Blue Plate Special

Blue Plate Special, a writer’s memoir.

Kate Christensen is exactly the kind of woman I would spend all my time trying to bed if I weren’t already married to The Most Wonderful Woman in the World. She’s hot, with the most beguiling eyes, and expressions, I’ve encountered (we once shared a stage at the Key West Literary Seminar); she’s smart as lightening, and she writes fabulous books. Readers of this site, if you haven’t read Epicure’s Lament, put it next on your list, followed by The Great Man, which inspired the below recipe. That’s right: a fictional scene generated this most delicious North African–style chicken stew, a version of which I made for Donna on Saturday. It’s also a lesson in the way recipes ought to be written and followed.

Christensen’s most recent book, a memoir, Blue Plate Special, began as a series of blog posts after which the author got carried away (the best of reasons to do anything). It’s the story of her life, with food bits tacked on here and there, and while it’s true she loves to cook and to eat, Blue Plate Special is really the story of a girl, born in 1962 to West Coast hippie intellectuals (and not happy ones at that—the violence of her father, and the resulting complex love-hate-fear theme runs throughout), who makes her bumbling way through life just as we all do—childhood dangers skirted, sometimes barely, early struggles through college and miserable jobs, marriage, affairs, travel, writing.

Life is fraught, often joyful, often terrible, and it certainly does not arrive in the neat package of a cohesive narrative. That is the artist’s job, to order the chaos, with hopes of finding at least some understanding in what, without art, without narrative, would be unendurable meaninglessness. Christensen is just such a soul, as exemplified by the writing and storytelling in this excellent memoir, in which the following recipe appears.

Tagine 4 @540

Chicken Tagine

I invented this recipe by describing it on the fly in the first chapter of my novel, The Great Man, in which a seventy-four-year-old woman half seduces a forty-year-old man with food, and then I made it in order to test my imaginative culinary instincts. There is no modest way to say this: the apricots melt into the broth and sweeten it deeply, the olives give it brine, and the almonds and cilantro and lemon bring it to life. And it contains cinnamon; it is, in a word, delicious.

On low heat, sauté a chopped red onion and 5–6 minced garlic cloves in lots of butter (or ghee) or oil. Add coriander and cumin, about a tablespoon—yes, I said tablespoon, of each (feel free to use already ground; I like using a mortar and pestle, but some people don’t)—a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a lemon’s worth of grated zest, a generous pinch each of saffron and cayenne, a teaspoon of paprika, 2 bay leaves, and a thumb-sized lump of grated fresh ginger. Keep heat low, stir constantly, and make sure nothing burns or sticks; add more ghee or oil if necessary.

When it’s all cooked into a commingled fragrant brown spice puddle, add a red and a yellow pepper, diced; a large carrot or 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped small; a generous handful of cracked green olives; a handful of dried Turkish apricots, chopped small; one 15–16 ounce can of well-rinsed chickpeas; a cup of Pomì diced tomatoes; and a cup of hearty chicken broth. Bring to a gentle boil, then right down to a simmer, and cover.

Cut up 5 skinless, boneless chicken thighs and 3 breasts, more than 2 pounds of chicken in all, into big bite-size pieces—the kind you have to cut in half to really eat—and grill them in a cast-iron skillet in ghee or oil till they’re brown just on the outside and still raw inside, then add them to the stew and stir everything together and gently simmer it, covered, for 4 1/2 hours. Add more chicken broth as necessary.

Sauté and slightly brown 1 package or 2 cups couscous—or, if you’re gluten intolerant, quinoa—in 2 tablespoons butter, then cook according to the directions on the packet. Serve with harissa or shug, along with bowls of chopped toasted almonds, lemon slices, and chopped fresh cilantro.

Thanks, Kate, keep on writing and cooking!

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.



23 Wonderful responses to “Blue Plate Special: Chicken Tagine”

  • Eleanor Harvey

    Michael, did you cook yours in a Tagine, or in a conventional pot with a lid?

  • Victoria

    I went to Amazon and was astounded by the number of very negative reviews of this book. I checked out what The New York Times had to say. It was this: “Sprinkled with recipes and memories of meals, “Blue Plate Special” is a toothsome blend of personal and social history.”

    Sounds good. Even as good as that chicken looks.

  • dan

    mr. ruhlman, hitting on another woman while complimenting your wife in the same sentence seems excesively smooth. I need to know: does it WORK???

    • ruhlman

      I was not “hitting” on the author; that was a public flirtation born of admiration for her work. She seems to be as happily ensconced in her relationship as I am in mine. Tell me what you mean by “work”?

      • Harry

        I don’t know what Dan meant but I think not offending either lady would be a good start. ;-}

  • Becky

    If that’s the way recipes ought to be written, why don’t you write yours that way? I find the narrative style really annoying if I’m actually trying to follow a recipe.

    • ruhlman

      Because most people have been trained to read recipes in a specific way. Recipes once were all narrative rather than magazine format. A narrative recipe, such as Kate’s, has the potential for nuance, even artfulness, where as traditional recipe formats leave very little room for that. I’ve never been a fan of instruction manuals, and where it comes to cooking, the format can harm cooks in the long run.

      • Harry

        How about both? When I create a recipe (I can’t say new recipe because I’m not sure any such thing exists), I put notes such as these into the header, followed by a spare, easy-for-me-to-follow recipe + instructions. For just that reason my headers are often longer than my recipes.

  • Kimberly

    Would this still work if I left out the olives? Could they be substituted with something else maybe?
    It sounds fabulous!

  • Sherri

    I read Blue Plate Special, and loved it! Please do take Michael’s advice and buy a copy soon (visit an independent bookstore, please). I also had the pleasure of meeting Kate Christensen, and she is truly lovely and a fantastic writer.

  • Sharon

    Sounds amazing. Would cooking this in a Dutch oven for that long dry out the chicken? I want to shop for the ingredients (I don’t have apricots) tomorrow!

    • ruhlman

      no, dutch oven great. frankly this can go for an hour if you want, but the longer the better, and if it dries out add water our tomato or stock.

  • Carlota

    I too find narrative recipes difficult, but I’ll just make notes of ingredients/quantity so I have it all on hand and don’t forget to add something! BUT – “serve with Harissa or shug”………what is “shug”??


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  1.  Chicken-Tagine-Recipe Recipe | Michael Ruhlman