The city of Tangier – perched on the northwestern tip of Morocco – was declared an International Zone after World War I and was jointly...Read More
Paleo Chicken Bastila
In each issue of Paleo Magazine, I share the history of a traditional recipe and adapt it to fit into a healthier paleo lifestyle. This is a reprint of a previous article; in this edition, we’re off to a celebration in Morocco.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the cookbook Middle Eastern Cooking by Rose Dosti and how my dad and I bonded over an illicit photocopying session of recipes from the book. One of the treasures I found inside its pages was a recipe for Chicken Bastila, a traditional Moroccan dish usually prepared for holidays and weddings. It’s a sweet-savory pie made from layers of phyllo dough stuffed with spice-infused chicken, cinnamon-scented almonds, and soft scrambled eggs. When the pie is done baking, it’s sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar (!) and cinnamon. I made it in its original form twice in my life and both times, it was transcendent. Seriously. Like nothing else in the world.
Morocco sits on the western coast of North Africa, at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea and at the crossroads of European and Arab cultures. With cities like Fez, Tangier, Marrakech, and Casablanca—places that dance from the pages of romance novels and fairytales—it has an exotic aura that makes it both alluring and mysterious. Morocco’s cuisine reflects its multicultural heritage, marrying the refinement of European technique with the spices, olives, and nuts found in the markets of the Middle East.
Everyday meals in Moroccan homes begin with an array of cold vegetable salads, followed by couscous and braised meats cooked in the cone-shaped, clay pot known as a tagine. On holidays and other celebratory occasions like weddings, skilled female cooks, known as dadas, display their culinary prowess with a pie called bastila (pronounced bah-STEEL-ah).
Traditionally made with pigeon (squab), bastila is a flaky, savory-sweet confection, wrapped in fragile pastry called werqa (which translates to “leaf”). The phyllo-like dough is stuffed with layers of tender shredded poultry, eggs seasoned with ginger and herbs, and a dusting of ground almonds and cinnamon. The finished pie is then sprinkled lavishly with powdered sugar and more cinnamon. It’s said that the pie is served to newlyweds in hopes that their lives together will be as sweet as the bastila.
When revising this recipe, I figured that since the traditional version included crushed almonds with cinnamon, an almond flour crust wouldn’t stray too far from the original. And if I “cheated” a little bit and used a few dates instead of sugar as a sweetener, I could make a pie that’s technically paleo. I suspect Moroccan cooks would say this doesn’t measure up because it’s less sweet than the traditional recipe, but I’m very pleased with the result—especially because it means I haven’t had to bid Chicken Bastila adieu. The pie is crispy, has just the right touch of sweetness, and is very filling and rich. The perfect celebration of family and food.
Don’t be put off by the steps involved in making bastila. It’s not difficult, and making this pie is a lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon. It’s a delicious celebration of food, family, and friends. I like to think the dadas would approve.
Paleo Chicken Bastila
Makes 8 large slices so share with friends! There are a lot of steps, but none of them are complicated, so don’t be intimidated by the lengthy list of ingredients and instructions. This is a “project” recipe – it takes some time, but it’s art, so relax and enjoy the process. It takes about 2 hours to create this masterpiece.
For the chicken:
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 medium onions, diced
2 1/2 pounds chicken breasts & thighs, bone in, skin removed
1/2 tablespoon powdered ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup chicken broth
3/4 cup water
2 large egg whites
For the almond dust:
1 1/4 cup dry roasted, unsalted almonds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 dates, pit removed
For the crust:
2 cups almond flour or almond meal
2 dates, pits removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons coconut oil, chilled until it’s solid, then cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 egg, beaten
For the eggs:
1/3 cup fresh parsley leaves, minced
2 large eggs, beaten
1 large egg white
Prepare the chicken. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the coconut oil. When it’s melted, add the chicken and brown well on both sides, about 3-5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a bowl to catch the juices and return the pan to the heat. Add the onions and saute until they’re translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the ginger, salt, pepper, and cinnamon sticks to the pan and stir to combine. Return the chicken to the pan and pour in the water and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered for about an hour, until the chicken is very tender
While the chicken is simmering…
Prepare the almond dust. Place the dates in a food processor and puree on high until they form a paste. Add the almonds and cinnamon, and process on high until the almonds are chopped very fine and the dates are incorporated. Allow yourself one small bite, then set the dust aside.
Prepare the crust. In the food processor, blend the almond flour, dates, salt, and baking soda until combined. Sprinkle the top with the coconut oil cubes and gently toss them in the flour with your fingers so they’re coated in flour. Using the pulse button on the processor, give the dough 5-7 pulses for about 1 second each. You do not want the coconut oil completely blended into the flour; the mixture should resemble coarse sand. Turn the dough out into a large bowl and using your hands, gently mix in the beaten egg. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to 1 day.
When the chicken is cooked…
Cool the chicken. Remove the chicken from the pan and set in a bowl to catch the juices. Measure a 1/4 cup of the liquid from the pan and pour into the bowl with the chicken. Reserve the liquid in the skillet and let the chicken cool completely while you make the eggs.
Prepare the eggs. Measure 1 cup of the cooking liquid from the skillet and discard the rest. Return the liquid to the pan and add the parsley. Bring to a boil, then simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated. It should almost look like a sauce or gravy. Beat the eggs and pour them into the pan, stirring gently until they’re set and all the liquid is absorbed. Set aside to cool.
When all the ingredients are cool to the touch…
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Shred the chicken. Using your hands, pull the chicken off the bones and shred it, mixing it into the liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Add the two egg whites and stir until the chicken is coated.
Prep the scrambled eggs. Add the remaining 1 egg white to the scrambled eggs and mix with your hands until the eggs are coated. (The egg whites are a stand-in for sugar and act as a binder during baking.)
Make the crust. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and smush the ball into a large, flat disc with your hands. Place it in the center of a 9-inch pie pan and using your fingers, gently press it into the bottom and sides of the pan to form an even crust. This is not as difficult as it sounds; the dough has a texture like playdough.
Assemble the pie. Layer half the chicken in the bottom of the pan and top with all of the scrambled eggs. Sprinkle the top of the eggs with half of the almond dust. Add the remaining chicken then top it with the remaining almond dust, gently pressing the dust into the surface. It should end up looking like a traditional crumb-topped pie. Place the pie in the center of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is very well browned and the edges of the crust are crisp. Let it cool for 10 minutes, then cut into wedges with a very sharp knife. To re-heat leftover, cover loosely with foil and heat in a 300 F oven for 10-15 minutes.
If you try your hand at Paleo Chicken Bastila, please let me know. I’d love to hear what you think of it! This was a giant experiment for me – I think it’s literally the first time I’ve ever made pie in my life – and I’m really pleased with the result. I hope you like it!