My non-veg/flexitarian readers are in for a treat today. This is a recipe I’ve been saving up since my trip to Morocco, faithfully recorded all this time in the back of my recipe book. Although after that trip I reverted back to vegetarianism, since then I’ve made this dish twice for others. Just because it was so darn good.
Rfissa is Moroccan chicken with lentils, cooked in a saucy mixture of fragrant spices and served over torn pieces of chewy Moroccan-style crepes. Because the chicken cooks for a fair bit of time, using dark meat is a must, preferably free-range chicken. That is, the best quality chicken you can find.
Although the chicken will be succulent and the thin pasty an interesting textural contrast, the broth-like sauce is arguably what makes this dish memorable. This sauce is so good that the recipe makes altogether too much of it, and while some of it goes onto the platter with the chicken the majority is reserved in a bowl on the side, then ladled over the dish periodically to keep everything moist and warm and flavorful. Obviously the seasoning is something you will want to pay close attention to–the best is to have your favorite blend of Ras el haout, the Moroccan spice mix, which is made from a highly personal combination of a dozen or dozens of spices. If you don’t have this fragrant North African kitchen staple, go with a mixture of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, chilies, or any spices you prefer. Ground ginger, turmeric, and saffron, however, is absolutely necessary.
The lovely torn pastry bed on which the chicken and lentils have made their home is called msemmen, squarish flaky and chewy semolina crepes ubiquitous in Morocco. Msemmen are made and fried fresh on the street and can be bought for a few cents a pop. They are beautiful in the morning with butter and honey, or just eaten plain and piping hot. The semolina granules mixed into the dough gives it a textural, hearty feel, and the layered dough makes for a flaky golden pasty with steam pockets that brown on the griddle into irregular little spots.
I love the raggedy approach of tearing up a pile of msemmen by hand on which to serve the chicken–alternately, you could cut the pieces neatly into strips, but that’s not nearly as fun. If you don’t live in Morocco, where freshly-made msemmen can be found everywhere and all the time, and you don’t feel up to making them yourself, you can use day-old bread pieces.
Rfissa (Moroccan Chicken with Lentils)
For Chicken and Lentils:
- 2-3 lbs. free-range dark-meat chicken pieces or whole chicken
- 4 cups water
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1-2 white onions, sliced
- 1/2 Tbsp Ras el hanout (Moroccan spice mix)–or, cumin/cardamom/your favorite spices
- 1/2 Tbsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 pinch saffron
- big pinch sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- bunch cilantro, chopped
- bunch parsley, chopped
- 1 cup dry green lentils
- 1 cup water
- 1-2 Tbsp butter (optional)
- msemmen (Moroccan square-shaped pastry dough–recipe follows)
- In a large pot, place chicken, water, olive oil, sliced onions, spices, parsley, and cilantro (reserve some parsley and cilantro for garnish at end). Simmer for 10 minutes on medium heat, then turn chicken over and simmer 10 minutes more.
- Add the lentils and additional 1 cup water. Add butter for flavor, if desired. Cover and simmer until lentils are done and chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. There should be a lot of sauce; if not, add water and adjust seasoning accordingly.
- To serve, tear msemmen into small pieces (if cold, toast and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve), then heap onto a large platter or shallow bowl. Top with the chicken and lentils, reserving excess sauce in a side bowl. Garnish with parsley and cilantro. In Morocco, everyone eats with their right hand or a spoon from a shared platter and ladles the extra sauce on as they eat.
For Msemmen (Moroccan semolina pasty dough):
*Msemmen recipe from moroccanfood.about.com; makes about 20 msemen
- 3 1/2 cups flour (440 g)
- 1/2 cup fine semolina (90g)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon yeast
- 1 1/2 cups warm water (approx. 1/3 liter)
For folding and cooking the msemmen:
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup fine semolina
- 1/4 cup very soft unsalted butter
- Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add 1 1/2 cups of warm water, and mix to form a dough. Add more water if necessary to make a dough that is soft and easy to knead, but not sticky. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add a little flour one tablespoon at a time.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes, (or knead the dough in a stand mixer with dough hook for 5 minutes), until the dough is very smooth and elastic.
- Proceed with folding and cooking the dough. See How to Fold and Make Msemen [an easy guide to folding msemmen to get the flaky-on-the-outside/chewy-on-the-inside texture].