spice up your life! chicken stewed with berber red spice paste

chicken stewed with Berber red spice paste
I recently had a forgotten treasure returned to me. Some three years ago a friend asked me what cookbook I would recommend for someone who wanted to broaden their cooking horizons but who refused to buy any cookbook that involved television tie-ins or shouty celebrity chefs.

"Well, Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall are rather good," I said.

"Are they on television?" He asked plaintively. "Yes," I replied, "but they don't shout". "Then no," my friend said firmly. Well that narrowed things down a lot.

"Not too old-fashioned," he said. "And I want pictures, and a few anecdotes but definitely no shouting. Or models. Or bloody fairy lights!"

Not much of a tall order then. Actually it wasn't. I immediately lent my friend Richard Whittington's Home Cook, Exploring the World's Best Cooking (1999). I had  feeling that my friend would be particularly in tune with Richard Whittington's view on food and cooking. Whittington says in his introduction:

"The recent fascination with chefs and restaurant cooking has been sending some confusing messages, particularly in their performance on television. I believe television has an ultimately corrosive effect on good food and on good food writing because it is in the nature of the medium to concentrate on celebrity and visual effect."

Er . . . quite!

Sadly Richard Whittington died several years ago. He had been a part of the Soho-Boho coterie of artists and drinkers that habituated Soho in the '70s (Jeffrey Bernard, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud et al) and clearly ate and drank his way through life with gusto, despite increasing ill-health from the effects of Multiple Sclerosis.

He was a wonderful writer who collaborated with chefs such as Alastair Little and Dan Lepard - able to translate their professional world in a way that home cooks can readily understand
and achieve. A bit of a reprobate and bon viveur, acerbic and excoriating at times, his writing is lively and original - promoting local produce, good ingredients and seasonality. He also must have been a terrific cook if his recipes are anything to go by.

I would urge you to seek out a copy of Home Food (1999), which celebrates home cooking from around the world. To my mind it is one of his best (of many books) and is probably due for a revival.

So when Dominic at Belleau Kitchen announced that the latest Random Recipe blog challenge was our own choice - "a way to celebrate our love of recipe books and those wonderfully talented people who write them" I thought that a recipe from Home Food would be the perfect choice since the book has been randomly returned to me!

My copy of Home Food fell open at page 207 - slap bang in the middle of the North African and Middle East section. Hurrah. (I have to admit that I would have been less happy if the book had fallen open at say the Japanese section - a cuisine that I have yet to learn to embrace. That is for another time!)

The recipe is for chicken cooked in a spice paste, which is very similar to harissa, but which is a fusion of French and Algerian cooking.(Not to be confused with Ethiopian bebere spice blend, which is slightly different.)  It is hot (as hot as you want it to be) and full of wonderful spice aromas. It should be part of your spice paste repertoire as it is perfect dolloped onto soup or stirred through rice or couscous. It is goes beautifully with fish and shellfish and is the perfect marinade for lamb too.

Berber red spice paste
chicken stewed with Berber red spice paste
(adapted from Richard Whittington's Home Food)

Serves 4
Skill level: Easy

4 x chicken leg joints (or any mixed pieces of chicken-on-the-bone)
juice of 2½ x lemons
5 tbsp olive oil
2-3 x English onions, finely sliced
4 x garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 tsp ground fenugreek
3 tbsp Berber red pepper paste (see recipe below)
300ml dry red wine
1 litre stock or water
1 x bay leaf
4cm fresh ginger, peel and cut into very fine strips
4 x hard-boiled eggs, shelled (optional)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
vermicelli rice or couscous, to serve
fresh flat-leaf parsley or coriander, finely chopped, to serve

Berber red pepper paste
1 tsp cardamom seeds
1 tsp allspice berries
¼ x nutmeg
1 x cinnamon stick (about 3cm long)
4 x clove buds
5 tbsp olive oil
1 x English onion, finely chopped
4 x garlic cloves, very finely chopped
6 tbsp paprika
3 tbsp ground chilli (or less to taste)
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp ground fenugreek
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp smoked paprika (optional)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar)


  1. First prepare the chicken. Cut the chicken pieces into thighs and drumsticks. Place them in a bowl and rub over a teaspoon of salt. Add the lemon juice, cover and leave at room temperature to marinate for about 1 hour. (Turn the pieces a couple of times to make sure that the chicken is well covered in lemon juice.)
  2. While the chicken is marinating, make the Berber red pepper paste. Deseed your cardamom pods. I find the easiest way to do this is to give them a bit of a bash with a pestle, which splits the tough pod. It is then a doddle to pick out the tiny seeds.
  3. Gently heat a small frying pan and add the cardamom seeds, allspice berries, bit of nutmeg, cinnamon stick and the cloves. Toast the spices over the low heat for about 2 to 3 minutes. (Do not let them burn!)
  4. At this stage you can immediately place them in a grinder and grind to a fine powder. However, my grinder isn't much good with larger pieces of tough spice, so I tend to bash the spices first in my heavy stone pestle and mortar, before tipping them into the grinder and whizzing them up.
  5. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium pan and gently fry the onion over a low heat for about 10 minutes, until beginning to soften.
  6. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes.
  7. Add the all of the spices and salt and cook for 1 minute.
  8. Tip the whole lot into a blender with the vinegar and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and blend to a paste. If the paste seems very thick, add 1 tablespoon of cold water, a tablespoon at a time and blitz. Make sure you scrape down the sides of the blender between blitzes, to ensure that the paste is evenly blended. The paste should be spoonable - not too thick and not too runny. Put the paste in clean, sterilised jar and set aside to cool. (It will survive in the fridge for about a month - but make sure that you leave a thin layer of oil on the surface of the paste to protect from bacteria.)
  9. Remove the chicken from the lemon marinade and pat dry. (Reserve the marinade for later.)
  10. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large saucepan over a low to medium heat. The oil is hot enough when you cannot hover your hand over the pan for more than 8 seconds - it should be slightly shimmering! Add the chicken pieces and brown all over. When browned set aside on kitchen paper, to blot up any excess oil.
  11. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and gently cook the onions until soft and translucent - usually about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ground fenugreek and stir well to combine.
  12. Add 2 tablespoons of Berber red pepper paste. Turn the heat up to medium and cook for 2 minutes.
  13. Add the wine and stock (or water), together with the bay leaf. Bring to the boil and boil for 3 to 5 minutes.
  14. Return the chicken pieces to the saucepan, grate over nutmeg, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
  15. Add the reserved marinade, ginger and peeled hard-boiled eggs, if using. Adjust the seasoning and simmer for 5 minutes.
  16. Serve with vermicelli rice or couscous and a side portion of spiced chickpeas, scattered with a little finely chopped flat-leaf parsley or coriander.
  • The paste is fabulous on all meats and fish, and delicious stirred into vegetable soup, couscous or rice.


laura@howtocookgoodfood said...

This book sounds like a real find,I will look it up. If this recipe is anything to go by, I am sure I would love it. The Berber paste is something special I bet. Thanks for this great book suggestion!

Anonymous said...

I suppose it'd be possible to make double quantities of the paste and freeze/refrigerate the rest?
(I hate washing the damned food processor.)


Anonymous said...

Yes, that book looks worth seeking out. And meanwhile, I'll be making the spice paste ... very soon

belleau kitchen said...

oh man that paste looks sensational... a great one for my beloved chicken thighs... what a great dish and what a fab post too... such a great way to join in with Random Recipes, thanks so much Rachel x

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Laura - thank you! I am rummaging through the book right now to work out what my next attempt will be ... I'm thinking about a trip to South America!

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Fran - I'm with you on cleaning the blender (just lazy I guess!). Definitely refrigerate, but make sure you drizzle over a little oil (and use a clean spoon every time you use some - it helps cut down on bacteria!) I also freeze pastes (but if making pesto, then I exclude the cheese but add it when defrosting).

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Margaret - I'm looking forward to trying it out on some summer bbq (that's if we have a summer this year, she says forlornly!)

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Dom - cheers me dear! I am loving being a part of Random Recipes - it's a fabulous community!

Letterslive said...

I bought a copy and have spent a happy half-an-hour drooling over the recipes. Where to start?

Black bean puree with pork albondigas I think.
Or char siu (as long as I have the Chinese soy sauce).
Or stracotto (there is a brisket in the freezer)...

Oh my!


PS Thanks for the hints on refrigerating and freezing pastes.

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Fran - I am so pleased! I can thoroughly recommend the char sui, but haven't tried the others . . . so many recipes, so little time!

As for the pastes - a pleasure, it works for me!

Ruth Ellis said...

This looks really gorgeous - the spice paste sounds delicious.

Phil in the Kitchen said...

I've got a copy of this book sitting on the shelf - thanks for the reminder, I've definitely got to use it again. This is a fine recipe. I'm also very fond of the book Food of the Sun that Richard Whittington wrote with Alastair Little. I must dig that out too.

Anonymous said...

What a great looking dish. This was a great month at Random Recipe to have a little control! You picked a great cookbook and landed upon a wonderful looking recipe!

Suzanne said...

Another Richard Whittington fan here. This sounds delicious - I love versatile spice pastes like this one, I think it makes for quite creative cooking when you've got something like this lurking in the fridge.

Anonymous said...

You should seek out his other book "Cutting Edge: A Cook's Californian Inspiration". I return to it time and again – Frank / http://frankaboutfood.co.uk