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Apr 27, 2010
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Wine With . . . Chermoula Chicken

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

Chermoula is a pungent sauce or marinade traditionally used in the cuisines of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  Its presence on contemporary restaurant menus and in recent newspaper and Internet recipes seems to indicate that chermoula is catching on in a big way in Europe and the US.  This is good news for those of us who love interesting, full-flavored fare that makes an unexpected and wonderful partner for wine.

Although there is no single recipe for chermoula, a handful of specific ingredients are omnipresent, notably fresh herbs (cilantro and parsley), spices (cumin and paprika), acid (lemon juice or vinegar), garlic, and oil.  A dash of piquant heat in the form of cayenne or fresh pepper is usually included, although the degree of heat can be tailored to individual taste. 

Chermoula is remarkably versatile, serving as a marinade, a sauce, or a dip.  Its texture can be smooth or chunky, or anywhere in between.  It is most commonly used as a marinade or sauce for fish, but adapts equally well to chicken, meat or vegetables.  And a dollop of chermoula splashed over eggs, spread on slices of grilled bread, or stirred into stew, soup, beans, or even potato salad can make life all that much more delicious.


Serves 2-4

We tend to like chermoula fairly spicy, and although we call for a conservative ¼ teaspoon cayenne in the recipe below, we actually tend to use up to a full teaspoon of it.  You can always substitute red pepper flakes, or fresh chili peppers, bearing in mind, of course, that the more piquant the dish, the more it will be challenging to match with wine.  But hitting the right partnership is pure gustatory bliss!

In this recipe, the chicken may be grilled over indirect heat, or oven-roasted.  It can be accompanied by rice, pasta, or white beans, but is at its very best served on a bed of couscous.   Serve it with additional lemon wedges.

2 cups fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)

1 cup fresh parsley leaves

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon salt

2-4 cloves garlic, chopped

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)

1/3 cup olive oil plus 1 tablespoon

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Place all ingredients except chicken and the extra tablespoon oil in a food processor and process until thoroughly blended.    Place the chicken pieces in a bowl or zip-lock bag and coat them thoroughly with the marinade.  Refrigerate them at least 3 hours, and up to 24 hours.

If oven-roasting the chicken, pre heat the oven to 375o. Grease a shallow baking dish with the remaining oil, and arrange the chicken thighs in it in a single layer.  Bake until the chicken is thoroughly cooked through (about 40 minutes). 

t   t   t 

Sweet fruity flavors unite the wines we’re recommending with this dish.  Couple the exotically hot and spicy cheramoula with the reassuring familiarity of a fruit-driven wine, and the marriage tastes heavenly.  The drier wines we tried just seemed too austere; they nagged rather than soothed our palates.  The other uniting factor was body.  Too light a wine (an otherwise delightful Riesling, for example) will get lost, and too heavy a wine will seem ponderous.  So no matter what color you choose, look for ripe fruit in a medium-weight package.  Delish!      



Approx. Price





El Coto, Rioja (Spain) Rosada 2008

(Imported by Frederick Wildman)







A blend of Grenache and Tempranillo, this rosé tastes slightly off-dry.  Its bright strawberry flavor made it shine with the spicy cheramoula.  (We suspect that a more herbal-scented, drier rosé would not fare as well.)




Fess Parker, Santa Barbara County (California) Syrah 2006





This match surprised us, since we suspected that Syrah might be too heavy a varietal for this dish.  That may well be true with many renditions, but this particular Syrah is genuinely medium-bodied and tastes above all of sweet plums and cherries.  




Peregrine, Central Otago (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 2007

(Imported by Meadowbank Estates)







Soft and silky, this Pinot tastes fresh and lively.  Its youthful exuberance is precisely what made it perform so well in this particular pairing.  So while it may well become a more interesting wine with a few years of cellaring, it probably won’t make as good a cheramoula partner.


Mumm Napa, Napa Valley (California) Brut Rosé NV








Though labeled “brut,” this berry-scented sparkler actually tastes off-dry.  It’s in no sense sugary, but it definitely has a sweet note on the front of the palate.  As an added bonus, the bubbles cut the spicy heat in this piquant dish.








Villa Wolf, Pfalz (Germany) Gewürztraminer 2008

(Imported by Loosen Bros. USA)








Our favorite of the bunch, this harmonious Gewrztraminer is not as rich, oily, or alcoholic as many renditions (especially Californians).  As a result, it manages to taste fresh and sweet all at once -- a rare but definitely sumptuous combination. We know that some people are skeptical about pairing this varietal with spicy food.  Try this wine and you’ll be convinced.