The October book choice for This Book Makes Me Cook was The Caliph's House, by Tahir Shah. It's the story about a writer who moves to Casablanca into a magnificent old house, and all the stories about his new life, including the renovations of said house. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? I know, that's what I thought. Which is why I chose it when Simran asked me to nominate a few books for the members to choose from. I thought I'll do an African theme. I chose two South African, a Moroccan and an Egyptian book to chose from. Admittedly, I didn't know anything about the Moroccan and Egyptian books, but I gathered that that is what Amazon reviews are for. One review of Caliph's House reads: "This is a very funny and readable account of Tahir Shah's ordeals trying to remodel a decrepit palace in Casablanca. In some ways, Shah's account reads like a man's Moroccan version of UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN. It's less romantic and food-oriented, but references the similar nightmares and pleasures involved with restoring an ancient dwelling." Forgive me for thinking this sounded like a good story.
Except it wasn't. I'll give you a few highlights:
- Seconds after receiving the keys to the house, a terrorist bomb explodes outside the building. Not a good start, in my humble opinion.
- The house is basically inhabitable, and the whole family is forced to sleep in one room on the floor, together with rats.
- The house came with staff, who believe they are really in charge, not the new owner. Hence all requests and orders fall on deaf ears.
- The jinns. Wether you believe in them or not, they really run the show. Everything bad that happens are due to them. Everything good that happens are due to them. You need to avoid them, placate them, make sacrifices, etc.etc. You catch my drift.
- The author's first assistant abandons him because her jinn told her to.
- The author is required to acquire a second wife to cut through some red tape. I think there was also a jinn involved somehow.
- The neighbours are part of the local mafia.
However, like most things in life, it wasn't all bad. I did learn some interesting things about Casablancan history and architecture. I learned that there are people going around the world who watch the movie Casablanca in as many different countries as possible. And then there's the food. At least this poor family managed to eat well. There is mention of spices, lamb, couscous, coffee, tagines, and everything else you expect to read about in a book about Morocco. One consolitation I had was that our book club members won't have any difficulty in deciding what to cook.
I decided pretty early on that it will have to be a tagine, and I decided on a chicken, honey and date version. Now, as bad as this book was, that's how good this recipe is. I found it on Epicurious, and adapted it according to some of the comments. The original recipe called for dried apricots, but because the Fabulous Man has a thing about fruit in food other than dessert, I substituted it with dates so it can blend in a bit better. I also cut the amount of honey, and doubled the spices, as suggested by some readers. To call this dish fabulous is an absolute understatement. I'm always on the lookout for dishes that are quick and easy to make, but the fact that this one doesn't taste quick and easy is a plus. Which just goes to show: if everything in life goes haywire, just focus on the food. You'll always feel better.
Chicken Tagine with Honey, Dates and Almonds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ras el hanout
6 chicken thigh fillets
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium red onion, halved, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock
a small handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
a small handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon mild honey
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup dried dates, chopped
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds
Stir together ground cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, ras el hanout, pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add chicken and turn to coat well.
Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in base of tagine (or in skillet), uncovered, over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook half of the chicken until browned both sides. Transfer to a plate. Brown remaining chicken in same manner, adding any spice mixture left in bowl.
Add onion and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to tagine and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Add to the tagine 1/2 cup chicken stock, chicken, and any juices accumulated on plate. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
While chicken cooks, bring honey, water, cinnamon stick, and dates to a boil in a heavy saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until dates are very tender (add more water if necessary). Once dates are tender, simmer until liquid is reduced to a glaze.
While the dates cook, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a small skillet over moderate heat and cook almonds, stirring occasionally, until just golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
Ten minutes before chicken is done, add the date mixture and the chopped herbs to tagine. Discard the cinnamon stick, and serve chicken sprinkled with almonds on top.