Cold but bright Saturdays in early spring are great for gardening, pottering and cooking warming food. As the evenings get lighter, I pull on a jumper and spend as much time outdoors as I can, popping indoors only to put something on that will simmer down gently and eventually draw you in with some spicy, fragrant aromas as the afternoon takes on the evening chill.
In the garden, some early Swiss Chard and Spinach is a welcome spring green sight in this weather. Sown in February, the still small seedlings need a bit of thinning and I’m going to use the small leaves for a salad while letting the remaining plants have a bit more room to expand. This also helps me to very gently work the surrounding soil and hopefully see off any pests such as flea beetle that are lurking there.
The Spiced Chicken with Apricots dish that I am cooking is great family comfort food. It’s not spicy in the hot sense of the word. Rather it draws on the fruit and spice laden tagines and stews of North Africa and the Middle East. My son Leo’s best friend from childhood is of Somalian heritage, and my son a frequent visitor to their house, where he always loves eating the fruity rice and stews that our friend Ruqia makes for her family. I am using dried apricots for the stew because they add a lovely rich but subtle sweetness and also help to colour the stew –I couldn’t help stealing a few plump apricots before cooking but try and resist because this dish benefits from plenty of apricots.
Spiced Chicken with Apricots
You will need:
- 8 chicken thighs (I prefer them with bone and skin intact, as they will be much more tender when cooked)
- 2 red onions finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed
- 1 x 2cm cube of fresh ginger grated
- 1 red chilli de-seeded and finely chopped
- 200g Dried Apricots
- 1 tin of tomatoes
- A heaped teaspoon of Harrisa
- 1 tablespoon of Ras el Hanout spice mix (this is available in larger supermarkets but follow this link to make your own)
- Olive Oil
- 500ml of chicken stock
- Fresh parsley and/or coriander chopped to serve
- A heavy oven proof pan.
First pre-heat your oven to 160 degrees centigrade. Quickly brown off the chicken thighs in a small amount of olive oil in a hot frying pan and place on a heated plate to one side. Then in a large oven proof saucepan, lightly fry the onions for about five minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add the ginger, chilli and garlic and fry for a couple more minutes and finally add the Ras el Hanout spice mix and stir everything thoroughly with a wooden spoon. To this mix add the chicken, the Harissa the tin of tomatoes, the stock and the apricots. Now bring to the boil, put a lid on your pan and transfer to the oven. This can simmer away for 2 hours allowing you to finish off those last few garden jobs and to rustle up the salad. Season to taste before serving and then sprinkle the chopped herbs on top. You can create a delicious vegetarian version of this by substituting the chicken for lightly fried quartered Aubergines, but please note it will only take about half the time to cook.
The stew can be served with plain rice, little roast potatoes, flatbreads or salads – or a combination of. I am serving it with a cauliflower “pilaf” and some coriander naan bread. Cauliflowers are in season right now and good value in the shops. So, this provides a low carb and gluten free salad which tastes great, is cheap and easy to make and is still really filling.
Jewelled Cauliflower Pilaf
You will need:
- 1 Cauliflower all leaves removed and the florets chopped or blitzed to the consistency of rough breadcrumbs
- 1 small onion or shallot
- 1 teaspoon of cumin
- 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
- Half a teaspoon of turmeric
- Half a teaspoon of chilli powder
- 100 ml orange juice
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- A handful of dried cranberries
- A handful of sultanas
- A handful of pine nuts or cashews
- A bunch of small chard or spinach leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- A tablespoon of green herbs such as parsley, mint and coriander finely chopped
Fry the onion in the olive oil in a small saucepan and when they are soft and golden add the spices and fry for a couple more minutes. Add the orange juice and the dried fruit then bring it to the boil then take it off the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes. This will soften and plump up the dried fruit.
Place the Cauliflower in a large salad bowl, and add the contents of the saucepan. Mix very well and season. Now add the greens, the nuts and the herbs and again mix very well. This is good with any grilled meat, veg or fish dish and lovely with barbecued food.
I would finish with another favourite Somalian afternoon snack – plain popcorn and luscious dates all washed down with sweet black coffee.