6.30.2018

B'stila My Heart

I first had b’stila in Morocco in 1991. It wasn’t made with chicken, but with quail or perhaps pigeon. The meat certainly was not boneless; the bird was simply hacked into pieces, bones and all. I had never before (and never since) had so many small bird bones to pick from my teeth!

It was also, I thought, the first sweet-savory combination I was aware of being served. That, of course, was not true. I grew up in Philadelphia where “sweet and sour” was almost a daily thing, thanks to the Amish.

And let’s not even discuss sweet potato casseroles, or glazed hams with pineapples and Maraschino cherries. (No, really – please... let’s not talk about them.)

This dish - b’stila b’djej - reminds me of the dishes one might find in Renaissance-era Emilia-Romagna. I am thinking specifically of a dish I made from The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

It was a pasta dish like no other - rosewater in the pasta and the sauce; the latter also contained butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Quite a stunning antecedent to the ubiquitous modern red sauce that is thought to be quintessentially Italian. After the rise of the Ottoman Empire interrupted trade routes, even wealthy Italians abandoned such combinations in favor of local herbs. But the old tradition continued in the Islamic world of the Middle East and North Africa.

This b’stila – sometimes spelled b’stilla - is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and turmeric - along with a heavy dose of sugar. It is rounded out with almonds, parsley, and cilantro.

Yes, I know it sounds unusual, but isn’t that why we are here on earth? To explore and test and try and taste? (Thank you, Anthony Bourdain…)

To some Moroccans, it is esteemed as the national dish. Perhaps, to others, the tagine or a couscous is more the dish that defines the cuisine.

Either way, this b’stila is a stunner, and will have your guests wowed at the unusual combination of flavors and textures. After a first bite, I can actually hear someone saying, “B’stila my heart...”

~ David

B’stila b’djej 
Adapted from the recipe by Kitty Morse

Filling
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup water
2/3 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs, beaten


Almond Mixture 1/2 cup slices blanched almonds
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Assembly
12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
confectioners sugar, for garnish
ground cinnamon, for garnish


Note: phyllo dough is notoriously hard to work with. It can be very brittle, so be careful not to bend the roll as you unwrap it. Also, it needs to be kept damp. Once you spread out the 12 sheets you need, cover them with a very damp towel.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden brown - about 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and turmeric and cook for 30 seconds or so to open up the flavors. Add the chicken, parsley, cilantro, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Cook for 20 minutes - the chicken should be done. Remove chicken pieces and place them on a plate to cool. Continue to simmer the spice and herb mixture until it cooks down a bit - about 5 minutes. (If it is already looking thick and reduced, skip this last step.) Add the sugar, salt, pepper and stir, then add the eggs and stir frequently until eggs are almost set and have a (lumpy) custard-like texture. Set aside.

For the almond mixture, add the almonds, sugar, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process with pulses; you want the mixture well blended but not too finely chopped.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Shred the cooled chicken and add it, and all accumulated juices, to the egg custard. Mix well.

Remove 12 sheets of phyllo dough from the package and wrap remaining pieces for another use. Place a very damp towel over the 12 sheets to keep them damp.

Brush a shallow pizza pan with some of the melted butter. Place once full sheet of phyllo dough onto the pan and brush well with butter. Repeat this with two more sheets of phyllo, laying each at a 30° angle so they don’t align with the sheets below. After the third sheet, sprinkle with half of the almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture. Top with a sheet of phyllo, butter that sheet, then add two more sheets, buttering each time.

Spoon the chicken mixture into the center of the six layers of buttered dough. Spread the filing to be a 10-inch circle.

Cut remaining six sheets (keep them stacked) of dough into 11-inch circles. Continue to cover with a damp towel.

Take one of the circles of dough and place it on top of the filling, and brush it with butter. Repeat with two more circles of dough, then sprinkle with the remaining almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture. Take the excess flaps of dough from the bottom and bring them up one at a time to wrap the filling; don’t worry, it won’t cover it completely. Butter the pulled-up flaps of dough and top with a circle of pastry. Butter the circle, then repeat with final two circles of pastry, buttering the last one. Tuck any excess dough underneath to make a tidy, circular package. If your dough breaks during handling, don’t worry; just gently patch it together and it will look fine when it comes out of the oven.

Bake the b’stila until golden brown - about 25 minutes. Sift confections sugar over the top and then sprinkle the sugar with cinnamon in a decorative pattern. (I have always felt this resembles the patterns of the Beni Ourain Berber carpets – see photo below.)

Bring to the table and serve immediately with grilled or sautéed vegetables on the side.

Makes 6 servings.



36 comments:

  1. Just like you, I tried my first b'stilla in Morocco, some 15 years ago. It was part of a variety of things we tried at the bustling Djemaa-El-Fna night market in Marrakech. Wow, what a spectacle the market is! Our b'stilla was pigeon and it was unusual, yet very tasty. Just a few bones, thankfully.

    Yours is a stunner, David!

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    1. That market is probably one of the most amazing I have ever visited - a real (positive) assault on all the senses! I am looking forward to returning there someday, but know that I will be making this several time more before I get back!

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  2. Christ ! I love your stories David !

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  3. I've been meaning to explore more thoroughly other Mediterranean cuisines besides Italian. I've made the occasional foray into Spanish dishes, one or two Greek ones, too. And I enjoyed Egyptian food when I was there earlier this year. It's all so fascinating to me, because the dishes are familiar but yet still quite "foreign". Methinks b'stilla will be next up.

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    1. It is definitely worth trying, Frank. The combination of flavors - in Moroccan food in general but this dish specifically - is so different from other Mediterranean cuisines, although I imagine it might be similar to some of the Egyptian food you encountered.

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  4. This sounds delicious, though rather daunting! When I stop eating local, I can't wait to "play" more with things like phyllo dough and puff pastry that are off-limits now...

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    1. I give you credit for doing the local challenge, Inger! It will be fun to see what you make first when it’s all done!

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  5. Intriguing. Maybe I should be more adventurous.

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    1. Well, dear, you know my response to that!

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  6. I’ve only made my own, I’ve unfortunately never been to Morocco. But it’s on my list! Yours is beautiful.

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    1. I hope you get to Morocco, Mimi - it is a magical place!

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  7. Oh, must make again, and this time with your recipe! This brings back 'my past wicked days' long ago on Facebook, being in Paula Wolfert's 'Moroccan Cookery' group and doing PR for the reissue of her book! Heady and fun and busy and happy ere she suffered her cruel fate. And, yes, we all cooked b'stilla :) !

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    1. What a history you have, Eha!! I would love to know more - wish we could meet up for cocoa!

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  8. When we were only married a year, my aunt and uncle from Scotland came to visit and surprised my parents who had also planned to visit us. It was a fabulous time, and one night we took everyone to a Moroccan restaurant. You have to realize, my entire family is very Italian, even the ones in Scotland, so if it's not Italian or British, they were dumbfounded. So, out comes the b'stila and it's put in the middle of the table and we're left there alone with it, sitting on the floor with no cutlery. Europeans don't do well without cutlery. My mother was horrified and we were shocked that there was powdered sugar on the main dish! Finally, my Uncle Fred who'd been in the army in the Middle East when he was younger just shoved his index finger right into the b'stila. It didn't accomplish much except that the other 5 of us almost fell over laughing so hard! It's one of our most relished memories and I cannot remember how we actually ended up eating it, but let's just say, we're all a bit set in our Italian ways! haha!

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    1. That is a fantastic memory, Christina! Honestly, I can’t
      imagine eating b’stila without a fork!

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  9. David, this looks and sounds wonderful. I made B’stila once years ago and absolutely loved it. Thanks for reminding me just how delicious it is! I love the rare combination of flavors. (And I love Christina's story above this, too!) Cheers!

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    1. I am still laughing over Christina’s story! What a hoot! Happy to remind you, Valentina - you should make it again, although how would one do GF?

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  10. Such a feast for the eyes! I love b'stila. Gotta try your authentic recipe, D. xo

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  11. Wow, this dish certainly looks good with all those spices. Yes, I am a little concerned about eating confectioner's sugar along with chicken, but I trust you- sounds like something I must try!

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  12. I have never tried anything similar to this before and I'm so curious to find out what it would be like as it sounds fantastic!

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    1. It’s right down your alley, Caroline! You have such an adventurous palate!

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  13. Hi David, We plan to make this on Sunday...I can't imagine which sauteed/grilled vegetables to serve along side. Please advise. It looks yummy!

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    1. Mea culpa, Susan - having problems with my comments notifications still! I would serve sautéed carrots and zucchini - separate, of course!

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  14. David, this is gorgeous! And, yes, boneless chicken, please. I see a b'stila in my near future, but minus the powdered sugar. Hey, if I leave it off desserts, you *know* I'm leaving it out of my main dish! Love your gorgeous bowls and photos.

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    1. I get it about the sugar, Jean, but you ought to try it once to taste the amazing effect!

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  15. Splendid. I made it only a couple of times yrs ago (Claudia Roden) and I had it few months ago at a friend's...I am (amongst other things) going through all the Paula Wolfert's books right now (amazing! albeit a tad obsessive) and this is due...(I will also check the Kitty Morse's books, pretty good too actually) stefano

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    1. Kitty’s books are pretty good, and I find she tried to maintain authenticity with a nod to modern tastes. Paula sometimes goes rogue... although I do like her work so much!

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  16. I think the sugar on top is what makes this dish so delightful. But the first time I came across it I certainly raised my eyebrows. GREG

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    1. Your eyebrows and your insulin levels, to be sure, Greg!

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  17. Wow that is some list of flavours! I can only imagine that it would set off all of the tastebuds in one go.

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  18. Dear David, what a list of delightful ingredients. This recipe sounds amazing and so different. And your pics and all your colorful props are just fabulous! Moroccan Chicken B'stila - another dish I have never made (or tasted) - I am very intrigued!
    Liebe Grüße,
    Andrea

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    1. I think that you, Thomas, and the girls would love this, Andrea!

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