Heigh-ho, it’s Wednesday again, and what could be cheerier than a new crop of Food stories (complete with our annual Super Bowl Smackdown) and a 10-day weather forecast with daytime temps in the 60s and 50s? In February? I’m lovin’ it.

So take your laptop outdoors, fire it up and join our Free Range chat. It’s your weekly chance to get answers to your tough culinary questions. Or what the heck, to just lurk if you feel like it. We don’t mind.

Hope to see you there — at noon sharp. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s a leftover question from a previous chat.

I just tried a wonderful spice that someone gave me, and I am loving it. Have you heard of ras el hanout? It tastes so good on everything that I’ll have to go back to the giver to find out where to get it.

I think I’m going to make you happy! We’ve not only heard of it; we can tell you how to make your own ras el hanout. And if you don’t want to go to the trouble, we can tell you where we bought it.

Is this a full-service blog, or what?

First, for those who aren’t familiar with it, ras el hanout is a wonderfully aromatic Moroccan spice blend. There’s not just one ras el hanout; it’s sort of like curry powder in that it can have endless variations depending on who’s making it. But it usually contains cloves, cinnamon, chili peppers, cardamom and allspice, among many other possibilities.

So here comes a recipe for ras el hanout. Next, a wonderful dish you can use it in — and at the end of that, yet another ras el hanout recipe that’s different from the first one. Like I said: one idea, many variations.

Ras el Hanout

This is a version of the classic spice mixture used in Moroccan cooking.

Grains of paradise, called for as an optional ingredient, are hot and pungent West African seeds with hints of ginger, cardamom, coriander and citrus. They are available at specialty markets and through online gourmet purveyors. Ras el hanout mixtures also are available at specialty markets; we found some at Shemali's, 3301 New Mexico Ave., 202-686-7070.

Makes 1/4 cup

  • 1 teaspoon whole or ground allspice
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1-inch piece galangal (optional)
  • 1 piece long, thin red pepper (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon grains of paradise (optional)

Combine the allspice, cinnamon stick, mace, cayenne pepper and the cardamom, coriander and cumin seeds in a small skillet over medium heat. Dry-roast for about 5 minutes, shaking the pan often, until the spices are fragrant. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder; add the cloves, ginger and black peppercorns and the galangal, red pepper and grains of paradise, if using. Grind to a powder. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place until ready to use.

Adapted from "The Revised and Updated Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics," by the editors of Martha Stewart Living (Clarkson Potter, 2007).

Moroccan Chicken and Pearl Couscous Casserole


MAKE AHEAD: The casserole can be assembled 1 day in advance and refrigerated.

6 servings

  • 3 1/2 tablespoons ras el hanout (see NOTE)
  • Six 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed of excess fat and any small tenderloins (reserve tenders for another use)
  • 48 ounces canned whole tomatoes, crushed
  • 2 cups (uncooked) Israeli couscous
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 small red onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 medium (10 ounces) sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (2 cups)
  • 15 ounces canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) dried apricots, each cut in half
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 1 large (8 ounces) zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (2 cups)
  • Chopped parsley or chives, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use 2 1/2 tablespoons of the ras el hanout to coat the chicken breast halves on both sides; place on a plate and cover loosely while you prepare the casserole.

Spread 1/2 cup of the crushed tomatoes on the bottom of a heavy-bottomed 5-quart casserole or Dutch oven.

Place the couscous in a medium bowl. Add the oil and toss to coat evenly, then distribute the coated couscous evenly over the tomatoes in the casserole.

Combine the remaining crushed tomatoes, the broth, garlic, onion, sweet potato, chickpeas and the remaining tablespoon of ras el hanout in a separate heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove from the heat; add the apricots, raisins and zucchini, stirring to incorporate.

Use a slotted spoon to distribute the vegetable-fruit mixture over the couscous, then pour the liquid from the pot over the mixture. Arrange the spiced chicken breast halves on top so their pointed ends touch at the center (like the spokes of a wheel).

Cover and cook for 45 minutes or until the chicken has cooked through. Let rest for 10 minutes, covered, before serving.

To serve, drizzle the chicken with oil and garnish with the chopped parsley or chives.

NOTE: To make the ras el hanout (3 1/2 tablespoons), combine the following ingredients in a small bowl: 1 tablespoon sweet paprika, 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom; mix well. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.