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8 & $20: Harissa Chicken with Savory Couscous

Give a dinner staple more punch by roasting the bird with a Middle Eastern spice mix and pairing it with a Rioja red
Photo by: Greg Hudson
This spiced-up bird needs a wine with moderate tannins and juicy fruit to handle the heat.

Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Posted: October 31, 2017

Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

A roast chicken dinner is a classic, but sometimes a classic needs a twist. Here’s a twist with kick.

Harissa is a condiment common to North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. It’s usually made up of a variety of chiles, plus garlic and a combination of herbs and spices, all ground into a paste. Found in many grocery stores, harissa offers a lot of complexity from a single ingredient. As you can imagine, it also packs quite a punch, so gauge the amount to use to your particular taste and heat tolerance.

Roasting your chicken with a harissa coating will give you a lot of flavor in one easy step, but you want to make sure the chicken is juicy too. To ensure the chicken turns out tender all the way through, start it breast-side down and flip it after about 30 minutes to make sure the juices distribute evenly. Cook sliced onion along with the chicken to soak up all the delicious pan juices.

I also took inspiration from North Africa and the Middle East in creating the simple couscous side, dressed up with olives and preserved lemons for a tangy, savory version. Preserved lemons are easy to make, but they do take several weeks, so if you don’t happen to already have some on hand (as I did), just go ahead and buy them. Alternatively, you can use lemon zest. It’ll have a very different flavor, but along with a sprinkling of mint, it will still provide a refreshing counterpoint to the spicy heat of the harissa.

Quite a few whites would work well with this dish; I don’t think you could go wrong with an off-dry wine to mitigate the spice. It’s fall, though, and cooler temperatures had me craving a red. The key here is to find red wines with a fruity profile and supple, light to medium tannins. I decided to try a Rioja Crianza and a California Zinfandel.

The Zinfandel’s ample fruit flavors worked well; however, the wine's alcohol level was on the higher side, accentuating the spiciness of the harissa. (Note: We tried this wine with some leftovers of the chicken served with a richer side, and it made a better match.) The Rioja Crianza also had juicy fruit, but less alcohol, so it did not fan the flames the way the Zinfandel did. Medium-bodied, with higher acidity, it altogether made a more refreshing and seamless match.

Harissa Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olive Couscous


Pair with a Rioja red such as Cune Rioja Crianza 2014 (88 points, $13).


Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 70 to 80 minutes
Active cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 85 to 95 minutes
Approximate food costs: $23

  • 5 to 5 1/2 pound whole chicken, brought to room temperature
  • 2 large onions (1 1/2 onions sliced, 1/2 onion diced)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons harissa paste
  • 2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups of chicken stock (or water)
  • 2 cups couscous (whole wheat was used here)
  • 4-ounce can of sliced black olives, drained
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons preserved lemons, minced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons julienned mint, plus more for garnish if desired
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Cooking oil, such as canola

1. Remove the chicken from the fridge 20 to 30 minutes prior to starting. Preheat oven to 425° F.

2. Truss the chicken or simply tie the legs together with cooking twine. Drizzle the chicken with a tablespoon or two of cooking oil and a generous sprinkle of salt. Rub the chicken skin with the cooking oil and 1 or 2 tablespoons of harissa paste, depending on how spicy you’d like it to be.

3. Arrange the sliced onions at the bottom of a roasting pan, Dutch oven or a large oven-safe skillet. Toss with a little cooking oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set the chicken on the bed of onions, breast-side down. Place the pan in the oven for 30 minutes.

4. Rotate the chicken so it rests breast-side up. Baste with the pan juices and brush on an additional tablespoon or two of harissa paste. Stir the onions. Return pan to the oven and roast for another 30 minutes.

5. The chicken is ready when it’s well-browned and a thermometer inserted into the meatiest part of the thigh (but away from the bone) reads 165° F and all the juices run clear. If the legs are browned but the breast could use more time, cover the legs with foil and return the chicken to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes. Once you remove the chicken from the oven, allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes.

6. While the chicken rests (or starting a few minutes before pulling it from the oven), sweat the diced onions with a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil in a saucepot over medium heat. Cook until the onions are translucent and nearly soft, about 8 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in 2 cups of chicken stock (or water) and a teaspoon of salt, raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. (Note: If the couscous package instructions recommend a different ratio of liquid to couscous and/or a different cooking time, follow those.) Remove the pot from heat.

7. Add the 2 cups of couscous and stir to combine. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and stir in the sliced olives and the preserved lemons. (The liquid in which the preserved lemons are stored is also very flavorful; if desired, add a teaspoon or two of the liquid to the couscous as well.) Cover and keep warm until ready to serve. Mix in the julienned mint just before serving and add more for garnish if desired.

8. To serve, pile the couscous onto a large platter. Mound the roasted onions on the center of the couscous along with some of the chicken juices. Remove the kitchen twine from the chicken and place the bird on the center of the platter. Carve the chicken at the table. Serve with extra harissa on the side if desired. Serves 6.

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