
But these last few months have been challenging ones for my family and me, and I tend in times of high anxiety to eat the sort of foods that offer all kinds of comfort but somewhat little in the way of nutritional benefit (I’ve said it before, and I say it again: how do people who are not stress eaters cope with their stress?).
Essentially I have been existing quite happily since Christmas on bread, cheese, and wine. Which isn’t a bad thing on the short term, but I have noticed lately that my appearance has come to resemble that of the baked goods I’ve been enjoying:
I have become a little doughy.
I feel compelled to mention at this point (is it the guilt talking?) that my baking is, on the whole, pretty healthy. I use spelt flour and coconut oil and nearly always replace the sugar with apple juice concentrate or agave nectar.
But even still, too much of a good thing remains the very definition of excess, and I think that may be what we are dealing with here.
And so the other day, after my children and I had feasted the night before on stacks of fluffy banana pancakes drenched in maple syrup in honour of Pancake Tuesday, I decided to give up flour for Lent.
That’s right, even my spelt flour. Even my healthy baking. Most certainly the warm biscuits and bread sticks that take no time to prepare and can turn just about any meal into a feast.
For forty days and forty nights.
I can always pull my recently-neglected Babycakes cookbook off the shelf.
And I’ll still have my wine.
I love this dish, which features my beloved ras al hanout (which I bought here), for many reasons, but at the moment mostly because it doesn’t require any kind of bready accompaniment (although it is awfully good with couscous).
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 large onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaping tbsp ras al hanout
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2c chicken broth (or a little more, as needed)
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2c coarsely chopped dates
1/2c golden raisins
zest of an orange
In a large, deep saute pan, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add chicken thighs to pan and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Using a slotted spoon, remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Add onion and garlic to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until softened. Stir in ras al hanout and cardamom and cook a few minutes more, stirring, until onions are beginning to colour. Add tomato paste to pan and stir briefly before adding 1/2c chicken stock. Stir and scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Return chicken to pan, then add tomatoes with their juice, chickpeas, dates, raisins, and orange zest. If mixture appears on the dry side, add a little more broth. Stir to combine and let mixture come briefly to a boil before reducing heat to minimum. Cover and simmer about 45-60 minutes, until flavours have blended and chicken is very tender.
In an ideal world, at this point I would turn off the stove and let this stew sit and, well, stew, for a couple of hours, and then reheat it just before serving. I expect you could also use a slow cooker here. But I don’t think either is necessary to the success of the dish.
Serves 4, generously, and 6 if accompanied by couscous.
I haven’t forgotten how it all came to be – it happened so quickly, and so recently, that it’s still very fresh in my mind – but I do marvel.
I marvel that five years ago right around now, I was single, with a very lightweight secret crush on a guy I barely knew; loving the spring weather, and thinking about spending some time in another city, just for a change of scene.
You can guess, I am sure, what the next phase looked like: my lightweight crush became my great love, and spending time in another city became moving my entire life to begin anew with that same love – who, in turn, became the father of my children and then my husband.
We’re just about to move into a new house, another brand new start for the two of us, who have been lucky enough to have many of those already in our relatively brief time together.
Before I met him, I would never have considered myself a romantic.
This is one of the first dishes I ever cooked for him, and it remains a favourite.
Once in a Lifetime Chicken and Coleslaw
This recipe is easily doubled, or tripled, for a crowd, and it’s even better the next day.
4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp rice vinegar
6 tbsp lime juice
6 tbsp fish sauce
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tbsp soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, crushed
700 g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/4c finely chopped fresh mint
1 package (454g or 1 lb.) coleslaw
In a shallow bowl large enough to hold chicken pieces, whisk together sugar, vinegar, lime juice, fish sauce, olive oil and sesame oil until well combined. Remove 3/4 cup of liquid from the bowl; reserve.
To make marinade, add soy sauce and garlic to the mixture in the bowl and stir well. Add chicken pieces; toss to coat, cover, and marinade as long as you can (minimum 20 minutes, maximum 4-5 hours).
Stir mint into reserved 3/4 cup of liquid to use as dressing for the coleslaw.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use tongs to transfer chicken pieces to a well-oiled shallow baking dish large enough to hold chicken in one layer. Bake, basting occasionally with marinade, until thighs are cooked through, 20-30 minutes. Let rest about 10 minutes before serving.
While chicken is resting, toss coleslaw with dressing.
Serves 2, generously.
He’s really, messily into it, in a way that neither my husband nor I remember our daughter being.
In fact, I spent a bemused dinner hour a few nights ago spoon-feeding my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter the same pasta that my nearly-eight-month-old son was happy shoveling into his mouth unassisted.
That she was eating that pasta at all was down to her being willing to try it only because her brother seemed to like it so much that curiosity got the better of her – not curious enough to pick up the spoon and feed herself, mind you, but enough to agree (with a certain indulgent air) to give it a try for Mama.
And yes, I did consider that a victory.
I know that in time the other shoe will drop, and our boy will become, at least for a while, as picky about what goes in his mouth as our girl is at the moment, but for now, we’re happy to take advantage of his willing palate with dishes like this one.
I think the secret ingredient here is the ras al hanout, which is reportedly a blend of over 20 spices and goes a long way toward adding authenticity to my attempts at Morroccan cooking, about which I know not a great deal. I got my little jar, made by a company called The Epicentre, from this great store in our neighbourhood.
I also think this would be a great slow cooker recipe, but as my kitchen is not equipped with that particular fabulous appliance, I can’t be entirely sure.
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp each coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground sumac
750 g boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 medium onions, diced
a 2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
a 796 ml (28 oz.) can San Marzano tomatoes and their juice
juice of a lemon
1 tsp ras al hanout (see note at the beginning of this recipe)
8 dried apricots, finely chopped
1/2c canned coconut milk, plus more if needed to thin sauce
fresh coriander leaves, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large, heavy ovenproof skillet with lid, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.
Stir together thyme, salt, pepper and sumac in a large, shallow dish. Add chicken thighs and turn to coat with spices. Add thighs to hot oil in pan and brown well, turning once, about 5 minutes or so per side. Remove thighs.
Add chopped onions to pan and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, 7-8 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, a further 2-3 minutes, until very fragrant.
Add tomatoes with their juices and lemon juice, breaking up tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon as you stir. Add ras al hanout, apricots, and coconut milk. Stir well.
Return chicken to pan. nestling the thighs into the sauce a little bit. Bring to a simmer, then cover and transfer to hot oven.
Cook about an hour, until chicken is tender and the house is filled with lovely smells. Serve over couscous and garnish with coriander leaves.