Braised Chicken with Saffron Onions, Italian Couscous, and Dates

While I’m not a fusion person, I do often find myself melding different cultures into a single dish. This chicken dish is a great example, drawing paprika and sherry from Spain, and dates, saffron, and couscous from Morocco. In place of Morrocan couscous in this dish I use fregola sarda, Sardinia’s answer to traditional couscous. Fregola sarda is made from hand-rolled balls of coarsely ground semolina. Although often called “Italian couscous,” its larger size and slightly toasted flavor distinguish it from its North African counterpart. It lends the dish a nutty flavor and chewy texture, and is the perfect accompaniment to soak up all the spiced broth and fragrant saffron onions. The final addition of sliced dates and fresh herbs gives this Mediterranean tagine a sweet finish.

NotesThe chicken is even better when it’s braised the day before. Remember, it needs to marinate a day ahead.

Cooking Methodbraising, sauteeing


Total Timea day or more

Make Ahead RecipeYes

OccasionFormal Dinner Party

Recipe Coursemain course

Equipmentmortar and pestle


Moodadventurous, festive

Taste and Texturesavory, spiced


  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 chicken legs with thighs attached
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 chile de arbol, crumbled
  • 2 teaspoons bittersweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onion
  • 1 cup sliced fennel
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ cup chopped San Marzano canned tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • ½ cup white wine
  • ½ cup sherry
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves
  • Italian couscous (recipe follows)
  • Saffron onions (recipe follows)
  • Date relish (recipe follows)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2½ cups Italian couscous, or fregola sarda
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 cups sliced onions (about 1¼ pounds)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 chile de árbol, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup Deglet Noor dates
  • 2 tablespoons super-good extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons sliced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sliced cilantro
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan for a few minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Using a mortar and pestle, pound them coarsely. Repeat with the coriander seeds.

  2. Place the chicken in a large bowl with the smashed garlic, thyme, parsley, crumbled chile, cumin, coriander, and paprika. Using your hands, toss the chicken and spices together to coat the chicken well. Cover, and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

  3. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking, to allow it to come to room temperature. After 15 minutes, season the chicken on all sides with 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon salt and lots of pepper.

  4. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

  5. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Place the chicken legs, skin side down, in the pan, and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and crispy. (If your pan is too small for all of the legs to fit, brown them in batches so you don’t crowd them.) Every so often, swirl the oil and rendered fat around the pan. Turn the legs over, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook 2 minutes on the second side. Arrange the chicken (in one layer) in a braising dish. The chicken legs should just fit in the pan.

  6. Pour off some of the fat and return the sauté pan to medium heat. Add the onion, fennel, and bay leaves. Cook 6 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables are lightly caramelized. Add the tomatoes and cook another 5 minutes, stirring and scraping with a wooden spoon. Add the sherry vinegar, white wine, and sherry. Turn the heat up to high and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.

  7. Add the cilantro and pour the broth and vegetables over the chicken, scraping off any of the vegetables that have fallen on the chicken back into the liquid. The liquid should not quite cover the chicken. Cover the pan very tightly with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid if you have one. Braise in the oven 1c to 2 hours.

  8. To check the chicken for doneness, remove the lid and foil, being careful of the steam. Pierce a piece of the chicken with a paring knife. If the meat is done, it will yield easily and be tender but not quite falling off the bone.

  9. Turn the oven up to 400°F.

  10. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet, and return it to the oven to brown for about 10 minutes.

  11. Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables with a ladle to extract all the juices. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, to thicken it slightly.

  12. Place the hot couscous on a large warm platter. Spoon the saffron onions over it, and arrange the chicken on top. Ladle some of the juices over the chicken, and top each leg with a spoonful of date relish. Serve the extra broth and date relish on the side.

    Italian Couscous

  13. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat.

  14. Add the couscous and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until tender but still al dente.

  15. Drain the couscous, return it to the pot, and toss with the butter, parsley, and a pinch of pepper. Taste for seasoning.

    Saffron Onions

  16. Toast the saffron threads in a small pan over medium heat until they just dry and become brittle. Be careful not to burn the precious saffron. Pound the saffron in a mortar to a fine powder. Dab a tablespoon of the butter into the powder, using the butter to pick up the saffron.

  17. Heat a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, remaining butter, and saffron. When the butter foams, add the onions, bay leaf, chile, thyme, 1½ teaspoons salt, and some pepper. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often, as the onions wilt. Turn the heat down to low, and cook another 20 minutes, stirring every now and then, until the onions are soft and sweet. Taste for seasoning.

    Date Relish

  18. Pit the dates, and slice them thinly lengthwise.

  19. Toss the dates with the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and cilantro. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and some pepper.

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