More Kasbah Cookery

In Recipies on November 5, 2012 at 8:50 am


Kasbah Tamadot (Web Photo)

This recipe combines two of my favorite things: Moroccan flavors and Cornish game hens.

I’ve already gushed praise on the little birds in several, previous columns and recipes. It bears repeating that game hens provide just enough flavorful meat to satisfy most carnivores, they are simple to prepare, and they cost almost as little as turkey during the summer season in North America.

[With the approach of the American Thanksgiving holiday, this dish would be a great substitute for a whole turkey if you are feeding a large group. The cost would be similar and there would be no gigantic containers of leftovers to deal with later.]

The original version of this recipe employs quail. The dish is just as tasty with game hens and similar birds whether they are called “squab”, “pigeon”, “quail”, or “Chukars”. Using game hens will allow you to sample one of the most traditional Moroccan meals without the expense of using quail!

I made other deviations from the traditional Moroccan recipe. I substituted whole wheat couscous, added a bit of cinnamon beyond what is in the ras el hanout, and drizzled a bit of fine honey over the birds just before service. The honey adds even more sweetness to an already sweet meal. Besides, as the Arabic proverb says: “An Arab who does not enjoy sweets is like a Muslim who does not believe in Paradise.”

If you do not use whole wheat couscous, be sure to cut its preparation liquid by at least one-half. The whole wheat couscous keeps its body and is very forgiving of overcooking. Overcooking regular couscous will yield a pasty mush resembling a very poor polenta.

I also eliminated saffron in the dish. I’m not a fan. I’ve tried saffron from many sources and in many variations of quality. Although it lends a gorgeous color to the dish, its flavor seems ‘iodine-like’ to me. If you love it, use it. I simply used a bit more ras el hanout.

[Every spice seller will vouch that their version of ras el hanout (lit. “boss of the shop”) spice blend is authentic. Just like all other things in the kitchen, the composition of ras el hanout is a matter of tradition and personal taste. I tend toward blends that run heavy on rose hips. You will find Lebanese, Moroccan, Persian, and other variations. I also favor the Lebanese style which uses a bit more allspice and cumin. The Persian style, using more cardamom, is also quite excellent. An excellent spice seller will guide you. Or, best, experiment with your own blends!]

The recipe for the couscous stuffing is sufficient for two birds. Increase the amounts proportionately if you are preparing more birds.

Let’s get to our Kasbah cookery! You will need:

1 16-32oz game hen per person

3/4 C (uncooked) whole wheat couscous per bird

6oz slivered almonds, toasted

6oz dried mission figs, minced

1 tsp ground ginger

2 ½ C water

2 TBS sugar

3 TBS olive oil

½ tsp black pepper (or ¼ tsp Aleppo pepper)

1 onion, thin sliced

1 ½ tsp ras el hanout (according to taste)

pinch saffron (optional)

kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to season

pinch cinnamon

1 TBS fine honey per bird

thread and needle

Be sure the game hens are 100% thawed!

Prepare the couscous according to package instructions (See notes above!) and set it aside to cool. Mix in the figs, ginger, pepper, sugar, and almonds with the cooked couscous when it is cool. Meanwhile, carefully clean and rinse the hens. Pat them dry (inside and out) with paper towels. Lightly season inside with a bit of salt and pepper.

[NOTE: Practice superior kitchen hygiene when handling the stuffing and the birds. NEVER allow a spoon or your hand to touch the bird and then return to the bowl of stuffing. You will be using the leftover stuffing separately! It is safest to dish out sufficient couscous for stuffing the birds into a separate bowl from which you will take to stuff the birds. It takes less than a drop of uncooked poultry juice contamination to create ‘food poisoning’ for everyone. Always cook the stuffed birds IMMEDIATELY after stuffing them.]

Use a teaspoon and your fingers to stuff the couscous mixture inside each hen. Carefully suture (sew) up any openings after the birds are stuffed. Place the birds in a very deep skillet (that has a cover) and pour the water and oil into the skillet. The water should cover the birds by almost half. Sprinkle the ras el hanout into the water and also a bit on top of each hen. Scatter the onion slices around the birds. Season with a bit of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Set aside any remaining couscous stuffing mixture.

Heat the skillet over medium-high heat and bring to the boil. Cook, uncovered for thirty minutes. Rotate each bird ¼ turn every fifteen minutes. Reduce the heat to simmer and cover. Cook for an additional 30 minutes, turning each bird ¼ turn every 15 minutes. Check the internal temperature of the birds. They are done when they are at 165F in their thickest part. BE SURE to also check the temperature of the stuffing at the same time. It should be at least 160F. Remove the birds from the skillet to a platter, breast side up. Drizzle about 1 tbs of honey over each bird and sprinkle with a tiny bit of cinnamon. Ideally, the liquid in the pan will be slightly syrupy and coat the birds with a fine glaze.

While the birds are ‘resting’, check the liquid in the skillet. It must be syrupy. If it is too thin, reduce it over high heat. If it is too thick and pasty, add a bit of water. When the liquid is at the correct consistency, toss in the remaining couscous mixture and stir. Spoon the couscous onto serving plates and nest the game hens in its center. Snip out your sutures and remove the thread before service.


  1. I am going to make a Paleo-friendly version of this tonight using riced-cauliflower in place of the couscous! Very excited!

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