Kitchn Love Letters

I Never Got to Meet My Mother-in-Law, but I Got to Know Her Through the Recipes She Left Behind

published Feb 13, 2020
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Credit: Kelli Foster

Choosing a favorite cookbook is basically an impossible choice. With so many good ones out there, how do you pick just one? But then I realized that there’s a cookbook on my kitchen shelf that is way more precious than any other I’ll ever own: It’s our family cookbook.

We call it the Learson Family Cookbook, after my late mother-in-law, Kate. She put it together for my husband long before I met him, and it’s filled with a mix of her own recipes, family recipes, and other beloved recipes from friends, cookbooks, and the Internet.

Kate was an avid cook, who loved good food, her family, and bringing them together around a table. Sadly, she passed away before I had the chance to meet her. While her memory and spirit is a strong presence in our home, and we talk about her often, one of the most dear ways I’ve come to know her is through her family cookbook (as well as a couple cookbook manuscripts she never published, but that’s a story for another time).

Credit: Kelli Foster

The first recipe I ever cooked from the Learson Family Cookbook — and the one I cook most often — is a harissa chicken skillet. It’s loaded with chickpeas and zucchini in a punchy tomato broth and served over couscous.

One of my favorite things about this dish, which Kate was most likely making during the 90’s, is that she was clearly cooking with harissa paste before it was popular (or widely available). Knowing what I do about her, this hardly surprises me. My burning question is, where on earth was she buying it?

My husband thinks it’s most likely that she likely discovered it at a small Mediterranean grocer downtown. She was as adventurous a shopper as she was a cook, though it’s certainly not out of the question that she could have read about it and simply made her own.

Kate’s Harissa Chicken Recipe

Make the couscous: Kate calls for preparing the couscous after seasoning (but before cooking) the chicken. I think it’s easier to make it first, and then move on to the chicken. You’ll mix together 1 cup couscous, 1/4 cup raisins (I prefer golden raisins), 1 tablespoon harissa paste, 1/3 cup olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium bowl. Then stir in 1 1/2 cups boiling low-sodium chicken broth, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set aside while you prepare the chicken. Fluff the couscous before serving.

Make the chicken: After cutting 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts into 1/2-inch cubes, you’ll place them in a medium bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over high heat, then add the chicken and cook until browned all over, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 pound sliced zucchini and cook until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 1 can chickpeas (drained and rinsed), 1 can diced tomatoes (juice drained), 1 tablespoon harissa paste, and 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve the chicken over the couscous and garnish with fresh mint.

Kate was an avid cook, who loved good food, her family, and bringing them together around a table.

It’s impossible for me to think about or use harissa paste without thinking about this chicken dish, which, of course, makes me think about Kate and brings a smile to my face (and sometimes a tear or two). When I make this chicken skillet for my husband and me, it’s so much more than a really delicious weeknight dinner. The food is good, don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t really about the food, it’s the emotion it exudes; the sense of family and togetherness and love.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.