Hotly spiced with dersa, this Algerian spicy chicken and chickpea tagine is a good-looking, sunshiny treat that’s surprisingly easy to make. Dersa? That’s an Algerian, hot-as-you-like combo of ground bird’s eye chili, paprika, cumin, and black pepper. It’s all mixed together with garlic, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. This is the kind of spice you’ll just love.
With its snugly fitting, conical top and flat-bottomed, bowl-like base, a tagine is a sort of ceramic Dutch oven that’s widely used throughout North Africa. It’s also the name for the many types of stews — tagines — that are slowly cooked in a tagine.
Although Morocco has become renowned for this style of cooking, I really like this Algerian take on a tagine. Cooked in butter, olive oil, and that lovely dersa, the chicken and chickpeas are the stars of this dish. Unlike the Moroccan riff, there are no olives, preserved lemon, apricots, onions, or carrots to distract your appreciative attention away from the central players.
This tagine’s so appealing precisely because it shines the spotlight right on the chicken. For sure, there are some long slices of red bell pepper and brightly green zucchini, but they’re here for an attractive visual impact as much as their flavors. And it does all get served with couscous.
An oldie, but a goodie
And then there are the chickpeas. Sometimes tagged as garbanzo beans, they’re one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, and were probably first ‘domesticated’ in south-west Turkey at least 8,000 years ago.
Because of their nutty and slightly earthy flavor, their popularity has certainly stood the taste of time. In Arabic, they’re called hummus, and when they’re mashed and mixed with sesame seed paste, tahina, you’ve got the basis for one of the very best dips around — hummus bi tahina.
Here, the chickpeas are left whole, and are added to the chicken once it’s almost cooked in its dersa-based sauce. This means they hold their body, and absorb a little of the sauce’s fiery flavor. But they still keep their own, distinctive taste and their creamy, ever so slightly grainy texture. And that makes for a grand contrast to the tenderness of the chicken.
In countries that border the Mediterranean in north-west Africa, couscous is a culinary cornerstone — just like rice is in, say, Chinese cuisine.
It’s made from the type of coarsely ground durum wheat — semolina — that’s mixed with water to create pasta dough. With couscous, the dough is formed into tiny beads, rather than being rolled into flat sheets and cut into all those familiar varieties of pasta.
Although it has a mild flavor that’s similar to pasta, couscous tastes noticeably nuttier, and those miniscule, grain-like beads are ideal for mopping up your tagine’s sauce.
And couscous comes with another happy bonus — it’s so easy to cook. Widely available in an ‘instant’ format, all you have to do is add boiling water, wait a few minutes and give the couscous a good, airy stir with a fork.
No tagine? No problem
Now, I know that a tagine is hardly a standard item in everyone’s kitchen. No matter. A cast-iron Dutch oven or casserole pot with a good lid and a sealing covering of silver foil will do the job perfectly well — and that’s exactly what I used.
I did, however, borrow a tagine from a kind friend, and I used that to serve the dish once it was cooked. It might have added nothing to our tagine’s flavors, but it did dress it up in the right sort of uniform for its dining table parade.
Aside from that touch of window-dressing, it’s just as good to present everything on a large, deepish, nicely warmed serving plate that’s easily big enough to hold all the couscous in a conical pile. The chicken and chickpeas then get neatly laid on top of it, and the zucchini and peppers are arranged in pleasant stripes around that central couscous mound.
Algerian Spicy Chicken And Chickpea Tagine
For the dersa
- 12 dried red bird’s eye chilies Dried cayennes or serranos also work, but they won’t be quite so fiery.
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground paprika
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oi
- 4 tablespoons hot water.
For the chicken and chickpeas
- 2 ½ pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces ( used an equal mix of drumsticks and thighs — one of each per person
- 2 cans chickpeas 14-ounce cans, thoroughly rinsed in cold water and drained — a big colander is ideal for giving the chickpeas a really good rinsing, and then letting them drain
- 5 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ cups water
For the zucchini and red bell peppers
- 6 zucchini medium-sized, topped and tailed, then partly peeled lengthwise to give each one a striped effect. Once they’re peeled, cut them lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices.
- 2 red bell peppers medium-sized, peeled while still whole with a sharp potato peeler. Try to buy fairly even-surfaced peppers — they’re far easier to peel. Don’t worry too much about getting all the skin off, just peel away as much as you can with a few sweeps of that sharp peeler. Then halve and de-seed the peppers, and cut them lengthwise into slices ½-inch wide.
- 1 ½ tablespoons salted butter.
For the couscous
- 3 cups instant couscous
- 3 cups boiling water
Making the dersa
- Add all the ingredients for the dersa to your food processor and blitz them until you have a smooth paste. That’s it, dersa done. If you prefer, you can grind the garlic and dry ingredients together in a pestle and mortar, and then add the water and olive oil. Even though it takes a bit longer, I like doing it that way because it’s a little kitchen task I enjoy.
Cooking the chicken and the chickpeas
- For this, I used a large, cast-iron Dutch oven or casserole pot that was big enough to hold all the chicken pieces in a single layer.
- Add the butter and olive oil to the pot and set it on a medium-high heat. As soon as the buttery oil starts to foam, add the chicken thighs, skin-side up. Drop the heat to low-medium and let the chicken fry for 5 minutes. Then turn the pieces over and let them fry for another 5 minutes. With that gentle frying, you’re looking to get a light golden color — and I mean light golden — on each side. Remove the thighs with a slotted spoon and set them aside on a plate — and try to leave as much buttery oil as you can in the pot.
- Repeat the same frying process with the drumsticks. You’ll need to turn these a few times as they slowly fry in order to give them a fairly even, pale gold color all over. That’ll take about 10 minutes on that low-medium heat. Remove the drumsticks with a slotted spoon, and set them on the plate with the thighs.
- Turn the heat to medium, and stir all the dersa into the buttery oil. Give it a few stirs, and as soon as it starts to bubble, pour in the water, and give the whole lot a good stir. Let the mix come up to a bare boil and drop the heat to low. Now lay all the chicken pieces into the pot in a single layer. You don’t need to stir the pieces onto the dersa sauce, just lay them down in it. Cover the top of the pot with silver foil and put the lid on. You’re aiming here to create a good seal with the foil and the lid. You now want to let the pot cook at a very slow simmer on that low heat for 40 minutes.
- When that 40 minutes is up, uncover the pot and add the chickpeas. Use a wooden spoon to work the chickpeas gently between the chicken pieces and into the dersa sauce. Take some care here so as not to break up the chickpeas or to separate the skin from the chicken. You’ll probably find that not all the chickpeas will be immersed in the sauce — that’s fine. Also, the chicken won’t be covered by the sauce either — that’s also fine. Now cover the pot again with the foil and the lid, and let it simmer away on low for another 10 minutes. Done. Turn off the heat and let the pot sit while you sort out the zucchini, peppers, and the couscous.
Cooking the zucchini and the peppers
- For this, I used a big, 12-inch skillet to gently soften the slices of zucchini and peppers in butter. So, set your big skillet on a medium heat and add the butter. As soon as it begins to foam, add the zucchini and the peppers. Now you’re looking to give them a slow and gentle stir-fry until they all soften to an al dente texture. That’ll take about 7 minutes on that medium heat — with some attentive turning so the whole lot gets evenly softened. Once you’re happy with that al dente texture, turn off the heat and leave the peppers and zucchini to sit while you cook the couscous.
Cooking the couscous
- This is so easy. Tip the couscous into a good size mixing bowl, and pour in the boiling water. Give the bowl a thorough stir so that the water and couscous are fully combined. Let it stand for 5 minutes.
- While you’re waiting for those 5 minutes, you can use the time to bring the chicken, chickpeas, and dersa sauce back up to serving temperature. Same goes for the softened zucchini and peppers.
- So, remove the lid and the foil from the big pot, and set it back on a medium-high heat. Give the pot a few gentle stirs as the sauce heats towards bubbling. Once that happens, put the lid back on and drop the heat as low as it will go.
- For the zucchini and peppers, set their skillet on a low heat, and just let them warm through ready for serving as soon as you’ve given the couscous its final stirring.
- Use a fork to stir through the couscous so that it loosens into a bowlful of single, tiny beads. This will take a few minutes of thorough — and I mean thorough — stirring with the fork. Done. You’re ready to serve.
- You want to do this fairly quickly so that everything stays nice and hot. So, turn the couscous onto a big warmed serving plate so that it forms a conical pile in the plate’s centre. Then use a slotted spoon to lift the chicken pieces and the chickpeas from your big pot, and set them carefully atop the couscous. Some of the chickpeas will tumble down the sides of the couscous and into the bottom of the serving plate — that’s fine.
- Now arrange the slices of zucchini and peppers in an alternating, traditional pattern of red and green around the sides of the couscous. Grand, nearly done.
- Pour all the dersa sauce into a suitably sized, warmed serving bowl, and set this on your dining table alongside your colorfully presented plate of couscous, chicken, chickpeas, peppers, and zucchini.
- Encourage your fellow diners to help themselves from the big plate, and to then spoon over an equable share of the dersa sauce.