Moroccan Chicken Pastilla
When I think of bar mitzvah food, my mind automatically envisions penguined waiters offering cigars and pastillas. It’s just how it was done where I grew up. At no event would those crispy, deliciously fried appetizers be missing. I would help myself to one every time and took it for granted that they’d always be available. At home, my mom skipped the laborious task of making the filling and rolling into the paper-thin barely-there dough. So I’d look for them whenever I could anticipate their presence. I realize I’m talking about food. But these are really good. And they’re part of the background of my childhood so I think it’s appropriate to wax poetic about an appetizer if nothing more than indulging in nostalgia.
When I moved from Montreal, I could no longer look forward to the abundant Moroccan food. And the times it would show up it was underwhelming at best. It just didn’t live up to the flavors I remembered. So I buckled down and set to make my own . And though the cigars came out fat rather than elegant, they tasted perfect. And I made them as spicy as I like, dreamy. And my pastillas, though with a few minor tears, were delightful. I realized, just like all my culinary adventures, that they weren’t as challenging as I’d imagine. You might read the recipe and scrunch your nose at the task but I assure you, a little patience and practice and you’ll start making it a habit to stock your freezer with them. I’m sharing the pastillas first. It’s almost Purim and I think they’re triangular shape befit the holiday spirit.
I just realized I assumed the whole time you know what pastillas are. Well, I should clarify to their content. It’s chicken seasoned with paprika, cumin and a generous dose of cinnamon. Some sugar too to sweeten it all. I add roasted almonds to the mixture, though you might find some with raisins, it’s a matter of preference and not authenticity. The real star is the feuilles de briques which is a type of dough that’s very delicate but gives its handsome crunch factor. You might find it at a Middle Eastern market. Only after honest effort in procuring it, would I suggest using phyllo dough and baking them as an alternative. But it’s a last resort. Often they’re served with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon. I skip in an effort to curtail the sweetness but it does make for a lovely presentation.
Moroccan Chicken Pastilla
for the chicken,
2 chicken quarters
3 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled
salt and pepper
for the mixture,
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
1/2 cup chopped roasted almonds
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
12 feuilles de brick, Moroccan pastry paper or filo dough.
oil, for frying
In a large saucepan or shallow pot, place chicken along with a whole onion and bay leaves. Cover with water, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cook until meat is tender and falls off the bone, about 1 hour. Transfer to a cutting board to cool and shred the meat. Discard bones and cartilage.
Heat a large pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and sauté onions until golden. Add the shredded chicken, almonds, cilantro, and 2-3 tablespoons water. Season with cinnamon, sugar, paprika, cumin and salt. Stir well and cook over low heat until mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Take off the fire and allow to cool.
On a clean surface, place round brick paper and cut in half. Take a tablespoon of the chicken mixture and place off center. Fold the bottom paper over the mixture. Tuck the right side over the mixture and keep on folding until you get a triangle, making sure to wet the edges to “seal” the fold. It’s easier to visualize when you see it done. You can see me doing it here under the Pastilla highlight. Repeat until you’ve used up all the chicken. You can store them in the freezer and fry a few at a time.
To fry, heat a small saucepan filled with a few inches of oil on medium high. Fry the pastilla until golden. Pray that none of them tear while frying. Drain on a paper towel. For an authentic touch, sprinkle some powdered sugar and cinnamon before serving.
Alternately, you can use the mixture and stuff it into puff pastry, like borekas. Bake in an oven at 350 for 15 minutes, or so. Just don’t call them pastilla next to anyone Moroccan. They’ll take self-righteous offense.