Living Within, December 2016


It is normal at this time year for a cook to consider what they might put on the table as the season turns festive.  But in a year where the verb “to normalise” comes with sinister undertones, I am putting my focus on bidding this year adieu - head down, hoping for no more shocks - literal or figurative - and safe passage out of 2016.  

Remembering how I welcomed this year in, I recall a wave of goodwill and B’stilla (aka Pastilla) - a sweet, salt, enfolding, enobling, Middle Eastern feasting dish - the recipe generously gifted in a gilt-edged cookbook.  Its authors warned that it would take time, effort and fine ingredients - a leap of faith was a part of the mix too - but the skills required are well within our grasp if basic principles are adhered to.  Read the instructions in advance, know what to expect, prepare all the various pieces in their own good time, allow their flavours and seasonings room to mingle; remain optimistic.  The recipe aims high, and hits its mark.

It’s not mine to share here, and my expectations and hope for 2017 in general are, in any case, a little lower than they were last year, but any b’stilla is based on years of tradition, history, experiment, and confidence, together with an expectation of a crowd.  It is a dish that requires a party and a celebration and, as it is well documented elsewhere, I have researched and adapted and am offering a more “back to basics” version below.  Traditionally made with a game fowl, it is sometimes adapted to be made with chicken, which is what I have done here - choose your fowl as you wish however.  

Thinly slice a couple of onions, sauté with a cinnamon stick in some olive oil over a gentle heat, until the onions start to soften; add in a some sliced or chopped garlic, a little salt and pepper, and cook until the garlic no longer smells raw.  Add in a scant teaspoon of powdered ginger, stir and allow to cook a little more.  

While the onions are cooking, take a handful of blanched almonds or pine nuts, and toast until just golden in either a dry frying pan or with a little oil.  Cool, drain on kitchen paper (if you used oil), and chop coarsely (no need to chop if you used pine nuts).  You can add some seasoning, a sprinkle of sugar even, and a little ground cinnamon if you want to up the sweet and spice of the dish; lay aside for later.

Back to the onions; add some bite sized pieces of chicken (bone free) to the onion mix (thighs are probably best as breast fillets may dry out).  You can season as you add them; all the better if you have thought ahead and added seasoning to them overnight, or at least a few hours earlier.  Stir to coat in the onion and spices and allow to take on a bit of colour, then add a small cup of liquid (stock or water) if the chicken is not likely to give off much water of its own, (you can also add some saffron here- pre-soaked with a few tablespoons of warm water - if you want some colour and additional flavour nuance; maybe also a non traditional bay leaf).  Bring to a point where you can leave all to simmer slowly (partially covered) for about half an hour ( or until the fillets are cooked through).  Remove the chicken at this stage, allow any remaining liquid to cook off (the mix needs to be relatively syrupy thick to avoid soggy filo layers later). 

Chop a bunch of coriander or parsley leaves and add to the onion mix - add the chicken back in, taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary, and leave to cool until you are ready to assemble the finished article.

Oil a 24cm/9” round oven-proof dish or pan, then start laying strips of filo pastry across it (read packet instructions to make sure they don’t dry out while you work).  Lay one base layer, then add - in petal formation - four or more additional layers to cover all sides of the dish (with excess filo overhanging).  Make sure you brush each and every layer generously with melted butter before you lay it down.

When the filo base is prepared, spread the chicken and onion mixture over the base, sprinkle over the nuts, then finish off the top of the b’stilla with another couple of layers of filo (buttering them before you add them).  Finally trim the edges to tidy, then fold them over and tuck them in, butter as you go, as you seal with a final layer of filo (which will eventually become the base of this pie).  Put it in a pre-heated oven, (180ºC or equivalents), for about 30-40 minutes (until golden brown), then give a further 10-15 minutes on the floor of the oven to allow the base layer a chance to crisp (cover the top with foil so it doesn’t overbrown) - the base will become the top layer later.  Once the pie is out of the oven, and you are ready to serve it, turn it over onto a serving dish.  Dust with icing sugar - in fancy patterns if you like - and serve, in wedges, to an appreciative audience.



Middle Eastern food was in fashion a long time ago. Interest in the cuisine has … depended on war and peace, on politics and commerce and also on the spirit of Europe…
— Claudia Roden, 1968