Frank Bruni, a new food columnist over at the NYTimes, wrote a piece on Wednesday about the strange mannerisms and idiosyncrasies his friends take on when invited to eat with him at a restaurant review. People become very protective over whatever dish they are instructed to order, wanting only to have ownership over the more elegant or pricy dishes (steak is always a hot item) and scorning simpler fare like the pasta or vegetarian entrees. Never mind the fact that no matter what they order, they will only be eating a quarter of it and will also have to eat a quarter of everyone else’s. (It is a very communist system that Bruni has in place where everyone is created equal and no patron is left behind.) What makes this even more amusing is that no matter what dish a person ends up being paired with, he becomes very protective of it and will argue tooth and nail that it is superior to every other. People are strange, is what Bruni concludes, and somehow inevitably see the dish that is set before them as an extension of themselves, hence the desire to not only order the heftiest dish but then to convince everyone else of it’s decadence before the night is through. As if that will give them some kind of acclaim.

This all got me thinking about my own meals and whether or not I feel the same way about the food that I produce. Take this Tunisian chicken with raisins and lemon, for example. I had bought extra chicken, so I invited my friend Anu to come over and eat with me. Having never made the recipe before, I was a little nervous, but I knew that she would be forgiving if it didn’t quite turn out. Okay. Fine.

Observation one. Anu comes over after a day at the lab, sets her backpack down by the table and joins me at the stove, asking me what I’m cooking. I point out the recipe in the Bon Appetit cookbook and she becomes very impressed by the word Tunisian in the name, immediately jumping to the conclusion that the dish will be a complicated and other-worldly masterpiece. Tunisian food somehow calls to mind images of the exotic, strange and unusual. I mean, let’s be real, who has ever actually had authentic Tunisian food before? “This is going to be intense,” she says confidently, in a way that suggests that she feels very proud to be the recipient of such a feast. As if my choosing to invite her over for this specific meal is somehow a commentary on my end about her adventurousness as an eater. (She is a very adventurous eater, which is one of the many reasons why adore her, but that’s not quite the point.) The ironic part of all of this is that the recipe actually only calls for about 5 real ingredients (all of which are common pantry items) and one spice (turmeric). Not exactly intense. Probably not authentic either, but like I said, we wouldn’t know the difference.

Observation two. At the dinner table. After the cooking we pour ourselves a glass of wine and sit down to eat. Anu waits patiently while I photograph the food, offering up her plate as the more aesthetically pleasing of the two. And then we eat. I start ponderously, thoughtfully, thinking with every bite about how I feel about the dish. She begins raving with the first bite, “Oh my gosh, this is so good. I am amazed.” Now this is music to every chef’s ears, but it also fits all too well with Bruni’s theory. Perhaps she feels that because the meal was cooked for her, it is her dish and thus she must wax poetic about its qualities for fear that if I disregard it as being somewhat pedantic, I will do the same to her as well.

In reality, the dish was good, not great. It featured a good, simple combination of flavors that went well together but was really not something to write home about. I kind of wish the sweetness of the raisins had gotten infused in the sauce more so that you really got that sweet and sour quality when it mixed with the lemons. What it was good for was a study on human behavior and a reminder of how important food is within the context of our social interactions. It influences us in ways that we cannot even realize and somehow manages to delve deep into our subconscious.

The moral – be careful what you cook and who you cook it for. It may have a far great impact than you know.

Tunisian Chicken with Raisins and Lemons
Serves 4, adapted from Bon Appetit’s Fast/Easy/Fresh

1 1/2 lb chicken thighs
2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 lb russet potato, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 lemon, peeled and sliced very thinly
1/2 cup raisins
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 lb zucchini, sliced and diced (I added this since it was local and on sale at Whole Foods)

Arrange chicken in a single layer in a heavy pot. Drizzle oil over it. Tuck the potatoes in-between the chicken. Sprinkle with garlic and turmeric, then salt and pepper. Lay lemon slices over it. Sprinkle with raisins. Pour enough broth over it just to cover it. Bring to a boil. Cover and boil for 10 minutes. Uncover, add the zucchini on top, reduce heat to medium and simmer until chicken is just cooked and potatoes are tender, around 20 minutes. Remove the chicken, potatoes, and zucchini to a platter. Tent with foil to keep warm. Add lemon juice to the pot and boil until the cooking liquid has reduced by half and thickened, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over chicken and serve.

You are reading this post on Eats Well With Others at Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and or owner of Eats Well With Others. All rights reserved by Joanne Bruno.
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18 Responses to Tunisian Chicken with Raisins and Lemon

  1. Mari says:

    What time are you cooking for me?lol

    That dish looks pretty good and I am sure your friend loved it because YOU made it AND it tasted good…

    Sidenote: I love italian food so start looking for recipes haha

  2. Natashya says:

    Ha! I loved this post, so playful.
    It does look tasty, but I can see by reading the recipe where it would be fairly mild. That being said.. I don’t know if I have ever had a Tunisian dish.

  3. Justin says:

    true story… just this morning i was thinking about how when i was a kid, this family friend always made meatballs with raisins, and i used to think it was a little weird, but then i was thinking about what some other dishes were that had raisins in them… and then i read this.

  4. Wow. My family is brutally honest when I cook something sub par. Of course, my husband usually puts salt on everything even before he tastes it…makes me crazy. Think “Big Night.”

  5. the twins says:

    interesting post. i definitely agree with you, sometimes i feel so self-conscious about what i choose to cook for guests. your chicken looks good!

  6. Laura says:

    Great post, fascinating. My mom does that–whatever she orders must always be the best dish ordered. Drives us nuts. 🙂

  7. Reeni? says:

    Tunisian does sound so exotic. When I first heard it I thought of spices. I’m surprised there’s only one. This does sound good – it has a comfort feel to it that I like.

  8. burpandslurp says:

    I totally get what you mean. I’m always SO nervous when I cook for others…I suddenly feel like whatever I cook can’t be good enough, and even when people say it’s good I still doubt myself. Suddenly no matter how much I taste my cooking, I can’t get a grasp of whether it’s good or not!
    But honestly, your dish DOES look good! As a freaking amazing cook, you probably thought it was just “good” in your terms but to others, it’s “GREAT!!!”

  9. Kim says:

    What a great post. I get so nervous cooking for other people. I guess it’s just such a personal thing that for us foodies. I have to actually remind myself to stop and taste the food instead of worrying about if everyone else likes it. Your dish looks pretty, but I also understand what you’re saying. Sounds like your guest really loved it : )

  10. Jamie says:

    This is a funny post yet oh so true! Yet another reason she may have loved it is that it was something so exotic for her (she sounded impressed that you were cooking a Tunisian dish for her). It looks quite simple and actually very delicious. I love North African cooking!

    It reminds me of a chicken dish I cooked – a speciality of Senegal – something I would recommend that you try. Sounds like you would absolutely love it – Chicken Yassa – it’s on my blog. If we lived in the same city I’d invite YOU over and cook this dish for you.

  11. Palidor says:

    Very interesting observations. When I have guests over, sometimes I wonder if they’re raving about my food just to be polite. After all, it would be a little rude to say that the food sucks after your host has opened her house to you and slaved over the stove all day. 😉

    The dish does look very tasty. That’s too bad about the raisins, though. One of the reasons I like raisins in my curries or other Indian foods is because of the nice raisiny-sweet-spicy flavour.

  12. Pam says:

    Interesting food for thought. Hee hee.

  13. Donna-FFW says:

    True post Joanne. My hubby is brutally honest with everything I make so I appreciate it, I know if he says he loves it he means it. If he says its OK means dont make again. If he says it sucks, well, it sucks. As far as company, I wish they would be more truthful as I enjoy honest feedback, but I guess etiquette wise one must say something positive or nothing at all.

    Your dish looks lovely, unfortunately I am not a raisin fan, never was, licorice either. OK why dont I just write you a book. See ya later.

  14. that is very interesting. Have you had the experience as a blogger where your friends raves about a meal and then ask later why you didn’t post the meal on your blog? As if they want everyone to see the meal that they own…

  15. Jen says:

    I will be over for some food too, because I have Marinara sauce running through my veins! 🙂

    that and garlic! lol!

  16. I have never had anything Tunisian, at least that I know of. I like the sound of these ingredients combined. I want to try this.

  17. What amazes me is how offended I feel when my husband doesn’t like the dish I’ve prepared and how elated I feel when I receive a thumbs up! It’s such an automatic response and it always surprises me.

    This is such a great post! Very thought provoking. I would like to try this dish too!

  18. You make some really awesome recipes…like this one. Gotta check back more often! It’s amazing how raisins pair so well with meat.

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