First, let me start with some definitions, lest I lose anyone without an intimate knowledge of North African spice blends and French cooking techniques. I will also give the obligatory, “I’m no expert/professional chef” disclaimer for fear of sounding like a condescending jackass.
Paillard-ing is, quite simply, the act of butterflying a piece of meat (like a chicken breast), pounding it thin and grilling it quickly. Had I thought about it in advance I would have taken pictures and given a short tutorial. Luckily, there are smarter people than I and, after a quick Google search, I found a very good one on Serious Eats.
Next up is Harissa. As I mentioned, it is a North African chili sauce or paste, native to Tunisia, but also eaten in Algeria and more frequently being seen in Moroccan food. It is a combination of chilis and, depending on where it’s made, can contain varying amounts of spices, including coriander, cumin and caraway, as well as garlic or lemon. It’s actually a great addition to pastas, lending a hard-to-pinpoint smokiness. For me, all that’s left is the old Hannukah/Channukah debate. Do I give it the phlegmmy Chhhhharissa pronunciation or just your standard “H”? In Westchester I know Balducci’s carries it, I’d bet Whole Foods does and you can always order it on Amazon.
The first thing I did, after paillard-ing my chicken breasts, was to whisk some harissa paste with just enough olive oil to give it a consistency that would coat the chicken. Then I dredged the breasts in the harissa oil and refrigerated them, allowing them to marinate for an hour or so.
Then I moved on to my relish. My ingredients were:
- Green olives, blanched for a minute in boiling water. Why? Because they’re just so hard and unyielding they wouldn’t have picked up any of the marinade I was going to have them sitting in.
- Kalamata olives, rustically chopped.
- Grape or cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- One shallot, finely chopped
- Half a cucumber, seeded and chopped
- Fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- Fresh mint, chiffonaded (is that a word?)
- Lemon zest, finely chopped
- Orange zest, finely chopped
- Good balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
I’d love to give you amounts, but honestly, I was working on the fly. This is a rustic preparation, add as much of any ingredient as you like. Like mint? Have at it. I used equal parts tomatoes and olives, but you may want more tomatoes, a 2:1 ratio for example. Just remember, the vinegar should awaken the flavors, not punch you in the face. I made the relish early enough that it could sit and marinate for at least a half hour.
The ginger yogurt component was divine providence, my initial clue that I was on the right path with this dish. I knew I wanted to use some sort of yogurt to soothe the spice of the chicken. I originally thought of using labneh, a middle eastern soft cheese made from yogurt. But I didn’t want it to be plain. I thought of flavoring it with cumin or turmeric for a bit of sweetness, and then moved on to mixing honey with the labneh. When I stopped at Murray’s Cheese in Grand Central to buy it my eye spied ginger yogurt. It was like an epiphany. Ginger would add just the sweetness I wanted and its flavor would mesh perfectly with the rest of the dish!
I also bought some frisee (the awkward lettuce) because I thought the dish could use some greens. I tossed the it very lightly in a very light dressing of fresh orange juice, fresh lemon juice and olive oil.
To assemble it I just drizzled some of the yogurt over the chicken, made a ring of the frisee and spooned the relish in.
If you like spicy food (though this wasn’t even all THAT spicy) I highly recommend trying this. The balance of flavors was really great. FoodieWife and I try to decide if a meal is “restaurant quality”, as in if we paid for it would we feel ripped off or that it was worth it? This one was worth it.