West Coast Spin on a Moroccan-Inspired Dinner Party

Chef and Lifestyle Writer Gaby Dalkin shares her west coast spin on a Moroccan-inspired dinner party, complete with recipes

Written by Gaby Dalkin

There are few things I love more in life than a dinner party. It’s just my happy place—putting together a delicious meal, then sitting back to let good conversation and belly laughs take over from there (maybe with the help of a cocktail or two). So if I had my wish, everyone would feel comfortable and empowered enough to take the plunge and feed a table full of their nearest and dearest. Luckily, I’ve perfected the art over the years. And what I’ve found is that 1) It doesn’t have to take weeks to prepare, 2) It doesn’t have to involve over-the-top fancy and complicated recipes, and 3) It doesn’t have to break the bank. With just a little advance planning (my love language), my favorite go-to menu, and knowing when to splurge and when to save, all that’s left to do is kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of your (totally painless) labor. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over these past couple years when it wasn’t always possible to be together, it’s that the secret to dinner party success isn’t just about the food; it’s about actually enjoying the company of the people around your table. 

Gaby Dalkin

The Menu

A few years ago, Thomas and I ate our way through Morocco. Yes, we took in lots of amazing cultural highlights, but the food was definitely our personal highlight (as it usually is whenever we travel). It was loaded with interesting spices, herbs, nuts, and dried fruit and featured lots of fresh produce. So I decided to take some of my favorite dishes that we had there, give them a West Coast spin, and turn them into a party menu that will have your guests feeling like they’re nibbling their way through the stalls at the souk. 

What I love about this dinner is that it’s not only magically transportive and will make your kitchen smell incredible, but it’s also cost-effective and fairly low maintenance.  You can most likely find all of these ingredients at your local grocery store, and the recipes follow my usual rule of thumb when planning a menu: Splurge on 1 to 2 items and save on the rest. In this case, olives and an assortment of fresh fruit for dessert are spend-worthy, while the rest of the dishes rely on simple ingredients paired with herbs and spices to make a big impact. 

Here’s what will be on offer:

Mint Tea: Every meal in Morocco, no matter what part of the country you’re in or how hot it is, starts with a glass of this refreshing drink to cleanse your palate. Your guests will love this thoughtful and simple touch (seriously, it’s just dried mint steeped in hot water), and it will set the tone for the rest of the evening. I love serving a round before the meal and then again with dessert. 

Marinated Green Harissa Olives: If you’re obsessed with olives like I am, Morocco is your personal Heaven. Every market is lined from floor to ceiling with olives of every shape, color, and type. I love putting out something for guests to graze while the rest of dinner is coming together, and olives tossed with a simple marinade to give them an extra punch is appetizer perfection.  

Roasted Eggplant Dip aka Zaalouk with Homemade Naan: Zaalouk is the North Africanversion of baba ganoush, a smoky, naturally creamy eggplant dip that begs for dipping. In this case, I give it a very impressive companion of pillowy homemade flatbread, or naan. 

Moroccan Tomato Salad: This simple salad was my LIFE in Morocco. I ordered it at every single meal, and I could never get enough. It’s fresh and light and perfectly balances the deeply flavored stewed chicken I like to serve it with. 

Chicken Tagine with Olives: You basically can’t eat a meal in Morocco without having a tagine, which is essentially a rich, spiced stew that features some kind of protein cooked to perfectly tender, juicy perfection. The dish gets its name from the special vessel it’s made in, but this spin on the recipe does not call for a traditional tagine. If you own one, please feel free to use it! Otherwise, a skillet will suffice. 

Herbed Couscous: If you’re going to have a tagine on the table (and believe me, you need this one in your life), then you’re going to want couscous to serve it over. Couscous is a North African dish made from tiny steamed balls of semolina flour. Traditionally it’s served plain, but you know I can’t resist a twist. This version gets brightened up with fresh herbs and citrus. 

Assorted Seasonal Fruit Platter: Just because you’re not baking something (and believe me, you’ll be thanking me for not having one more thing to do!) doesn’t mean that dessert can’t be impressive and downright decadent. One of my favorite dinner party hacks is to pull together my favorite fruits that are in season and arrange them beautifully on a platter. For this spread, think dates, pomegranates, assorted citrus, grapes, and persimmons. 

The Plan

Okay let’s talk prep schedule for this dinner party menu:

Morning of (sometime between 9 a.m. – 11 a.m.)

  • Make the harissa for the marinated olives. Once it’s ready, go ahead and combine it with the olives and cover and refrigerate until dinner time. Talk about the easiest app of all times!
  • Prep the entire Roasted Eggplant Dip from start to finish. Transfer to a container and cover until dinner time.
  • Make the chicken tagine marinade mixture and slather the chicken with it. Then refrigerate for a few hours.

Afternoon of (sometime between 1 p.m. –  3 p.m.)

  • I know we don’t NORMALLY like to refrigerate tomatoes, but I make an exception in this case. Prep the Moroccan Tomato Salad start to finish, cover and put in the fridge until dinner. It’s great to serve this semi-chilled since it’s a nice compliment to the piping hot tagine!
  • Chop all the herbs for the Herbed Couscous and transfer to a damp paper towel lined bowl. Cover with more damp paper towel and store in the fridge.
  • Arrange your seasonal dessert platter and cover with a damp paper towel to keep it moist. I prefer fruit to be served at room temp, so leave it on your counter (covered) until you’re ready to transfer to the table.

Right before your guests arrive:

  • Remove the Harissa Marinated Olives and the Roasted Eggplant Dip from the fridge and let come to room temp before serving.
  • Prep the crudite and/or pita bread to serve alongside the Roasted Eggplant Dip. Arrange on a platter and add a bowl of the dip.
  • The Herbed Couscous only takes about 10 minutes to cook so go ahead and cook the plain couscous now. Once cooked, fluff with a fork and toss with the herbs and seasonings and transfer to a serving bowl.
  • Roughly 1 hour before you want to sit down for dinner, remove the chicken from the fridge and finish making the tagine. You’ll want to aim to have the chicken seared off and starting to simmer by the time your guests arrive. That way your house smells amazing and then the chicken can do it’s thing for 30 minutes unattended. If you need a few more minutes to hang before sitting down to dinner, just remove the chicken from the heat once cooked and let rest. It will stay warm with all the liquid.

Before you sit down for dinner:

  • Remove the Moroccan Tomato Salad from the fridge and transfer to a serving bowl.
  • Transfer everything else to the table and serve!